The Middle East Channel

Syria’s new alliances

A massive, burgundy-colored banner hung in the arched main drag of Damascus’s Souq al-Hamidieh on June 7, lauding the Turkish NGO that was a key participant in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that just one week earlier had been lethally attacked by Israeli commandos in international waters. The banner also thanked Turkey’s government and people for ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

A massive, burgundy-colored banner hung in the arched main drag of Damascus’s Souq al-Hamidieh on June 7, lauding the Turkish NGO that was a key participant in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that just one week earlier had been lethally attacked by Israeli commandos in international waters. The banner also thanked Turkey’s government and people for their support of the 1.5 million people of besieged Gaza.

This spot is the premier messaging real estate for the big trading houses of Damascus and their allies in the Syrian government. The Syrian government’s warm relationship with Turkey is not, of course, new. It is one that President Bashar al-Asad and Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem have worked on for many years now. From 2003 to 2008, when the Bush White House was working hard to encircle and isolate Syria, with a definite view to overthrowing the Asad regime, Damascus’s strengthening tie to NATO member Turkey provided what regime insiders have described as "almost literally, a lifeline for us."

Today, Syria’s relationship with Turkey has matured even further. At the official level, Syria now has a "no-visa" open border with Turkey, and just last week Turkey’s large, state-backed company Turk Telekom announced a massive deal to install a 2,500-kilometer, state-of the-art fiber-optic network in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that will link those three countries through Turkey to European networks.

At the popular level, Syrians have really appreciated the opportunity to travel freely throughout Turkey, and to trade with it. (Along the way, they even somehow forgot their country’s longtime claim to the lovely seaside province of Alexandretta, which is now Turkey’s province of Hatay.) Many Syrian citizens see their ties to Turkey as providing a valuable counterbalance to their government’s much older ties to Iran. They see Turkey as providing a much more attractive example than Iran for how a traditional Middle Eastern country can successfully modernize.

The Turkish government’s growing activism on the Palestinian cause, and in particular on Gaza, has been more recent icing on the Syrian-Turkish cake. One resident of Damascus told me earlier this month with a smile that some people now sing a new version of the beloved song "The Land Sings in Arabic" that now says it sings in Turkish, instead.

But Turkey and Iran are not Syria’s only allies today. Indeed, the rapprochement that President Asad effected with Saudi Arabia last year was every bit as important to his regime as its earlier rapprochement with Turkey. Saudi Arabia is important to Damascus for two main reasons. One is financial, and the other — even more crucial — is the big role Riyadh plays in Lebanon, which Syria’s rulers have always regarded as a dangerously soft underbelly through which their own core interests can be seriously undermined.

Saudi Arabia’s 85-year-old king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, was for many years a quiet but firm supporter of Syria within the Saudi royal family. But in February 2005, his close ally Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, was brutally killed in an attack that most Westerners — and apparently also Abdullah — blamed on Damascus. For the following four years, Riyadh and its many remaining close allies in Lebanon pursued a staunchly anti-Syrian (and also, anti-Iranian and anti-Hezbollah) path that won strong plaudits and support from Washington.

But in late 2008 or early 2009 something changed. In February 2009, Abdullah sent his younger brother (and intelligence chief) Prince Muqrin to Damascus. The following month, Abdullah was receiving President Asad with full state protocol as an official guest in Riyadh. Last October, Abdullah himself was in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia’s shift had dramatic effects within Lebanon. When I was in Beirut last November, the group I was with had good meetings with outgoing premier Fouad Siniora, incoming premier Saad Hariri (son of the late Rafiq Hariri), and Socialist Party head Walid Jumblatt. From 2005 to 2008, all three had been very strong critics of Damascus. But last November, they were falling over themselves to explain how legitimate Syria’s interests and role in their country were and how much they looked forward to building strong ties with President Asad. All three have made formal visits to Damascus since then.

