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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syrian Regime’s Strategy Toward Foreign Powers: the West and Turkey

Syrian Regime's Strategy
A displaced Syrian widow huddles under a cover with her children in a camp near the village of Tarhin in an area under the control of Turkish-backed factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo on December 5, 2021. The nose-dive of the Turkish lira, now the main currency in the rebel-held parts of the war-torn northern Syria, which in recent years has turned into a de facto Turkish protectorate, has heaped further pain on the people living there. Bakr ALKASEM / AFP

Introduction

Syria’s relationship with the West has not been good historically, especially during the rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad after him. The West has constantly been presented to the Syrian people through state-run media or educational curricula as “imperialist” and “colonial.” Also, the West, represented by the United States and most European countries, has been described as an ally of Israel, a historical enemy of the Syrian regime.

The West has repeatedly implemented economic sanctions and embargoes against the Syrian regime throughout history. Such sanctions and embargoes were triggered by various events, including Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the role the Syrian Army had in Lebanon in the 1980s, and the Syrian crisis that broke out in March 2011.

However, the Syrian regime’s relationship with the West, especially the United States, had also gone through relatively good phases, although temporary and short. One reason was Hafez al-Assad’s support for the international coalition against the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when the latter invaded Kuwait in 1990.

During the reign of Bashar al-Assad, the relationship with the United States and the West did not improve, despite his calls for openness to everyone at the beginning of his rule. Tensions increased after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005, at the time of which many Western parties accused the Syrian regime and its allies of being responsible for the crime and accused it of obstructing investigations.

United States

When the protests against the Syrian regime started, the United States did not show any real intention to intervene in Syria, until the regime used firearms to confront the protesters. At that time, the Libyan file was preoccupying Washington and Western countries in general. They were firm about overthrowing the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi but patient about Assad’s regime, especially because Assad, ahead of the protests, had started to open up to the West and shown signs of peace with Israel.

Between 2011 and 2012, US statements were limited to saying that “Assad’s days are numbered,” without taking real action in response to the Syrian army’s military operations across the country, which claimed dozens of lives every day at that time.

Syrian Regime's Strategy
Syrians gather near a vehicle of the United Nations (UN) arms experts as they inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack on August 28, 2013 in the Eastern Ghouta area on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus. UN inspectors arrived in Eastern Ghouta area under the protection of rebel fighters, said the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group, citing the opposition forces. MOHAMED ABDULLAH / AFP

The policy of former US President Barack Obama toward Syria was taunted as “failed and reluctant,” especially after the United States had warned Assad’s regime against using chemical weapons against its people. Obama said these weapons were a “red line,” but nothing happened even after Assad used these weapons several times, most evidently in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus in 2013.

With the emergence of jihadist organizations in Syria, on top of which was the ‘Islamic State‘ (IS), the Syrian regime repeatedly warned the West of the consequences of the situation, pointing out more than once that it is fighting jihadists and claiming that the jihadists would rule the country in the regime’s absence. Indeed, the United States reacted decisively to the jihadist spread in Syria. The first US military intervention was against IS, striking in both Syria and Iraq in cooperation with a group of Western and Arab countries that formed what has been known as the “Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS.

In the fall of 2014, President Obama deployed 2,000 troops to Syria and US fighter squadrons bombed IS positions. Also, the United States started to support Kurdish local forces to fight IS on the ground, until it was almost completely eliminated in 2019.

Assad’s position on the Western military intervention in Syria did not go further than describing it as “illegal“. He pointed out on more than one occasion that the countries fighting IS are the same that contributed to its emergence.

The Syrian regime, which launched military operations against IS in the Syrian Badia (desert) and other parts of the country, was accused of engaging in economic relations with IS, buying oil from it, and even contributing to the management of its oil facilities. This was not a secret to the West, which was among the first parties to put sanctions against it, and against the regime’s allies that dealt economically with IS.

During the war against IS, the media observed that clearly, the Syrian army mostly attacked Syrian cities and villages, while avoiding major targets in the organization’s stronghold, Raqqa, although it was easy for the regime to monitor and recognize such positions. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a study on the relationship between IS and the Assad regime that “without this support from the Assad regime, the Islamic State group could not have evolved during 2012-2015 into the powerful terrorist group it became.” The study also accused Assad’s regime of “releasing terrorists from Syrian prisons and helping to bankroll ISIS by purchasing oil from ISIS and wheat from ISIS-controlled areas that ISIS was able to tax.”

Such support had a clear goal at that time, namely, to prolong the conflict against ISIS as it diverted attention from the practices of Assad’s regime in Syria and created a global scenario allowing it to act in the shadows. That issue, especially the practices of IS, was reported as breaking news on all screens, not that of the Syrian regime.

