Syria’s modern history is largely associated with the culture of resistance. The very shape of modern Syria makes most Syrians believe their country has been the victim of western colonial designs, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 which divided Greater Syria into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
Belonging to a much larger homeland and the sheer desire to negate the facts established by Sykes-Picot have hence shaped Syria’s foreign and security policy. The threat posed by Israel is also a matter of consensus amongst all Syrians regardless of their political and ideological inclinations. These factors are likely to continue to have impact on Syrian policies regardless of the regional orientations of the regime that rules Syria. It did before the Baath and will continue to be after it.
Syrians draw pride from their country’s participation in most of the Arab world’s 20th century confrontations with European colonialists or/and Israel. From 1948, when Syrians fought the newly established Israeli army to prevent it from seizing Palestine, to the war efforts against the 1956 tripartite invasion of Egypt, through the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, when it lost the Golan Heights, Syria played a central role.
Since 1973, when its attempt to regain these lost territories in coordination with Egypt proved largely unsuccessful, confronting Israel and regaining its territories has been Syria’s strategic foreign policy objective, and its regional alliances and foreign relations have turned around this goal.
The 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace agreement forced Damascus to turn to Iraq, its longtime Arab foe. However, after the Islamic revolution in Iran removed the Shah regime, a close ally of Israel, Syria seized this opportunity to shift the balance of power, forming with Iran one of the most enduring alliances in modern Middle Eastern history. This alliance undermined Syria’s pan-Arab credentials, particularly when Damascus supported non-Arab Iran in its eight-year war against Arab Iraq.
Yet it also served Syria in many ways. Hezbollah’s establishment in 1982 as an anti-Israeli resistance movement was a very lucrative Syrian-Iranian military and political investment. It bore fruit in May 2000, when Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally from South Lebanon — the first unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Arab occupied land — and in the July 2006 military showdown in Lebanon between the Syria-Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel.
When the Syrian protest movement broke out in 2011 and developed into a full-fledged conflict aiming at regime change, Iran and Hezbollah joined the Syrian regime in alleging that the crisis was the work of foreign powers seeking to destroy the axis of resistance. This argument created a distorted picture by giving the impression that Syrians who are against the regime are acting as agents for Israel and western imperialism.
This argument is flawed, since Syria was before the Baath regime and is likely to remain a bastion of Arab resistance, though with different allies.
The pro-regime policies of both Iran and Hezbollah will indeed make their relations with any future government in Damascus very complicated. Anti-western positions could bring several parties together; they have never been enough motivation though to form alliances in the Middle East.
In fact, one can still be resisting Israel and western policies but can also have difficult relations with other parties sharing the same policies. History of the Middle East is full of such cases: Syria and Iraq under the Baath, post-Shah Iran and Iraq, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The so-called axis of resistance might also undergo changes depending on the foreign policies of the new regimes in other countries in the region. We still need to fully know the regional orientations of Egypt, for example, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. So many things will depend on how Egypt views its role in the region and its relations with the other key powers such as Turkey, Iran and Israel.
The Shiite-Sunni tension will also have great impact on the form and shape of the resistance axis. It has already been affected when Sunni Hamas distanced itself from the largely Shiite-dominated axis of resistance. Hamas believes that a Sunni axis of resistance will eventually emerge, with Egypt taking the lead. This would make Hamas more in harmony with its ideological inclinations and popular base of support in the occupied territories and the Arab world at large.
Until the picture becomes fully clear, it is difficult to be absolutely sure about the future of the axis as it stands today.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus, Syria.