Global Security Series: Syria’s Role in the Middle East and Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background and analysis on issues related to U.S. national security and homeland security. In Dr. Morag’s third post covering Syria, he provides an overview of the country’s role in regional conflict.

Syrian FlagThis week we will look at the role that Syria has traditionally played in the Middle East and with respect to that region’s most enduring conflict – the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In last week’s post, it was explained that Syria as an independent country was essentially created by the European colonial powers. Since it came to be ruled primarily by minority groups, the leaders in Damascus needed to appeal to the majority’s loyalties and to a common identity shared by the majority and the minority groups (which consisted of religious and ethnic communities such as the Alawis, the Christians and the Druze).  Since Syria was a new country, it should be of no surprise that there was an almost complete absence of a common Syrian identity to bind together the country’s disparate groups; the main commonality shared was that they were all Arabs.  Consequently, the Syrian leadership was a firm exponent of pan-Arabism – the political doctrine that called for the unification of all Arabs into one nation-state. Propounding pan-Arabism made it possible for the Syrian leadership to argue that it did not matter whether the country was ruled by religious and ethnic minorities because virtually all citizens of the country were Arabs. As such, the leadership was claimed to represent the majority of the country. Further, Syria was intended as just a temporary country that would soon be united with the rest of the “artificial” Arab countries into one pan-Arab state.

By the 1950s, the ideas of pan-Arabism were not only appealing to the Syrian masses, but also to the majority of people across the Arab world. The person most identified with the pan-Arab ideal was not a Syrian, but an Egyptian.  Gamal Abdul Nasser was an Egyptian colonel who, along with a group of colleagues that banded together in an organization called the Free Officers, overthrew Egypt’s monarchy in 1952.  Just as we see today, political changes in Egypt had a huge impact across the Arab World because of Egypt’s leadership role in the region.  Nasser was a big proponent of pan-Arabism and viewed Egypt as the natural center of a pan-Arab state with himself as the natural leader. Between the mid-1950s and the time of Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967, highly-charismatic Nasser was viewed by many Arabs in near-messianic terms. He was seen as the leader who was going to unite the Arabs, destroy the last vestiges of European colonialism – including the existence of separate and independent Arab states – and make of the Arabs a great nation once again.  Photos of Nasser hung in living rooms of Arab families from Morocco to Iraq. 

Nasser essentially saw two barriers to realizing his dream of Arab unification. First was his rivals among the leaders of the other Arab countries – particularly the monarchies of the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia and Iraq who did not dream of a pan-Arab state under Nasser’s leadership. Second, the State of Israel between the North African and Asian parts of the Arab World (the geographic heart of the region); which was viewed as an illegitimate country created on Arab land.  Nasser first resolved to take on Israel and began earnestly building up Egypt’s military power, courtesy of a large arms deal with the Soviet Union in 1955.  This precipitated a chain of events that led to the 1956 Suez War (a.k.a. Sinai Campaign) and Egypt’s defeat at the hands of Israel, the United Kingdom, and France.  Perceived as standing up for the rights of the Arabs, Nasser became even more popular after this defeat. He would need at least a decade to rebuild Egypt’s military and attempt to confront Israel again.  Consequently, Nasser shifted his focus to first trying to unify the Arab World and did so by attempting to undermine his rivals among leaders of the Arab World.  What followed was roughly a decade of political intrigues leading to assassinations and the overthrow of governments across the Arab World; with Nasser on one side of the battle and Saudis on the other.  Governments from Syria to Iraq, and Libya to Yemen, wobbled and then collapsed as pro-Nasser military officers took power. 

As noted in part two of this blog series, a new Syrian regime united the country with Egypt creating the United Arab Republic in 1958; which Yemen later joined as part of a federation called the United Arab States. This union collapsed in 1961 as another coup occurred in Damascus and a new military junta, resentful of Egypt’s domination of Syria and expropriation of its resources, pulled Syria out of the union. This, however, did not mean that Syria had given up on pan-Arabism.  When the Assad regime came to power in March 1963, it initially attempted to rejoin the United Arab Republic but eventually steered away and formed its own version of pan-Arabism. This version argued that the Arab World should be united under the leadership of Syria’s Ba’ath (renaissance) party rather than Nasser’s leadership. Assad and Nasser became bitter rivals and both competed for leadership of the pan-Arab ideal. 

One of the best ways to gain leadership of the pan-Arab movement was to confront Israel, who consistently united the Arabs. Consequently, both Nasser and Assad understood they needed to challenge Israel.  While Egypt, the Arab World’s most militarily powerful country, was still in the process of building up its armed forces, Arabs could not take on Israel in a conventional war. Instead, they focused on what we would term today as “asymmetric conflict” – the use of guerrillas and terrorists to attack the Jewish state.  In 1964, Egypt created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in an attempt to unite Palestinian guerilla groups under Egyptian leadership. Syria followed soon thereafter, forming its own rival Palestinian faction: Fatah. Arab leaders realized the Palestinian issue was too politically powerful for them not to “own,” so they major Arab countries formed their own Palestinian factions in the mid-1960s.  Everyone understood that the Arab leader who was viewed as most supportive of the Palestinians and most willing to confront Israel would, at least in theory, gain the loyalty of the Arab people. 

By 1966, the region was gearing up for war and when war broke out in June of 1967, Arabs were truly shocked that the Israeli army was able to defeat the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon in six days.  This defeat, known in Arabic as the “Naksa” (setback) essentially destroyed Nasser’s last hope of unifying the Arab World under his leadership. Syrians, who were very strong on rhetoric, but did very little actual fighting at the outset of the war, lost territory to Israel – as did Egypt and Jordan. They retreated to a stance of implacable hatred toward Israel and a redoubling of support for their Palestinian faction, Fatah; which was eventually able to take over leadership of the PLO (a position it maintains today). 

Next, The War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel in 1967-1970 and the Yom Kippur War between Israel and an Arab alliance made up primarily of Egypt and Syria in 1973 took place. The Yom Kippur War caught Israel unprepared and resulted in very high casualties. It also set the stage for American leadership in the rapprochement between Egypt and Israel and the eventual signing of a 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

By now, Syria saw itself as the only real contender for pan-Arab leadership. By the 1970s, the zeal for pan-Arabism faded across the Arab World as people tired of the political machinations of their leaders and became more comfortable with their separate identities as Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, etc. The Syrian regime continued to propound pan-Arabism and saw its role as the one to confront Israel. Viewing Egypt as having abandoned the Palestinians and the larger pan-Arab cause, Syria became the unofficial leader of the “rejectionist bloc” of Arab countries that bitterly opposed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.  Syria then embarked upon a very costly effort to replace Egypt as Israel’s main rival by obtaining huge quantities of arms designed to achieve what the Syrians referred to as “strategic parity” with Israel.  Needless to say, this bankrupted the country. When Israel and Syria clashed in Lebanon during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Syrian air force was badly mauled and Syria was shown to be completely unable to block any Israeli moves. This was unfortunate for the Syrian regime because, with the total collapse of pan-Arabism by this time, the Syrian regime’s legitimacy among its own people was increasingly based on its willingness to effectively confront Israel.  As long as the minority regime in Damascus could assert that it was fighting for the rights of the Palestinians and not “giving in” to Israel, it could claim at least some level of legitimacy among the people of Syria.

Next, Syria found itself a regional patron that would help it open a new page in its efforts to confront Israel, and maintain the legitimacy of its own regime. That patron was the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian-Iranian relationship will be the topic of our next post.

Image credit: Nadav Morag