TOPICS > Politics

Syria’s Regional Relationships

BY Admin  September 14, 2006 at 1:27 PM EDT

Although long considered Baathist rivals, it is Syria’s suspected support of elements of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime and possible Islamic insurgents that have drawn fire from officials in Washington and Baghdad.

The U.S. government has accused the Syrian government of harboring former Saddam loyalists and of financing militant groups entering post-war Iraq. Syria has responded by saying it is doing everything to police its border with Iraq and has handed over more than 30 Baathists, including Saddam’s half brother, a man wanted for crimes by Iraq’s new government.

Despite the efforts by Damascus, critics say Syria’s work to combat terrorism remains unconvincing in light of evidence that some Syrian officials knew of Iraqi insurgents being financed by wealthy Syrian Baathists.

In many ways it is the role of the Baath Party that has shaped relations between the two nations for more than 50 years. During the 1950s both countries favored a strong, united Arab nation in the Middle East. They shared a distrust of the West and were hostile to European intentions on the Arab world. A result of this quest for identity and political power was the formation of the Baath Party, a socialist, pan-Arab political group that took hold first in Damascus in 1947 and later in Iraq.

Once Iraq formed its branch of the Baath Party, the focus slowly shifted from pan-Arab discussions to issues of who would speak for the Arab world. Both Syria and Iraq accused each other of pushing their own domestic agenda over Arab unity and by the 1970s the rivalry led to deeply strained relations. 

The two countries reached a major breakthrough in 1978 when they agreed to meet together on political and military goals. The following year Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr agreed to a single leadership that would rule both countries.

When Saddam Hussein assumed power later that year emphasizing individual leadership over the unification of Arab countries as one of the top goals in his Baath Party’s agenda, dealings between to the two countries quickly disintegrated.

Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980 brought Syria in on the side of Iran. The Syrian-Iraqi border was closed and all ties between the two nations were severed for the next seven years.

Relations between Syria and Turkey, which share a long border, have ranged from peaceful coexistence to political and military tension. Border problems, disagreements over the Euphrates River, smuggling and charges of internal subversion have strained diplomatic ties.

Some of these conflicts can be traced to France’s transfer of Alexandretta (Iskenderun as it was named by the Turks) to Turkey. Located on the Mediterranean coast in the province of Hatay, Iskenderun was the main outlet for overland trade from Iraq and Egypt. After World War I, the area became part of the French Syrian Mandate territory, but France ceded it to Turkey in 1939, largely to secure that country’s alliance in the upcoming European conflict.

In the past decades, Turkey has charged Syria with supporting Armenian, Kurdish and Arab terrorist groups operating against Turkey. Turkey believes Syria offers training camps and arms to the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and allows its members to cross the Syrian-Turkish border to attack Turkish targets, particularly diplomats.

Turkey also charges that Syria supports Kurdish separatist groups. In October 1998 Turkey amassed troops on the border and threatened to invade unless Syria stopped supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla force fighting for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. Turkey also demanded that Syria expel the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Syria complied with Turkey’s demands, expelling Ocalan and signing an agreement banning PKK activity in Syria.

When popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was killed by a car bomb on Feb. 14, 2005, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Beirut, blaming the assassination on Syria and calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil.

Hariri had resigned his post as prime minister in 2004 in “silent protest” over Syria’s 30 years of dominant influence in Lebanese affairs.

After Hariri’s assassination, world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, joined the protestors in condemning Syria’s presence in Lebanon and reiterated demands that Syria abide by the American and French-sponsored U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarming of the Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah.

Syria said it had no role in Hariri’s killing, but announced that it would implement the phased troop pullback called for in the Taif accord, the treaty that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. The treaty calls for Syrian troops to pull back to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley along the Syrian-Lebanese border and to wait there while Lebanese and Syrian officials negotiate further withdrawals.

As Syria began to slowly move some its troops out of Beirut in early March 2005, Hezbollah called on its supporters to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with Syria. An estimated 500,000 people turned out to chant pro-Syrian slogans and carry signs touting the Syrian-Lebanese “brotherhood.”

