Relations with Other Nation-States


Egypt
and Syria unified as the United Arab Republic (UAR) between 1958 and 1961, guided by shared ambitions of pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism and anti-Communism. The union was led by Egypt’s president Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser. Though initially popular, Syrian opposition to the union quickly mounted as the terms clearly favored Egypt and Egyptian political and military leaders, and after Nasser disbanded all Syrian political parties, including the Ba’ath Party. The UAR was viewed as a threat by neighboring Arab nations and the American government took steps to discourage Arab leaders from joining the UAR, particularly after Nasser lent support to the 1958 military coup d’état in Iraq. In 1961, Syrian officers staged a coup in Damascus, effectively withdrawing Syria from the union. Relations between Syria and Egypt worsened during Anwar al-Sadat’s peace negotiations with Israel, viewed by Hafez al-Assad as a great betrayal. The relationship remained distant under Hosni Mubarak, who maintained the peace treaty with Israel, even as other Arab nations normalized diplomatic relations with Egypt during the 1980s. Flights between Cairo and Damascus were reinstated in 1989, and shortly thereafter the nations reconciled. Both opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and sent troops to Saudi Arabia. Post-Arab Spring Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi called repeatedly for Bashar al-Assad to step down and to be tried for war crimes on account of the current conflict, and encouraged opposition groups to unify militarily against the Assad government.

Iran and Syria have maintained close but often tense ties beginning in the 1970s when Hafez al- Assad worked to establish the Alawis as a legitimate Shi’a sect against challenges from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunnis. Assad offered safe harbor to Iranian revolutionary fighters, including Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 when he was exiled from Iraq (though he chose exile in France instead). Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iranian leaders sought political allies in the region and forged ties with Hafez al-Assad. In 1980, Syria took the controversial stance of supporting Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which strengthened their alliance and angered other Arab states in the region who sided with Iraq. Iran supports the Syrian government in the current civil war.

Syria has engaged in four wars with Israel (1948 Arab-Israel War; 1967 Six Day War; 1973 Yom Kippur War; and the 1982 Lebanon War) and the Golan Heights remains disputed territory currently occupied by Israel. Several efforts to negotiate a peace settlement have been attempted but all have failed. The current civil war is exacerbating tensions given Iran’s strong support of Syria and its leadership’s blunt animosity towards Israel, the proximity of military conflict to Israel’s borders, and the involvement of outspokenly anti-Zionist groups such as Hezbollah.

Syrian relations with Jordan have been strained over the past century. The Ba’athist government supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in its struggle against the Jordanian government in 1970, and Jordan lent support to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. During the Iran-Iraq war, Jordan allied with Iraq and Syria with Iran, deepening the tension between the two nations, which erupted into violence after Jordan and Israel began negotiations for Jordan to represent Palestinian regional interests. Though they came to a truce in the 1980s, the relationship has remained weak. In the current conflict, Jordanian policy has been one of non-interference, though its government acknowledges that arms and support for opposition forces have crossed into Syria over the Jordanian border.

Contemporary relations between Syria and Lebanon have been strained, particularly with accusations that the Ba’ath government has orchestrated violence and targeted assassinations of Lebanese politicians within Lebanon. In 1976, Syrian forces entered Lebanon ostensibly on behalf of Lebanese Christians during the Lebanese Civil War, though these alliances later shifted. Syrian troops in Lebanon fought the Israeli army during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon did not take place until 2005, following protests triggered in large part by accusations that the Syrian government had orchestrated the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Lebanon has been increasingly involved in the Syrian conflict. In 2013, combat between opposition forces and government forces—including Hezbollah fighters—crossed over the Lebanese border and thousands of Syrian refugees have sought shelter in Lebanon.

Qatar and Syria had a friendly relationship in the not-too-distant past, but that relationship has undergone a complete reversal post-2011. Before the civil war, Bashar al-Assad and his wife regularly visited Doha and in 2008 Qatari institutions established a $5 billion joint holding company for development projects. The Qatari emir [commander] even tried to normalize relations between Assad and foreign governments in the years leading up to the conflict. Some commentators believe Qatar saw the cooperation between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah as politically ascendant and therefore wanted to establish an alliance.

However, after the uprising, Qatar’s initial cautious reaction gave way to full, public support for anti-regime forces. Emboldened by its lead role among Arab countries in the NATO intervention in Libya and, according to some, eyeing the possibility of reducing Iran’s influence in the region, Qatar decided to support the Syrian opposition. Today an ardent supporter of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, Qatar has provided more financial and arms assistance than its international peers. By various estimates, the oil-rich Qatari government has spent between $1 billion and $3 billion in Syria as of early 2013. The country even houses the first embassy of those who fight against Assad and claim to lead the new Syrian Arab Republic.

Qatar’s support of the opposition might best be understood in light of its new ambition to become a regional mediator and force to be reckoned with. Many political analysts have described Syria as a proxy war in which Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have battled for influence in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa. The al-Thanis, Qatar’s ruling family, have supported the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamists in uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. They do so in part because they believe Islamists will win in those revolutions and, grateful for Qatari support, will then forge strong alliances with the country.

