After Annapolis, what is Syria's role in the Middle East?



The international community has the feeling that Syria is an isolated country, because it never participated in the informal international conferences on the Middle East. It was important that it be present at the Israeli-Arab peace conference in Annapolis, as Dimitri Delalieu showed in his Analysis essay ‘Annapolis, chronicle of a predicted setback.’  [1]  Syria was not invited there as an isolated country but because it is a regional power that others woo and one which has the support of Iran.  The discussions on the Golan Heights which were added in extremis to the agenda allowed the Syrians to come to the conference. The concession was made by Washington as recognition of Syria’s ability to be a nuisance rather than because it expected Syria to advance the peace process.

But what is the real nuisance value of Syria? Or, to put it another way, what is the role the Syria can play in the relations between states in the Middle East?


Before the Annapolis conference, the West had a tendency to view Syria as a major obstacle to peace in Lebanon. It would be presumptuous to say that the Western view has changed completely since, but one can reasonably believe that Syria has become an interlocutor, if not the sort that you like to associate with, then at least one which is unavoidable in the region. According to Javier Solana, the period following Annapolis will be more important than the meeting itself.  ‘Il will be crucial to have a political follow-up in which the international community will play an important role.’ [2] Of course, this is true for Israeli-Palestinian  relations, but one may also reason that this conference served as a point of departure for new givens in the Middle and Near East.


What will be the role of Syria in managing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in the period after Annapolis? Certainly not a fundamental role, because this is without a doubt not in the interest of any of the protagonists, and the initiative launched in Annapolis did no more than provide for regular meetings between Ehud Olmert and Mahmud Abbas, who are thus condemned to be shut in together behind closed doors in what will probably be a sterile exercise. However, the credibility that Syria gained, even if just a façade,  should allow it to play a role of arbiter in the American-Iranian crisis, indeed in Iraqi interior policy, and above all to continue to be an inescapable talking partner for anything having to do with Lebanon.


Thus, we are going to try to see what is the position of Syria in the Middle East and its future role will only be the more easy to discern: big brother to Lebanon,  participation (to be proven) in maintaining the instability in Iraq, unnatural alliance with Iran, struggle for regional leadership with Turkey.



1)      Syria and Lebanon


Syria used the Lebanese crisis to open a dialogue with the United States, to find again the financial manna that Lebanon represents for Damascus and, above all to maintain internal tensions in the hope of being able to keep at a distance the prospect of there being an international tribunal passing judgment on those presumed guilty of the assassination of Rafic Hariri.


Syria makes use of France, a country that would like to support Syria on the path to international respectability. But as the head of state of France said during an interview, [3] for that to happen the situation in Lebanon has to work itself out. However, one should note that French diplomats who follow the situation in Lebanon very closely say that President Sarkozy never accepted the idea of a trade-off between a facilitated Presidential election and a softening of policy towards Damascus with respect to the international tribunal.


As Samir Frangié said already in December, [4]French mediation has re-established Syria’s role as influential negotiator in Lebanon. Syria is a major factor in the elections.’ Damascus  

has acknowledged some of the same points. Faruk al-Sharah, its Vice President, recently said, ‘Syria is today stronger than it has ever been’ during its twenty-nine years of military presence.


Thanks notably to the mediation of Bernard Kouchner, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the name of the future Lebanese head of state no longer seems to pose any problems. This will be a man above the parties: General Suleiman,  the present chief of the Army. In Beirut, everyone agrees on this point : both the pro-Western majority and the pro-Syrian Opposition.

But it is now the composition of the future government that divides people, with Syria going so far as to set the number of ministerial portfolios that it would like to see allocated to its henchmen.

Begun seven months ago with Washington’s blessing, French mediation is based on the idea that the inescapable Syrian President Bashar el-Assad wants to re-enter the international community. Thus, Paris has sent him an envoy and Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken with his Syrian counterpart three times by phone.

Isolated as never before, Bashar el-Assad did not ask for this much. Following the assassination in 2005 of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, in which his country is strongly suspected of being involved, the international community forced him to withdraw his Army from Lebanon. Then he had to answer questions posed by investigators of the International Criminal Court.


The assassination of General François el-Hajj, future chief of the Lebanese Army, and the n-th postponement of the Presidential elections tempered the enthusiasm of the French somewhat leading in December 2007 to a breakdown in the discussions between Paris and Damascus on this subject, a rupture confirmed by Syria at the beginning of January 2008.

French diplomacy is thus convinced that Damascus does not want a new President to be elected in Lebanon and the Syrian regime is trying to paralyse the actions of any possible Lebanese head of state by obtaining a blocking one-third within the Council of Ministers.

But as nothing in the Near East is as simple as one would like to believe, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese Hezbollah, has warned against any failure of French mediation.  ‘The French and the Syrians are trying to reach a compromise (...) but if this mediation fails, there will not be any other, and the Opposition will launch a mobilisation which will resort to all the peaceful means possible,’ he warned, without giving further details.[5]


At the start of January 2008, Syria remains, whatever one may think, an inescapable talking partner in Lebanese affairs, but compared to what we knew in the past, a more ‘respectable’ talking partner.



2)    Relations between Syria and Iraq

What will the American objective be after Iraq? This question was, and remains, the one posed by the countries of the Middle East, and in particular by Syria.

 As Abu Azam[6] explains :

 ‘The regional forces like Iran and Syria target our forces because they know that if we  bring stability to Iraq the United States will next turn its attention to them. And that is the last thing that they want.’

Without necessarily supporting the idea of Abu Azam, one can reasonably imagine that while the war is going on in Iraq the United States will not be inclined to spread the conflict in the region.