Here in the United States, media and official portrayals of Syria are often clouded by sparsely informed and harshly ideological views, often actively propagated by AIPAC and its pro-Israel allies, that portray the Asad government in a one-dimensional way as allied only to such U.S. foes as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran.

It is true that Damascus has good ties to all those parties. But two other aspects of its policy are also relevant. One is that not all three other parties are irredeemable opponents of the U.S. — and that President Asad has worked hard over the years to help bridge the gaps that some of them have with Washington. When I have interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (in Damascus) in the past two years he has repeatedly stressed, e.g. here, his desire for good relations with the U.S. and pointed to the kinds of flexibility Hamas would offer in the peace process in order to win these ties. Last month, President Asad told Charlie Rose that he has worked hard with the Hamas leaders to bring about this softening in their views.

The other salient aspect of Damascus’s policy is that the ties it has with longtime U.S. allies like Turkey or Saudi Arabia are just as important to it as its ties with the "Tehran axis." The Middle East — as Dennis Ross said recently in a passing aside — is "much more complicated than most of us previously thought." Right.

Washington’s relations with Damascus have meanwhile continued to be plagued with hostility, misunderstandings, and inside-the-Beltway politics. Back in 2005, President Bush withdrew his ambassador from Damascus in the wake of the Hariri killing; and he refused to return an ambassador to the very end, despite Syria’s participation in the short-lived "Annapolis" peace talks of 2007to 2008.

In 2008, Syrian officials expressed great hopes that President Obama’s inauguration would bring about much of the constructive engagement that his election seemed to promise — and that he reiterated in seminal speeches he addressed to the Muslim world in Ankara, Turkey, in April 2009 and in Cairo in June 2009. In the Syrian view, pitifully little of that has happened yet. Obama took his time nominating a new ambassador to Damascus; and then the man he did nominate last February, Robert Ford, got held up by an anonymous "hold" placed by at least one senator in March.

In mid-April, Israeli President Shimon Peres publicly accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to Hezbollah. U.S. officials never directly confirmed those accusations and neither Washington nor Israel ever produced any evidence whatever to substantiate the accusation. But Washington was so coy in its pronouncements — saying it "could not confirm" that Syria had actually shipped any Scuds to Lebanon while intimating that it probably had handed over some Scuds to Hezbollah within Syria — that it seemed clear to Syrians that Obama was not prepared to do anything substantial to push forward the Ford nomination.

(On the Scuds, several Syrian and other experts have pointed out that they are extremely ill-suited to Hezbollah’s broader order of battle; and that Hezbollah already has a big arsenal of missiles that are more agile and more accurate than Scuds, and have an almost equally long range. Israel’s chorus of accusations about the alleged Scud transfer abated soon after it started, but the accusations had a longer half-life on Capitol Hill.)

Syrian officials also hoped that Obama would follow through on his promise to engage energetically with the task of securing peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Syria. That has not happened either. Many of the Syrians I spoke with in Damascus two weeks ago expressed palpable disappointment. One college professor described the current state of relations with the U.S. as even worse than it was in January 2009. "Now, we feel the Obama administration is so weak," he said. "If he can’t even halt Israel, even temporarily, from continuing to build settlements in East Jerusalem, how can he make the final peace?"

One well-connected European in Damascus echoed that assessment. "The Obama moment has passed," he concluded.

What is left for Syria? People in and close to government there remain eager to repair their relations with Washington, which they see (probably rightly) as still able to block many of the things Damascus would like to see happen in the region, even if it no longer seems able to actively bring about other things that Damascus would also like to see, such as a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. But Damascus no longer has the air of fearfulness and incipient isolation that it had back in 2005 and 2006. The government has allies, both in the region and in the wider world. And in several areas — in Lebanon, regarding the Gaza situation, and in inter-Arab politics — Syrian officials now sense cautiously that events are shifting in their favor.

Helena Cobban is the author of The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond. Formerly a longtime columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, she now blogs at

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