The chain of events following the Hariri assassination highlights the deep and complex nature of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon.

Late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ordered 6,000 Syrian troops to Lebanon in June 1976 in an attempt to clamp down on factional and sectarian violence that had left some 26,000 dead. Lebanon’s Maronite Christian militias were calling for a partition of the country along religious lines, a move that Syria’s secular-minded ruling Baath Party opposed. Meanwhile, leftist Muslim and Palestinian groups were fighting for complete control of Lebanon, which Syrian officials feared might antagonize its powerful neighbor, Israel.

Syria’s intervention in Lebanon, however, did not produce peace. The violence raged on for 14 years, while Syrian influence and presence in Lebanon deepened. Syrian troops, intelligence services, and government officials remained in Lebanon through two invasions and withdrawals by Israel (1978 and 1982), a U.N. peacekeeping mission (1978), and the U.S. intervention (1982-84) that ended with a bomb attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. In 1983, Syria successfully blocked a Lebanese-Israeli peace accord. In 1984 Syria tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a cease-fire between Lebanon’s warring parties.

The Syria-Jordan relationship is marked by modest agreement on some regional issues as well as drastically different international policy stances. While Syria has long been opposed to Western intervention in the Middle East, Jordan has historically aligned itself with the American and British goals in the region, sometimes to the detriment of its relationship with Syria.

In May of 1967, Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt against Israel, which also paired the country with Arab states including Syria and Iraq. Six years later, Jordan further culled Syrian favor by sending troops into Syrian territory to help defend the nation against Israeli forces. In 1991, both Syria and Jordan participated in peace negotiations with Israel.

But, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent attempts at a Middle East peace process, Syria and Jordan have been at odds over policy toward Washington and the rest of the region. Syria opposed the U.S.-led invasion and has been critical of what it sees as the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, Jordan quietly allied itself with Washington and has joined in pressuring Syria to support the postwar political process in Iraq, Reuters reported.

Recent signs have pointed toward Syria and Jordan beginning to mend their fences, however. Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari announced in late February 2005 that Syria would return a tract of land along the Syria-Jordan border to Jordan that it had held for many years. The agreement is the first since talks between Jordan’s late King Hussein and late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad stalled after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The land deal was signed along with an agreement to seal the Syrian-Jordanian border against possible cooperation between Syrian militants and Jordanian radicals in plots to attack Jordanian and U.S. targets in the kingdom, according to Reuters.

“We are talking about regional security issues and our neighbor Syria will now work with us to prevent terrorism and organized crime,” Interior Minister Samir Habashneh said, according to Reuters.

Despite the Syria-Jordan border agreement, some tension still remains in the region. In light of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Syria has come under mounting international pressure to withdraw its military and political apparatuses in Lebanon. In a March 7 speech, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he will begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Lebanon to the Syrian-Lebanese border. Jordan joined neighbor Israel in criticizing Assad’s troop redeployment as falling far short of ending the Syrian occupation in Lebanon, instead calling it a tactic designed to divert criticism.

At a Jerusalem news conference in March Jordanian Foreign Minister Han Mulki said that Jordan demands a complete Syrian pullback from Lebanon. Mulki told the audience that Syria cannot bargain with the world’s demands, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Although much of the tumultuous recent history between Israel and Syria has focused on the Golan Heights, a disputed border region roughly the size of Queens, N.Y., the heart of their dispute dates back to the end of World War I and involves the Jewish state’s very right to exist.

When the Syrians declared the Syrian Arab Republic in 1919, its territory stretched much further than the modern state, encompassing what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Alexandretta — a region on the Mediterranean that eventually became part of Turkey, and the disputed areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But a deal between the British and French governments, and later endorsed by the League of Nations split the country in 1920. The French took control of what would become Syria and Lebanon, deciding that year to carve out the largely Christian state along the coast. Syria lost all control of the rest of the territory that came under British control, including Jordan and what was called Palestine.

When Israel was created in 1948, Syria refused to acknowledge it and joined five other Arab nations aimed at destroying the new state. Israel survived that war. Despite its victory, Syria refuses to recognize Israel’s existence and only recognizes Palestine.