Some countries are compelled by history, or rather by geography, to be involved in the balance of power calculations of the region where they find themselves, or the calculations of imperial powers coveting their geostrategic positions.
Consider Egypt’s unique geographical position with commercially and militarily significant access to the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, linked by the Suez Canal. The nationalisation of the latter by Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser in 1956 threw Egypt into a direct confrontation with the two imperial powers that had dominated the region — Britain and France. An expansionist Israel, anxious to contribute to the downfall of Nasser, joined the Anglo-French plot to attack Egypt, seize the Suez Canal, humiliate Nasser (the champion of Arab nationalism) and in the process bring about the collapse of his regime. A strict assessment of the balance of power considerations must have given the three plotting countries a most reassuring reading. In the event, however, the secret coalition against Nasser was a total disaster. The combined opposition of the US and the then Soviet Union and Nasser’s ability to turn a military aggression into political capital ensured the failure of the Anglo-French-Israeli campaign and catapulted Nasser’s popularity into the stratosphere.
Or take the example of Syria, which shares common borders with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Three of these countries evoke for many Syrians painful experiences. In 1920, the Syrian National Congress proclaimed Syria an independent country stretching from the Taurus mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt, with Prince Faisal as King of Syria.
But the French had other colonial plans. At the 1920 San Remo conference, they dismembered Syria by separating from it Lebanon and Palestine — with Lebanon and Syria under French mandate and Palestine under British mandate. Shortly thereafter, the French set out to implement their plan by forcibly occupying Damascus, not recognising the Syrian National Congress nor its proclamation of independence and forcing Prince Faisal to flee abroad. Shortly thereafter (in August 1920) France proclaimed the birth of a new state: Greater Lebanon. Syria was further divided into three autonomous regions, with the Alawites on the coast and the Druze in the south. In 1939, Syria was further reduced when Turkey annexed Alexandretta.
Notwithstanding these setbacks, Syria eventually achieved independence in 1946 and after a period of instability, characterised by coups and counter-coups and a brief civilian rule, Syria — already mastering the language of independence and anti-imperialism — was swept by the rising wind of Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism and Arab union led by Nasser’s strident appeals for Arab unity. Syria joined Egypt in forming the United Arab Republic in 1958, but was overwhelmed by Egypt’s domination and left it in 1961. Two years later, another coup brought the Baath party to power. The party emphasised Arab nationalism and Arab unity in an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist struggle to liberate Palestine and herald a new age of Arab renaissance.
The complete destruction of the Arab armies — from Egypt, Syria and Jordan – by the Israelis in the 1967 war stunned the Arab leaders and exposed the gap between their fiery speeches and the actual realities. In the process, it damaged their political philosophy of Arab nationalism and discredited their claim to be revolutionary regimes for having fought against conservative monarchies in the long-drawn Yemen War.
When Nasser died in 1970, Arab nationalism died with him. His successor Anwar Sadat set out to denasserise Egypt by moving away from its two principle pillars: Socialism at home and nationalism abroad. Sadat was thus able to form new alliances and coalitions. He expelled the Russian military advisers, courted America and formed a new alliance with the monarchies. He and Hafez Al Assad managed to achieve an honourable showing in the 1973 war, fought to recover the territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 war. But the common road to recovery stops here. Sadat went to occupied Jerusalem and later to Washington and eventually recognised Israel and signed the Camp David Agreement — a separate peace pact with Israel. Syria was in no hurry to follow Egypt which the Arab League expels and became entangled in the Lebanese civil war, siding with one of the warring parties or the other to maintain a delicate balance of power in Lebanon.
Regionally, the Iranian revolution in 1979 removed the Shah of Iran as one of the principal pillars of American foreign policy in the region and brought Hafez Al Assad of Syria as one of the first allies of the new Iran, which he would also support against rival Iraq in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. Syria and Iran enhanced their respective and collective powers with the rise of armed groups in Lebanon. The most important of these being Hezbollah which fought the Americans and the Israelis and may take credit for accelerating the end of the 18-year Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah showed surprising military skills in resisting the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.
Syria joined the America-led war against Iraq in 1991 that liberated Kuwait, but opposed the America-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria joined the America-led war against terror, but the Syrian regime was castigated for its ongoing violent repression of protests and the massive scale of bloodshed. Sanctions have been imposed, Syria has been expelled from the Arab League and the American president has called for the Syrian president to step down.
The fall of the Syrian regime, expected anytime now, will significantly alter the balance of power in the region. It will most remarkably affect the Iranian aspirations in the region and will also remove the last remaining Arab radical opponent of Israel. It will also consecrate the ascendency of the Sunni bloc and the role played by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in achieving it. Internationally, it will mark the beginning of a new balance of power in which Russia and China (who protected Bashar Al Assad at the UN) are ready to assertively defend their global interests.
Adel Safty is distinguished visiting professor and special advisor to the rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky and published in England by Garnet, 2009.