Syria and Iran, named as part of the Axis of Evil by Washington, may believe that they will pay dearly for an end to hostilities in Iraq: these two countries may not take any direct part in the Iraqi conflict, but they still have every interest in seeing it continue.

The Syrians have long been accused of aiding terrorists to make their way to training camps in Iraq and of supplying a considerable number of these terrorists[7]. Will this situation continue?


Supporting the Sunni minority as well as pan-Arab elements coming out of the former Baath party and not favouring a strong Iraqi Kurdistan, Damascus has truly every interest in remaining present in Iraqi internal affairs.


Nonetheless, the support shown both to the Sunni minority and to the former Baath party members is necessarily not liked in Iran, a country with which Syria intends to keep close links.


3)    Relations between Syria and Iran


Though Damascus and Tehran are today in the same camp, the two capitals do not have the same priorities.[8] 


Syria is more concerned about regaining its place in Lebanon, while Iran is worried over Western pressure and Israeli threats as it tries to win over the Moslem world, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, to the cause of its nuclear programme and would like to calm things down in the land of Cedars, in particular to avoid any real risk of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.


Despite the apparent rhetorical differences and the ideological contradictions, the regimes in  Damascus and Tehran, paradoxically, resemble one another[9]: very active in foreign policy, the two states greatly depend on their regional environment due to their growing isolation and to the proselytising and expansionist nature of the ideologies that they embody (pan-Arab nationalism for Syria and revolutionary Islam for Iran).


Furthermore, these two countries have America as their common adversary, which naturally gives them an opportunity to make a common front, while their opposition to Israel is more of an ideological issue. Indeed, Israel constitutes the only entity in the Middle East to be at the same time non-Arab and non-Muslim, and consequently to fall outside the hegemonic plans of these two ideological states (pan-Arabism on the one hand and pan-Islamism on the other hand).  This is why, despite its small surface area and its low population, the State of Israel is an enemy that unites the two great ideological families that have dominated the political life of the Middle East for a century.

There is thus no reason to think that the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran is not safe from change.


4)    Relations between Syria and Turkey


Both Syria and Turkey would like to establish their position and they are looking for recognition of the regional role that they could have. Turkey sent troops, a small number to be sure, into Lebanon within the context of the UN following the events of the summer of 2006 : this demonstrated Ankara’s wish to be more present in the affairs of the Near East and it did not seem to particularly bother Damascus.


On the economic side, the Turkish Minister of State Nazim Ekren and the Syrian Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Abdallah al-Dardari met on January 2, 2008 to promote their economic relations, which have advanced considerably in the past few years.  On the occasion of their meeting, Al Dardari emphasised that Syria and Turkey have worked to preserve stability and security in the region and he also mentioned the project for a gas pipeline between the two countries to transport Egyptian natural gas. This project will be completed in the middle of 2009.[10] This economic cooperation has brought Syria into the front ranks of the region.


Let us return to the discussions concerning stability and security in the region: according to Frédéric Encel[11], on the one side, the axis of the United States/Israel/Turkey was getting constantly stronger and to confront it Syria, Iraq and Iran had no other alternatives than to draw closer to one another. That was the reality at the end of the 1970s.


Since then, the Iraq-Iran War and then the two wars in Iraq and finally the rise in power of the PKK have somewhat altered the givens: we are witnessing today a new alliance between Iran, Turkey and Syria under the approving eye of Moscow. Does Turkey continue to have a calling to serve Western interests or will it more likely change its policy and take its neighbours into greater account, namely Iran and Syria?



5)     In conclusion 


In a speech delivered on August 14, 2007[12]before an audience of journalists on the occasion of "Journalists Day" in Syria, Syrian Vice President Faruq Al-Shar criticised the lack of unity in the Arab world and its ‘disintegration.’ He had in mind the Arab countries which are developing close diplomatic relations with Israel, since this created what he believes is a chasm dividing the Arab world. He also criticised Saudi Arabia for refusing to maintain good relations with Syria.


Since the month of August, it seemed that Syria had finally become recognised as an interlocutor, at least by the United States and Europe. Not necessarily a favoured interlocutor, but an inescapable talking partner.


President Bashar el-Assad wanted to take advantage of the summit in Riyad[13]to hold a three-party conference between Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but the last two countries were not interested, perhaps fearing this would displease the United States.


The invitation to Syria to take part in the Annapolis conference, the future developments in the Lebanese crisis and the election, at last, of a consensus President there may perhaps change the givens.


Copyright © ESISC 2008

[1]Analysis of ESISC dated November  26, 2007.

[2] Jossi Lempkowicz,  ‘Solana : failure at Annapolis meeting ‘is not an option,’’ European Jewish Press, November 22, 2007 in



[3] Al Ahram dated December 29, 2007.

[4] Deputy of the anti-Syrian  majority.

[5] Interview on Lebanese television, on the channel NBN, January 2, 2008.

[6] One of the main founders of the tribal grouping Awakening Councils], cited in dated December 29, 2007.

[7] Out of 700 foreign combattants reported since August 2006, 57 are Syrians.

[8] Mouna Naïm, ‘Syria and Iran, a strategic alliance,’ Le Monde, March 30, 2007.

[9] Extracts from the article of Masri Feki which appeared on July 26, 2007 in Turkish Daily News (Is the Iranian- Syria axis lasting ?)

[11] The Middle East between war and peace. A geopolitical study of the Golan,  Flammarion, 2001.

[12],  August 15, 2007

[13] March 28 and 29, 2007

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