The Syrian regime refraining from firing indiscriminate missiles against Israel has played a major role for Western powers and Tel Aviv, which viewed the regime as an effective and reliable tool to stop the phenomenon. Accordingly, this role contributed to keeping the Syrian regime in power.

Regime out of US Range of Fire

The Syrian regime remained out of the US range of fire until former US President Donald Trump launched the first military strike against Syrian army sites in April 2018 in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons. However, the strike was limited and not intended to overthrow the Syrian regime at the time, according to US statements. On the one hand, the regime’s response to the strike did not go beyond condemnation and criticism. Such a typical response by the Syrian regime toward US military operations in Syria was a sign that the regime did not want to open any direct military front against the United States. On the other hand, the regime attacked some targets of US allies inside Syria, as happened in 2016 against the Kurds.

Economic sanctions have been the most obvious weapon used by the administrations of Obama, Trump and Biden against the Syrian regime. Since 2011 up until 2022, US acts and sanctions have continuously targeted Syrian entities, personalities and companies, including senior politicians, economists, the entire Assad family and banks. Charges included establishing ties with Iran, which is subject to a broad range of US and Western sanctions, having economic relations with organizations designated as terrorist in the West, and carrying out and supporting military operations against Syrian cities and villages.

Syrian Regime's Strategy
US soldiers patrol an area near the northeastern Syrian town of al-Malikiya (Derik in Kurdish) on December 5, 2021. Delil souleiman / AFP

US sanctions issued against the Syrian regime reached a climax with a package of sanctions referred to as the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” issued in 2020. The act was named after a military photographer who defected from the Syrian regime in 2014 and leaked a large number of photos documenting thousands of deaths under torture in Syrian regime prisons. The Act most importantly imposed sanctions against any foreign person extending financial, material or technical support to the Syrian Government, in addition to sanctions against any person or group having a military role in support of the Syrian regime or Iranian or Russian forces operating in Syria. The sanctions also included entities that engage commercially with the regime, buying or selling from it, and those that conclude contracts for reconstruction in Syria.

The Caesar Act, as well as previous and subsequent laws, contributed to isolating the Syrian regime internationally. Likewise, the economic crisis and inflation, which reached major limits, were exacerbated by multiple shortages in resources, foreign exchange and services, causing the local currency to collapse to unprecedented levels.

The Syrian regime did not spare any effort to evade penal laws it was the target of, relying on two ways. The first was the support received from allied countries through huge financial loans obtained by Syrian entities to ensure the continuity of financial, economic and even military activities. The second, and most important, was the establishment of shell companies whereby real companies and personalities avoided penal laws and secured the continuity of their business in Syria.

Europe

The European position on what is happening in Syria since 2011 to the present can be summed up from what the webpage of the EU Delegation to Syria states, namely, that it believed in a political solution as a way out of the crisis and in the need for an “elimination of Da’esh” [Arabic acronym for IS] and other terrorist entities designated by the United Nations. This indicates that any European military intervention will be through the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS. As for the other aspects of the conflict, EU countries’ responses varied, with some extending humanitarian support, others advocating or sponsoring negotiations, still others participating in economic sanctions against the Syrian regime and other parties to the conflict.

The concerns of most European countries about the situation in Syria increased when arms were used at the onset of the protests. Some countries called for ending the violence and urged a political solution, while others condemned the Syrian regime and asked Assad to leave and give way to the Syrian opposition. France was on top of these countries and perhaps has had the clearest position in this regard.

The first and clearest response of the Syrian regime toward Europe was made by former Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who at the time called on the Syrian people to forget the European continent and consider that it did not exist on the map.

The Syrian regime has also taken advantage of terrorist factions such as IS and others to divert the attention of the United States away from itself. The terrorism card was used as a bridge for dealing with European countries, and perhaps the Syrian discourse directed at Europe implied a direct threat of using terrorism. Former Grand Mufti of Syria Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun threatened to send suicide bombers to the West in 2011.

Indeed, Europe has been preoccupied with combating terrorist operations on its soil, most of which were claimed by ISIS, especially in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Terrorism targeted civilian and vital positions in the Netherlands, France, Britain, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, and others.

Syrian Regime's Strategy
Thousands of asylum seekers are seen in queues waiting to register and enter the new temporary refugee camp on Lesbos island in Greece after the fire that destroyed the Moria refugee camp. Refugees and migrants are waiting in order to be tested for the Covid-19 virus after registering and people who have the virus are isolated in two specific areas. September 18, 2020. Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

The refugee issue also put pressure on Europe in view of the situation in Syria. Thousands of refugees from Syria have fled and still flee toward several European countries by different means. Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries found themselves in the face of waves of refugees fleeing their war-stricken homeland. At the time, some European countries leveled accusations against the Syrian regime and its Russian ally of using the refugee issue to pressure the West and destabilize Europe. In 2018, the Russian Foreign Minister said: “A small miscalculation in Syria may lead to new waves of immigrants.”

