There are ever multiplying attempts to draw a distinction between the policies of ‘mumana’ah’ (a middle ground between ‘steadfastness and ‘forbiddance’) followed by the Syrian regime, and the country’s internal crisis that led to the current popular uprising. Perhaps the time has now come to look more closely at the role played by these policies in the crisis facing the regime, given that the regime uses its international role and regional clout as one of the principle tools to impose its control within Syria. Such a task requires us to define ‘mumana’ah’ to analyze its policies and to ask what they have succeeded in changing or achieving, and to what extent events have overtaken them, leading to their failure or adjustment.
Bashar Assad inherited the concept of ‘mumana’ah’ from his father, Hafez Assad who adopted it as a response to the unilateral policies of Anwar Sadat that led to the Camp David Agreement. Assad formulated a strategy suitable for both outright opposition to the peace process and for negotiation, a strategy that required him to gain control over two countries - or rather, two countries and three populations: Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians (having lost Jordan after a brief honeymoon in 1975-76). It was with this aim in mind that Syria intervened in the Lebanese conflict from 1976 onwards. When the Palestinians, or rather the official Palestinian faction led by Yasser Arafat managed to resist Syrian control and the attempts to replace him at the head of the PLO, the Syrian regime resorted to forming the ‘rejectionist front’ of some ten Palestinian organizations. Similarly, when Lebanon fell under Israeli control in 1982, Syria reasserted its influence by counter-attacking. This counter-attack began with the so-called War of the Mountain of 1983, waged by Walid Jumblatt’s troops with Syrian support against the control of the Lebanese Forces over the Shuf region. It was followed by the support for the leftist Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation, before finally adopting the Islamic Front led by Hizbullah, and reached its apogee when Syrian forces were invited to enter Beirut in 1987 to separate the warring factions. The Syrian mandate over Lebanon was renewed with US and international approval—plus, limited Saudi support—then formally ratified by the Taif Agreement, which tasked the Syrian armed forces with disarming the militias and preserving “civil peace”
But these are the roots of the ‘resistance’ policy. It was first overtly practiced at the time of the US occupation of Iraq as a response to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s demands that,
- Syria end its alliance with Iran.
- It stop sending jihadist fighters to Iraq and sheltering Iraq’s Baathist leadership on Syrian soil.
- It sever ties with both Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Syria’s response to these demands was predicated on the fact that the entire regime was blacklisted. The fact that it counterattacked across all fronts, especially its support of armed operations in Iraq and the security regime in Lebanon, was only to be expected.
But where does the policy of ’mumana’ah stand now?
First and foremost, the withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq has brought an end to Syria’s armed presence in that country, to be replaced with political, economic and diplomatic strategies. The Syrian regime has stood by and let the US pull out and the Iraqi parliamentary and presidential elections run their course, in the hope that Damascus will be able to achieve a rapprochement between the various Iraqi factions and control a large slice of the Sunni bloc in the post-withdrawal political dispensation. To this end, it worked with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to support Iyad Alawi’s bid to become president of the new Iraqi government. Iran, however, favored the Shia and Kurdish parties under the control of Nuri al-Maliki, and entered into a closed deal with the Americans to achieve this end. It could be claimed, therefore, that Syria exercised a policy of ‘resistance’ in Iraq that successfully saw off US threats of hostile action and kept the regime safe, while failing to secure its influence over the country’s politics. But the reverberations of the Iraqi adventure have led to internal problems for Syria, not least the returning jihadists who are fighting against the security forces in the current uprising.
Secondly, Syria responded to American pressures to break their strategic alliance with Iran by forming close ties with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian-Saudi relationship enjoyed a honeymoon period, during which the two countries found a solution for the Lebanese crisis, following the events of April 2008 the Doha Conference and the Lebanese parliamentary and presidential elections, but the cooperation soon collapsed following the fall of the Hariri government and the growth of an unspoken, largely mysterious, but palpable enmity between Damascus and Riyadh.
