Syrians Crushed in a Complex International Game

After One Year of Uprising
By Abdelrahman Rashdan
Political Science Researcher

“Russia enjoys good and strong military technical cooperation with Syria, and [Russia] see no reason today to reconsider it."
“Russia enjoys good and strong military technical

The Syrian revolution is one of the most complicated events since the winds of the Arab Spring started to blow. The uniqueness of such revolution is that it revealed the details of a huge ball of tangled threads of interests where many powerful states agree that aiding the Syrians against their dictator is not the best choice, at least for now.

First of all, to comprehend the development of the current events in the Arab world, one has to be aware of the weight of the international powers in this region and their ability to play an influential role on the level of the state. The US did not and does not maintain its hegemonic power without strong tools it plays to implement its interests around the world. It goes without saying that the Middle East/Arab World is a main playground for American policy, for being one of the most strategic regions in the world.

Contrary to the public perception, the Syrian-Israeli relation is not all hate; it is a love-hate one.

US has not decided on changing any of its main interests in the Arab World, it has been maintaining its grip over natural resources, mainly oil, strategic positioning and, surely, the security of Israel (for more details check the author's article: US on Arab World: Liberalism Tangos with Realism). For the time being, the US does not see the change of the Arab regimes as a threat to its control over such interests. But the geographic closeness to Israel of such regime change necessarily entails a physical threat to Israel since it seems, till now, that the Arab masses revolting over their autocrats are more sympathizing with the Islamic movements and with the rights of Palestinians. Events show that the closer an Arab revolution to Israel, the harder and longer it takes.

The Egyptian case is no exception to this rule. Through a closer look, it can easily be said that the Egyptian revolution is in a truce period, expected to get stirred again when it reaches the point of clash with the current regime that has been accused of adopting Mubarak's policy of maintaining the same interests of the US. The Egyptian revolution has failed in cutting all the foreign veins that used to feed the regime. The close intelligence and military ties between the US and Egypt still play an important role in shaping domestic events in the latter.

Syria-Israel: Love-Hate Relationship

As for Syria, the US benefited differently from the Assad regime. For the past eleven years, Assad has kept the security of Israel not through his regime's close intelligence ties with the US, but through having a weak regime vis-à-vis Israel. It is hard to think of an incident when Assad has posed a real threat to Israel; most of his empty threats have been used by Israel to its own advantage. Contrary to the public perception, the Syrian-Israeli relation is not all hate; it is a love-hate affair. Even with his very close ties with Iran, Assad did not convert his regime into a militarily aggressive regime against Israel; his relations with Iran only empowered him against his, mostly Sunni, population.

Though on an internal level, the Assad regime built part of its legitimacy on its enmity to Israel, it did not exceed rhetorical phrases, as explained. Such atmosphere in the country, which sometimes reflects in huge propaganda banners used by the regime, helped to fuel the anti-Israeli sentiment. Thus, it is not in the interest of Israel to allow the current revolution to produce a regime across its borders that might express its enmity to Israel in actions that go beyond the verbal warfare.

The uniqueness of the case of the Syrian revolution stands in the fact that it has been able to unite global enemies on one goal.

Thus, options to keep the security of Israel filter down to two: either to look for a regime replacement for Assad that would be as weak as Assad's regime was versus Israel, or, second option, to allow the current destruction to push this country some decades back in history so that any new regime would be more concerned about internal reconstruction in the foreseeable future.

The first option does not seem to be plausible based on the declaration and stances taken by the different opposition leaders currently residing outside Syria and because of the lack of organized opposition that can be addressed. However, the second option would help much in improving Israel’s regional security through depriving Iran and Hizbolla from a good ally.

As for the US domestic scene, President Obama, however, has learnt enough lessons from the Arab Spring so far in a sense that has made him well aware of what to push to public consumption and what not to. It would not be a smart move from him not to side publicly with Syrians against Assad ahead of the upcoming US elections.