Since 2011, the EU has begun imposing forms of sanctions on different Syrian entities, barring specific personalities from entering EU countries, imposing economic sanctions against Syrian individuals and companies, or those cooperating with the Syrian regime, steps that were similar to the US. The EU position was clear, namely, that “it is not possible to normalize relations, lift sanctions, or start reconstruction before the Syrian regime carries out political transition and Security Council Resolution 2254 is fully implemented.”

The Syrian government had constantly criticized EU sanctions, with the regime repeatedly blaming them for the deteriorating conditions of the Syrian people, and even demanded the EU to pay compensation to the Syrian people as a result of imposing the sanctions.

Turkey

Syrian-Turkish relations have historically fluctuated. However, they experienced a golden time in the first decade of the 21st century. Bilateral ties started to improve with the signing of the Adana Agreement (a security deal) in 1998, and relations flourished into friendly ones after signing the Free Trade Agreement in 2004. Exchange of official visits began between Assad and then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the situation started to deteriorate in Syria, the Turkish government began calling on the Syrian regime to conduct a “national dialogue”. One year after the Syrian unrest broke out, Turkey closed its Embassy in Damascus and announced that diplomatic ties were put on hold. Soon, it began hosting conferences and sessions for Syrian opposition political blocs, and Erdogan called on Assad to step down.

Turkey quickly transformed from being a friend of the Syrian government to an enemy. In an interview with the Turkish newspaper “Cumhuriyet ” in July 2012, Assad expressed dissatisfaction over the Turkish position, accusing Turkey of involvement in “bloody events” and “providing logistical support for terrorists.”

During 2012 and onward, Turkey became a main suspect in everything happening, together with Arab and other foreign countries. Almost every speech by or press interview with an official or political analyst supporting Assad accused Turkey of supporting opposition armed groups and of conspiring to “overthrow the Syrian State.”

Syrian Regime's Strategy
Men dig a grave during the funeral of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on August 10, 2022, a day after the fighter was killed alongside three others in an air strike carried out by a Turkish drone. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had reported that the attack struck near a hospital in Qamishli, the de facto capital of a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration that runs large parts of the country’s northeast. The four victims were killed while they dug trenches near Turkey’s border in anticipation of a new offensive that Ankara has threatened to launch since May, the Observatory said. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

On the practical side, the clearest position of the Syrian regime in its hostility to Turkey was overlooking the emergence of Kurdish armed forces in areas of northeastern and western Syria, that is, on the Turkish border. Turkey considered these forces as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which it designates as a terrorist party and confronts it militarily in the areas which it has had influence. Although the Syrian regime called US-backed Kurdish forces “traitors”, it avoided military confrontation with them despite many places of proximity between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces in the cities and countryside of northeastern Syria.

The Kurdish forces and the Syrian Army have often been described as “allies” despite the constant Kurdish denial and arguing that the question of whether Assad will survive is not their business. The indifference of the Syrian government toward the spread of Kurdish forces and the emergence of Kurdish semi-autonomy were pressure cards raised by Assad’s regime in the face of Turkey.

Another issue that governed the relationship between the Syrian regime and Turkey pertained to the areas outside regime control, mostly governed by groups allied with Turkey. In fact, the regime’s relationship with Turkey in Idlib and its countryside can be said to be controlled by Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime. The Turkish and Russian armies were conducting joint patrols to ensure a ceasefire could be put in place following the agreement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the agreement, battles occasionally occurred between Turkish forces and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces, on the one hand, and the Syrian Army on the other hand.

Undoubtedly, the refugee issue – referred to as a means of pressure used by the Syrian government against Europe – was also used to apply pressure on Turkey, whose cities have the largest number of Syrian refugees. The Directorate General of Migration Management within the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs sets the number of Syrian refugees at 3,762,686 as of the end of April 2022.

In the spring of 2022, news circulated indicating the beginning of a rapprochement between the Syrian and Turkish governments, but such news and articles were mere speculation until Turkish official sources started talking about signs of new understandings with Damascus. This happened in parallel with repeated talk by Turkish officials about the imminent return of Syrian refugees to their country. This was one of several points raised within the context of relations between Damascus and Ankara. Undoubtedly, the activities of Kurdish forces in northern Syria came on top of these points.