The multi-faceted political and business ties between Syria and Turkey, that saw Ankara facilitate indirect talks between Israel and the Syrian regime, were dealt a serious blow by the Israeli assault on the Freedom Flotilla. Furthermore, relations between Turkey and Syria themselves received a setback following harsh Turkish criticism of the Syrian regime for breaking its promises. This seems to be connected with Syria’s use of Turkey as a middleman in talks with the Euro-American axis to resolve the current crisis. Thirdly, the Syrian response to demands to sever links with Hamas and Hizbullah was to invite the two resistance organizations to engage in peace talks. But following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, an internal Palestinian truce, and on the eve of UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, Syria has lost its ‘resistance’ role on the Palestinian front and its influence over Hamas. Khaled Meshal, head of the movement’s political council and a noted hawk, has turned into one of the “give peace with Israel a chance” brigade. This transformation in attitudes can be clearly seen in last July’s declaration by Syria that it now officially recognizes a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Fourth, another slice of Syrian ‘resistance’ policy was consigned to history when Israel pulled out of South Lebanon in 2000 (with the exception of the Shebaa Farms and the Kafr Shuba Hills). Ironically the liberation of occupied South Lebanon deprived Syria of its sole means to apply military pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. There can be no denying the importance of Syria’s support to the Lebanese resistance, which would never have survived without the intelligence and logistical support provided by Damascus, not to mention the regional and international links it put at the disposal of the resistance, such as access to Iranian weaponry and supplies. For its part, this arrangement benefitted Syria by dispensing with the need to mobilize the Golan front and the heavy military, human and economic price consequent on such action. Thus, the policy otherwise known as “the unity of Syrian and Lebanese interests” made Syria ultimately responsible for the stability and security of the northern front of occupied Palestine. Having recognized the Shebaa Farms as Lebanese, Syria took on the additional responsibility of leading Beirut to the negotiating table with the Israelis when the proper time arrived.
The victory of the Lebanese resistance over the Israeli aggression in 2006 was also a triumph for Syrian policy and a frustration both of American policy to uproot Hizbullah and the Israeli attempt to carry this policy out. Furthermore, this victory was a vindication of a regional strategy of missile-based defense, whereby Israeli air superiority was negated by striking at civilian and military targets in the heart of occupied Palestine. Indeed, Hizbullah’s success in this regard was a unique achievement in the military and strategic history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In turn this strategic advance transformed the military wing of Hizbullah from a resistance militia formed to liberate occupied Lebanese territory into a fully fledged national defense force, bolstered by the Syrian-Iranian regional ‘resistance’ strategy.
On the anniversary of the 1973 October War, Henry Kissinger coined the slogan, “No peace without Syria”, bestowing a unique regional and international importance on the country, not to mention legitimizing the regime itself. But that assumed the existence of a genuine process for peace in the region. Now that the battle for international recognition of the Palestinian state has been won, and Israel under Netanyahu and Lieberman is not only seeking to wreck Israeli-Palestinian talks, but the very foundations of the Oslo Accords while Tel Aviv is dominated by those who reject any concessions over the Golan Heights. If Syria - and Lebanon - was able to extract itself from the Israeli-Arab conflict through a peace agreement, what would then remain of its policy of ‘resistance’, which requires it to pursue bilateral solutions within the bounds set by King Malik Abdallah’s Arab peace initiative, based on the principle: “All the territory in exchange for total peace”?
All possibilities remain open. The truly appalling thing in all this is that a regime so contemptuous of its people resists admitting to the crisis in its policy of ‘resistance’, just as it resists admitting that its great people (and they are great) supported it against the pressures it faced from abroad during the crises in Iraq and Lebanon and only started demanding its most basic rights once these storms had passed.
It is this resistance, in truth an obstinacy, that weakens Syria as a state and a society and renders it vulnerable to foreign interventions and conspiracies at the expense of its national interests and the desires of its people.
An earlier Arabic version was published in Safir, July 27, 2011.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Fawwaz Traboulsi is Associate Professor of History and Politics at the Lebanese American University, Beirut. He has written on Arab history, politics, social movements and popular culture. He has published extensively and translated several books into Arabic, including works by Edward Said, Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan and Saidi Yusuf. His book publications include “A History of Modern Lebanon” (2007).