Assad Walls off West with BRICS and then there’s Trump
BEIRUT — Ten years ago, the Syrian government began implementing a Heading East policy, aimed at solidifying its relationship with countries other than the United States and EU members — an initiative that has paid off handsomely for Syrian President Bashar Assad and helped him defy his foreign foes.
Syria’s state-controlled media marketed the look-eastward policy on the basis that Western opposition was linked to the region’s stormy colonial past, when France, Britain and Italy swept into the Middle East with the fall of the Ottoman empire after the first world war.
The French colonised Syria and Lebanon for nearly three decades after years of occupying Algeria and Morocco, while the British ran Egypt, Palestine and Iraq in the post-Ottoman era. The Italians sought to colonise Libya.
The United States, which became Israel’s chief benefactor, intervened in the region during the Suez crisis of 1956 and more disastrously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2005, the Syrian government daily Tishreen proclaimed in an editorial: “There is an entire new world out there waiting to be explored and its members are eager to cooperate without taking dictates and ultimatums from the United States.”
The newspaper was referring to an association of five emerging and powerful economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — collectively known as BRICS.
All are Group of 20 members distinguished by fast-growing industrial economies. Together they represent more than 3.6 billion people — half the world’s population — and have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $16.6 trillion, equivalent to approximately 22% of the world’s GDP.
The shift to BRICS was a direct reaction to the dramatic slump in Syria’s relations with the West that followed the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Paris and London blamed Damascus for the killing but BRICS countries did not support the UN-engineered Syrian military exodus from Lebanon and refused to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus.
They continued to see eye-to-eye with Damascus over supporting paramilitary groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. None was critical of Syrian-Iranian relations and all backed Syria’s position in the peace process with Israel.
Although Syrian-US relations improved slightly when Barack Obama became US president in 2009, they quickly collapsed after the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011.
Before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent military forces to support Assad in September 2015, BRICS countries collectively lobbied against US air strikes on Syria. Today, they still stand firmly behind Assad’s government, refusing to support regime change in Damascus.
In August, China sent a senior military officer to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism. Beijing’s main concern was the 200 Muslim Uighur jihadists operating in northern Syria, affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS).
One of them, an Istanbul-educated fighter, had returned from Aleppo to Xinjiang in north-western China and was arrested while allegedly planning terrorist attacks.
Beijing provided the Syrians with intelligence on the Chinese jihadists, with requests for their arrest or extermination before they could return to China.
China has provided the Syrian Army with advisers and weapons. In October 2015, Beijing hosted a top Assad adviser and in March named Xie Xiaoyan, a former ambassador to Iran, as special representative to Syria.
The Chinese embassy in Damascus functions at ambassadorial level and China has used its veto in the UN Security Council three times to defeat French and Saudi-backed resolutions against Damascus.
One reason for this support comes from China’s excellent relationship with Putin, who signed a treaty of friendship with Beijing in 2001. This was perceived by many as a defence pact because it gave China access to Russian military technology.
In the spring, Putin travelled to Beijing for the 15th time since he emerged as Russia’s strongman in 2000.
In the summer, India’s minister of state for Foreign Affairs went to Damascus, carrying yet another message of support from BRICS.
Like China, India did not close its embassy and, after receiving Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in New Delhi, it has agreed to jump-start economic projects with Damascus.
As a reward, Damascus provided India with lists and coordinates of Indian jihadis operating with ISIS around Aleppo and Idlib in north-western Syria.
The Indian push towards Damascus followed an ISIS attack in neighbouring Bangladesh in July in which 28 civilians, including an Indian citizen, were killed.
For now, Syria’s Heading East policy has paid off for Damascus as BRICS countries have rallied around Syria when most countries were refusing to talk to, let alone recognise, the Assad government.
However, this might change if the West opens up to Syria after Donald Trump is inaugurated as US president on January 20 and with the possible election of François Fillon as president of France later in 2017.
If France and the United States ever normalise relations with Damascus and EU countries follow suit based on a common policy of combating ISIS, will the Syrians shift focus back towards the imperial West, despite its recent hostility and colonial past, or is Russia too deeply entrenched in Syria to allow that to happen?
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and frequent contributor to The Arab Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
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