Dr. Francesco Belcastro’s recent survey of Cold War era Syrian foreign policy released this year by Routledge is a necessary historical and theoretical tour of a decisive time in Middle Eastern foreign policy history. ‘Syrian Foreign Policy: The Alliances of a Regional Power‘ not only show the extreme utility of Neoclassical Realism as an analytical theory, but also the past events that led to Syria’s extremely dangerous present situation.
Full disclosure: Belcastro is a personal friend of mine and a former academic colleague as well. We once shared a work office right next to the toilets in St Andrew’s oldest still used building and our attempts at work were accompanied by the periodic sounds of flushing broadcast through the paper-thin walls. Despite that, we ended up both successfully completing our dissertations. And now its time to welcome him to the published authors club.
With a special focus on the years of 1963-1989, this book charts the tensions between a popular ideological conception of foreign policy and a stark self-interested realism. The main focus of this is the first incarnation of Ba’athist foreign policy under Salah Jadid in the 1960s. Pan-Arabism had popular support both at home and abroad and until the brutal wake-up call of the Six Day War Syria was clearly committed to leveraging its weak frontline position as the keystone of an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian alliance. Such a network, it was thought, would give Syria a stronger international position. Such hopes were dashed with massive Israeli victories against Syria and Egypt in 1967.
This would lead to the downfall of Jadid and the rise of Hafez al-Assad, he who founded the present dynasty still in power in Damascus. Assad too was a Ba’athist but of a more cautious nationalist bent. Syria’s position was now weaker than ever before and clearly needed a new path. Prioritizing regime survival over regime legitimacy, Assad’s goal was to reorient the inherited failed strategy.
Though Egypt would make gains in the Yom Kippur War, Syria would not. This coupled with the break of Egypt into the United States’ camp of the Cold War and the continual deterioration of Syria-Iraq relations left a relatively weak country in a dangerous region in need of some bold risky strategic interventions. This was when the relationship between Syria and both Iran and Russia-so relevant today-started to grow. Pan-Arab ideology had given way towards an axis of resistance against the US-Israeli push into the region…and eventually in modern times to the Gulf monarchies as well. The Iranian Revolution heightened and accelerated this already process by making tentative diplomatic feelers turn into an overt alliance against common foes. It would soon meet with measurable successes as Syria alone in the Aran world stood up for Iran against a brutal Iraqi invasion and Iran assisted Syria in checking Israeli attempts at expansion into Lebanon. As it was, an asymmetric battle in Lebanon would finally give Damascus the victory over Israel it long craved, something impossible in prior pan-Arab coalitions that revolved around taking on massively superior Israeli conventional forces in set-piece battles.
Belcastro uses this and many other case studies to show how while the prior more ideologically driven foreign policy once gave the state a meaning (both internally and internationally) the realities of a divided Arab world and intrusive Cold War politics eventually meant these trends had to be reigned in for the state merely to survive without becoming the puppet of a neighbor or a universal pariah. A succession of chapters shows various bilateral relations between Syria and other countries (Jordan, Iran, Iraq, etc) and how each of these examples supports this evolution. The point is clear: foreign policy may have to tilt towards ideology for a variety of reasons-but the greater the crisis faced the more likely realpolitik is to assert itself over time. All states are implicitly realist in nature when the chips are down, but its the speed of them coming to terms with prioritizing realism over professed international purpose that determines their ability to successfully adapt to dangerous changing circumstances. Idealism may often be a necessary domestic component of policy and regime legitimation, but such is a temporary arrangement that begins to present dangers if rigidly adhered to.
(I immediately thought of a similar example in later Roman Empire, when the adoption of a single monotheistic religion was viewed as a way to bring the decaying state together-but the very universality of any such theological claims led in fact to greater alienation and division than ever before. So too, it seems, was the case with the Pan-Arab nationalism. The fact that Ba’athists were in charge of Syria and Iraq at much of the same time and positively loathed each other for much of that time being the most blatant example).
With the loss of the Soviet patron and Russia’s withdrawal from the region after the collapse of the USSR (if temporarily as Russia would return after the Arab Spring), the Syria-Iran alliance became all the more strong. First against Iraq and then against the United States once Iraq fell to it in 2003. Syria’s position in the 21rst Century was quite different than it was in the Cold War but one decisive factor remained the same: That of a small country with hard to defend borders surrounded by stronger neighbors trying to hold on as a frontline state. But while the primary frontline used to be that with Israel, it now seems to be one of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. As a country with massive sectarian divides and with Iraq having been opened to this clash of regional powers since the failure of the American occupation, Syria occupied a uniquely vulnerable position between spheres of influence: something than explains the immense amount of foreign interference that flooded the country-particularly the rebels-upon the outbreak of the Civil War. To really understand the context of this going back pre-Arab Spring and pre-Iraq, you cannot do better than Dr. Belcastro’s book.
As a personal observation, it appears that Syria’s realist turn was a success that enabled the state and its regime to survive past many others in the region. However, this has come at a price. Iran has certainly increased its influence over its junior partner and Russia went from helpful pals with a naval base to the de facto dictator of Syrian affairs with other countries (especially Turkey). Considering the weakness of Syria right now and its relative diplomatic isolation, one cannot help but wonder what prospects in diplomacy it actually has anymore. However, having survived attempted sectarian dismemberment by its international foes, one could be excused for allowing themselves some sliver of optimism regarding the internal cohesion of this country. Its cultural diversity was often seen as a liability by others, but having weathered the ultimate storm it has defied the worst-case fate that once seemed likely. Such are the events that build up greater levels of solidarity for the future.