Since Syria’s strategic importance for the US revolves more about its relation to the security of Israel, Obama’s choices become limited. As explained, the inability to find a good replacement for Assad and the high probability that the revolution is not carrying an Israeli-friendly regime, the US economic and military constraints along with the public opinion pressure and the ability of Assad to turn his domestic revolution into a major regional destabilizing event, all direct the US decision towards a policy that would help Assad stay in power;(1) a policy that is executed in contrast with the declared anti-Assad stance.

US, Israel along with Iran — the number one ally to Assad's regime, hence, agree that a regime change in Syria is currently not the best choice they want to make.

China: The Heartless Dragon

 The Syrian revolution is one of the most complicated events since the winds of the Arab Spring started to blow

What adds to the knottiness of the situation is that China too joins the group with strong reasons to favor Assad. Sino-Iranian relations are well established and just passed successfully through some very tough trials in relation to Iran's nuclear program. In 2010, for example, Iran was on the top twenty list of trade partners with China and China is one of Iran's top five trade partners(2); this in addition to arms and technology ties.

At the same time, China maintains close relations with Israel through a strong technology and arms transfer program. China first showed its interests in Israel's arms technology as early as 1975. From the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, Israel was the second most important seller of military technology to Beijing, with Israeli arms exports to China worth of between $1 and $3 billion in the 1980s.(3) In addition, according to US government records Israel is responsible for the transfer of advanced US arms technology to China including designs of Patriot and Cruise missiles, fighter jet, reconnaissance platform and drones. Besides, bilateral trade has been steadily boosting with the figures placing it at $4.55 billion in 2009(4) after being $3 billion in 2005(5) and only $1 billion in 2000.(6)

When China looks into its interests from a realistic perspective, it finds that two of its main and strategic regional partners, Iran and Israel, are pressuring it to back Assad, while weak Arab states along with Turkey are pushing in the opposite direction. Unless China looks ethically into its foreign policy, which usually is the least favorable choice for the rising dragon, it has very little incentives to stand on the side of the massacred children in Syria.

Assad’s Russian Arms

Unless China looks ethically into its foreign policy, it has very little incentives to stand on the side of the massacred children in Syria

Russia adds insult to injury by weighng in on the side of Assad's regime.

Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov recently declared that “Russia enjoys good and strong military technical cooperation with Syria, and [Russia] see no reason today to reconsider it.”(7)

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) latest update to its arms transfer database show that Russia supplied the Syrian regime with $246 million worth of arms in 2011 alone; which means that Russia kept its close and generous support to the Syrian regime while it was committing its massacres against its people. Records also show that the Russian arms exports to Syria were multiplied thirty five times since 2005, and three times since 2008.(8)

One of the main strategic interests of Russia in Syria is the Tartus naval base. Tartus is the only naval base for Russia outside the former Soviet Union. The Mediterranean base, which can be used against the NATO forces, is being rebuilt and has recently been getting increasing Russian attention.

The uniqueness of the case of the Syrian revolution stands in the fact that it has been able to unite global enemies on one goal. The US and Israel are holding hands with Iran and China, not to speak of Russia, to keep Assad floating on the blood of his own people. On the other hand, most of the Arab governments along with Turkey hold their hands to write down their condemnation statements that are more muted than the screams of the Syrian mothers who are only heard by their dead children.


(1)  Deli, Khorshid. “The US and the Syrian Crisis.” Aljazeera.net. Mar. 12, 2012.

(2) Check China and Iran's trade partners on the EU Commission website.

(3) Bitzinger, Richard A. "Chinese Arms Production and Sales to the Third World," RAND Corp. 1991.

(4) "Israel-China: 2009 & 2010H1 Bilateral Trade Figures." Israel Chamber of Commerce in China. Aug 2010.

(5) "About Sino-Israel Relations." China.org.cn. Sept. 7, 2009.

(6) "A Brief Introduction on Sino-Israeli Economic and Trade Relations." Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the State of Israel.

(7) Isachenkov, Vladimir. “Russia Says It Will Keep Selling Weapons to Syria.ABC News. Mar. 13, 2012.

(8) "TIV of arms exports to Syria, 2000-2011." SIPRI. Generated Mar. 19, 2012.

Abdelrahman Rashdan is a political science researcher and commentator specialized in national security and the Middle East.

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