Thus, while some point out that Qatar and Saudi Arabia—two Sunni monarchies fighting the Shi’a Iranian regime through this proxy war—have developed and publicly affirmed a diplomatic relationship, others point out key differences. Qatar seeks to support primarily the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and Saudi Arabia supports more moderate groups for its own religio-political reasons. Furthermore, Qatar’s ultimate goal to back a winner capable of bringing down Assad’s regime has led it to support extremist groups. According to some allegations, certain Qatari actors may have even provided funding to US-labeled terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra. This, in turn, has further divided the Syrian opposition and led to infighting. As a result, many Syrians have expressed discontent with Qatar’s influence. Most worrisome, some believe that Qatar and Saudi Arabia can only satisfy their goals through a military victory and not a diplomatic solution.[1]

Russia and Syria have longstanding ties. The Soviet Union provided economic aid to the socialist governments formed in Syria and Egypt after independence. Among the socialist countries in the Middle East, the Syrian government appears to have been closest ideologically to the Soviet Union, with its emphasis on socialism and a Marxist economic development plan, but also in inviting the Communist Party to play an active role in Syrian politics. When Egypt evicted its Soviet advisers in 1972, Hafez al-Assad remained loyal to the Soviet Union and, at times, was the Soviet Union’s only ally in the region. The ties to Syria’s government, then, are both personal and diplomatic.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the formation of the Russian government seem to have had little political impact upon the alliance. However, it is possible that the 1986 decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to discontinue aid to Soviet satellite countries, such as Syria and Cuba, may have contributed to Syria’s economic problems and its shift towards neoliberalism. Today, Russia continues to sell arms to Syria and for forty years has maintained its only naval base in the Mediterranean at the Syrian port of Tartus, a situation made permanent by Bashar al-Assad in 2008. Two years later, Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, became the first Russian head of state to visit Damascus, where he met not only with Assad, but also with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

Another significant visit to Syria occurred in 2011, when the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia arrived to meet with Ignatius IV, Patriarch of the Great Antioch and All the East and the leader of the Syriac Orthodox Church. During his visit, Kirill praised the Syrian regime’s support for the Syraic Orthodox Church, but was anxious as to how the current conflict might impact Syria’s Christian minority.

In the current conflict Russia has consistently supported the Syrian government, vetoing measures in the United Nations Security Council that would allow military intervention by the United Nations. In September 2013, as the United States considered air strikes against the Syrian government in reaction to the use of chemical weapons, Russia engaged in bilateral negotiations with the United States. The resulting agreement diverted air strikes in return for allowing the deployment of UN teams to secure chemical weapons factories and stocks and destroy the weapons. The agreement was perceived as a victory for the Syrian government and symbolic of Russia’s reemergence as an important diplomatic power.

The stated Russian position is for a negotiated peace between the government and the rebels. Russian officials have hinted that they might be willing to accept new leadership, but that  an such transition must be fully consensual, which Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated in a controversial New York Times op-ed published in September 2013.[2]

Since the end of September 2015, Russia has engaged in aggressive air strikes in Syria, and revived the flagging Syrian army. These strikes, which have continued into 2016, have been blamed for disrupting peace talks in their early stages.[3] Rebels in Aleppo were the targets of these airstrikes. In an interview published in February 2016, Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister of Russia, warned that world war could ensue if foreign ground troops were deployed in Syria.[4] US-Russia rivalry has been heightened in the wake of the Russian airstrikes.

Turkey and Syria have long had difficult relations, particularly as a result of disputed territory along the Turkish-Syrian border and Syrian support for the Kurdish PKK political party. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan took steps to improve relations with Syria in 2004, pushing for greater economic and military cooperation. After initial offers to mediate between the Assad regime and opposition forces in the current civil war, Erdogan has been an outspoken critic of Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have relocated to camps in southern Turkey, Turkey has hosted opposition talks, and the Turkish government has approved military incursions onto Syrian soil.

Britain carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in December 2015, after a heated debate, and ultimately favorable vote, by Members of Parliament.  Since that time, Prime Minister David Cameron, with the United States and France, has reminded those committing human rights violations in Syria, including Russia and the Syrian regime, that ISIS is the enemy, not smaller opposition groups.[5]At the time of writing, a cease-fire, brokered by the United States and Russia resulted in a “rare moment of quiet” for some areas of the country, and also an opportunity for humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held areas. Thousands of Syrians have taken advantage of this relatively stable moment to demonstrate their continued desire that Bashar al-Assad be ousted from power.[6]

[1] Contributed by Ben Marcus.

[2] Contributed by Mary M. Bathory Vidaver.

[3] “Syria conflict: Russia strikes ‘undermining peace talks,’” BBC, February 5, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35504840, accessed February 5, 2016.

[4] "Syria: Russian PM Warns of World War if Troops Sent in," Aljazeera, February 12, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/syria-russian-pm-warns-world-war-troops-160212074839609.html, accessed February 12, 2016.

[5] “Thirty-fourth Franco-British summit - Bilateral relations - Migration - Syria - Libya - Statements by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, at his joint press conference with Mr David Cameron, British Prime Minister – excerpts” France Diplomatie, March 4, 2016, http://basedoc.diplomatie.gouv.fr/vues/Kiosque/FranceDiplomatie/kiosque.php?type=baen, accessed March 7, 2016.

[6] “Syria truce bring rare moment of quiet,” BBC, March 7, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-35743573, accessed March 7, 2016. 

Image Source:

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, from Wikimedia Commons