Winston Churchill made an elaborate but astute observation regarding Russia in a radio broadcast in October 1939:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Step forward seventy years and it’s not too great a leap of the imagination to make the same observation of Syria – though you might argue that the Syrian national interest bears a close correlation to the interests of Bashar al-Assad.
N. Mozes of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has compiled a comprehensive series of media reports that quote Syrian politicians and officials on Syria’s evolving regional and global political relations. The article, “Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int’l Role – The Triumph of the ‘Course of Resistance’”, reveals a Syria that has grown immeasurably in confidence, with a determination to resist what it sees as Western interference in its regional politics.
If you are interested in the politics of the Middle East, I urge you to read it.
Syria’s diplomatic bravura is understandable in terms of the politics of local alliances and attempting to forge a distinct and US-independent stabilising force in the region, along Islamic lines.
It is also entirely in keeping with the egoistical nature of Bashar’s regime. Hitherto, Damascus has been regarded by many as Ba’athist in name rather than principle. However, Syria’s posturing and tightened grip on matters of internal security (in obvious violation of its civil and political rights obligations in international law) has provided Syria, as the only regional power run by the Ba’ath Party, with a beacon status with which to lead a foreign policy that is based on revitalised Ba’athist ideals of pan-Arab nationalism.
In my view, domestic suppression is part of the code of that diplomatic flexing, demonstrating in its publicly loud prevarication over the EU-Syria Mediterranean Agreement that it will not see its economic interests subordinated to Western ideals of civil society. The careful switch of language regarding the US that Mozes identifies, from enemy to adversary, shows Bashar understanding that the West are desperate to engage Syria but that, at the same time, by maintaining a measure of distance he can enhance his credibility as the emerging leader of the region.
This, to my mind, can only have worrying consequences for those like Kamal al-Labwani who advocate peaceful and democratic reform of Syria’s politics. He and others would appear to be exemplars of Bashar’s policy of resistance. If Bashar’s goal is consolidation of his regional status, he will be in no hurry to release those detained for democratic politics redolent of the West (and Israel), except maybe on an exceptional basis to titillate those European politicians determined to spot reformist intentions in the Syrian regime whatever the regional political weather (and cost to their own diplomatic credibility). If this is the case, maintaining the international spotlight on their plight is even more important.
The fact that the EU are so ready to embrace the EU-Syria Mediterranean Agreement suggest that Bashar’s ploy of deft belligerence is working and the diplomatic pressures that those of us concerned about the fate of Kamal al-Labwani, Anwar al-Bunni, Hatham al-Maleh and Ma’an Aqil wish to see exerted will not emerge. The UK, like its EU partners, is in danger of being suckered.
I hope I am very wrong.