Politicians tend to travel abroad, when working, as guests of
governments. They therefore often see what those governments want them
to see – and can end up thinking what they’re led to think.
I strike this precautionary note, writing about Syria, as a reminder to
beware of the syndrome. I’ve recently been there – not, as it happens,
as a guest of the Syrian Government, but courtesy of the British-Syrian
Society, which certainly has good links to it.
The latter has an unenviable reputation. It holds sway over what’s in
effect a one-party state – governed in theory by Baathism, a pan-Arab,
mostly secular, socialist-leaning ideology, and run in practice by a
largely Alawite clan network, headed by Syria’s President, Bashar
Human Rights Watch describes Syria’s justice record as “poor”, and
reports that the Government “strictly limits freedom of expression,
association, and assembly”. A state of emergency has been in place
since 1963 – three years before Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized
power in a coup. It’s impossible for an outsider to understand exactly
where and in what measure real power resides, amidst the governing
network that Hafez patiently and ruthlessly established.
The country was broadly aligned to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The collapse of Russian imperial power opened up an opportunity for Syria to enjoy better relations with the United States. Today, with Syria subject to American sanctions, those relations are probably worse than they were during the Soviet era.
The Government is effectively aligned with Iran. It aids Hezbollah and, to a lesser degree, Hamas. Insurgents are crossing the Syrian border into Iraq. Syria’s interventions in Lebanon have provoked critical U.N resolutions, and an international tribunal into the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri – widely blamed on Syria – is due to report shortly.
This daunting outline provokes an obvious question – namely, why is it in Britain’s national interest, given our close relationship with the United States, to have good relations with Syria at all, let alone to seek to improve them?
The answer can be found in the main threat to our national security and British way of life. This comes from terrorist and extremist groups claiming to act in the name of Islam. Both wish, ultimately, to establish formal sharia jurisdictions in Britain. The former are led by the likes of Osama Bin Laden, the latter by the likes of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
Syria’s secular government isn’t part of this threat: its Muslim members are regarded by Al Qaeda and the Ikhwan as apostates. The country is menaced by Islamist militancy to a greater degree than Britain, given the balance of its population, which is roughly three quarters Sunni Muslim. The Government and its allies have an interest in talking up the threat – in the various forms of Al Qaeda infiltration, revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, the flight of Christians from Syria, Islamist government or civil war. But it doesn’t follow that the threat isn’t there just because the Government describes it. Muslim Brotherhood government in Damascus would be neither in our national interest nor Syria’s. The tragedy of Iraq is a reminder that a third way – western-style liberal democracy – isn’t a short or perhaps even a medium-term option.
The preponderance of Sunni Muslims in Syria is a reminder that it doesn’t float naturally in the Iranian Shi’ite orbit. It would sit more easily with moderate Sunni-majority states in the region, such as Jordan and, in particular, Egypt, to which it was briefly and unsuccessfully joined in a United Arab Republic during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Indeed, Syria has always kept a line of communication open to the western liberal democracies. It was part of the broad anti-Saddam alliance during the first Gulf War, a stance partly explained by its inter-Baathist feud with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Its recent decision to be represented at the Middle East peace talks at Annapolis is creditable. Since then, talks between Syria and Israel about the Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the Six-Day War, have opened in Turkey. A deal between the two countries over the Golan, of which full recognition of Israel by Syria would be a part, has long been a tantalising if remote possibility.
Syria will always want to enjoy good relations with Iran. But it’s just possible to imagine that the Assad Government could reach a new settlement with the West. Its terms would be roughly as follows. For its part, Syria would distance itself from Iran, restore its previous relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, end its support for Hezbollah, and reach a cold peace with Israel. For its part, America would drop sanctions, and encourages investment in and the development of the Syrian economy.
Such a settlement would make economic as well as political sense. Syria has an unbalanced economy (it’s estimated that 40 to 50 per cent of the Government budget is spent on defence and security) and faces a demographic timebomb (according to one assessment, 40 per cent of the population is under 15). Accurate figures are hard to come by, but unemployment may be as high as 20 per cent. My impression was that many members of Syria’s elite hold foreign passports, and have an exit route prepared in case the country dissolves into chaos.
The Government has a difficult choice. If Syria doesn’t modernise, the economy will stagnate and revolt could erupt – as it did during the early 1980s. But if it does, economic reform could spur political reform, and an end to the Baath Party’s monopoly of power. My sense is that although some Government elements are pushing for modernisation – I heard one senior politician refer disparagingly to “Ceausescu-trained economists” – there’s stubborn resistance from the nomenklatura.
Given Syria’s relationship with Iran, its interest in the Lebanon, the legacy of the Iraq invasion, and the impenetrability of the country’s political system, it’s impossible to be optimistic about a new settlement between Syria and the West. But the liberal democracies in general, and Britain in particular, themselves have a choice. We can either isolate Syria, or engage with it.
The most likely consequence of an isolation policy would be for Syria to move further into the Iranian orbit. Engagement would at least leave open the possibility of the new settlement that I’ve tried to describe. One way forward would be for the next American administration, with wider diplomatic support, to offer a road map towards it.
Tony Blair clearly wanted to nudge Syria towards such a new settlement. He failed – unsurprisingly, given the legacy of the Iraq invasion, which has saddled Syria with up to 1.5 million refugees. Labour’s standing in Damascus – and, by extension, Britain’s – appears to be low. My impression was that the Syrian Government believes Britain now to exercise little influence in Washington. New political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could change both this impression and the reality on which it’s founded.
Syria is a harsh, endangered, beautiful, and fragile country, whose elites seem to have an imperfect understanding of how western liberal democracies work, and which remains one of the last models of Christian-Muslim co-operation in the middle east. In this case, realistic engagement is better than reflexive hostility.