Middle East

Syria and the ‘Resistance’ Bloc: Buddies No More

This is a cross post by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As Assad’s regime has intensified its brutal methods in cracking down on the Syrian uprising that began on March 15, 2011, one notable development has been the souring of relations between Syria and the “resistance” bloc members.

To recall, the “resistance” bloc is the Iranian-led group of entities aiming to alter the status quo in the present Middle Eastern Cold War, as opposed to what is often dubbed the more “moderate” bloc spearheaded by Saudi Arabia ( and Egypt before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February).

The “resistance” bloc has traditionally comprised Iran, Turkey, Hamas, Syria (and the pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon), Qatar, and Oman, though it would be more accurate to characterize the last two members as playing both sides in the Middle Eastern Cold War.  For instance, although Qatar maintains close economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, it also hosts CENTCOM, allows the U.S. to keep military bases in the country, and has limited relations with Israel.  Qatar is wary of Iranian power and influence, and accordingly, the nation throws in its lot with neither side.  Iraq likewise has close ties with the Iranian regime but in effect “sits in the wings” (to quote Daniel Pipes) of the “resistance” bloc.

In any case, it is undeniable that over the past couple of months, Qatar has slowly transformed from a staunch ally of Syria into a harsh critic.  This is evident in the Qatari media’s change of tune.  When unrest in Syria first arose, the Qatari media largely refrained from taking sides.  However, as Assad began resorting increasingly to violent suppression of demonstrations, editorials vociferously condemned the government’s actions and urged the president to implement fundamental reforms as soon as possible.

For example, in the Qatari daily Al-Arab, the editors opined that Assad’s government “had pinned its hopes [for survival] on its years of oppression and maltreatment of the Syrian people […] but reality has refuted the false claims of the Damascus regime, and the Syrian people has proven that its liberty is more [important] than anything” [1].

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic news channel quickly expanded coverage of the events, and the program’s analysts such as Israeli-Palestinian bureau chief Walid Al-‘Omari harshly criticized the Syrian regime.  Likewise, Yousef Al-Qaradawi, host of the channel’s “Shari’a and Life” show, expressed his support for the Syrian protesters on March 25, 2011, and called for the removal of the Ba’ath party from power.

In response, Assad reportedly told the Qatari emir’s emissary that there would be no further meetings between Syria and Qatar until the latter issued an official apology for Al-Qaradawi’s statements [2].

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Iran has claimed that the Syrian protests are an American-Zionist conspiracy to split the “resistance” bloc” [3] and are, according to the U.N. Security Council, in violation of the U.S. arms embargo on shipping weapons to Syria, elements of the Iranian regime have not refrained from criticizing Assad, either.  In particular, the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is affiliated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, described the Syrian security forces’ actions as “brutal,” lacking the “insight required to deal with limited popular demonstrations,” and only causing the protests to spread elsewhere [4].  In a similar vein, the Iranian foreign ministry (without the slightest consideration of its own hypocrisy) called on Assad to implement reform and warned that failure to do so would further undermine Iran’s currently tottering alliance with Syria [5].

In addition, Lebanese media in favor of the ruling, pro-Syrian “March 8 Alliance” (which includes the Shi’ite Islamist Hezbollah faction) expressed great disappointment at Assad’s response to the Syrian protests.  Nonetheless, Hezbollah has so far maintained a diplomatic silence on the Syrian uprising.

A case in point is the newspaper Al-Safir, in which columnist Talal Salman wrote:

For Lebanon’s security and unity, in addition to my concern for Syria and for its special status and role in our region, I appeal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to end this downward spiral of events, to immediately make good on his promise for reforms, and to authorize critical measures, before these violent developments are exploited in order to thwart plans for the future by those who believe in a security approach. [6]

Turkey has actively tried to persuade Assad to end his campaign of brutal suppression of the protests, and Turkey recently sent a delegation to Syria to advise the government on how to carry out political reform.  This has yielded no worthwhile results.  Though the Turkish leadership initially had a rather muted response to the Syrian regime’s actions, its later, unequivocal calls for Assad to exercise restraint have been ignored.  It is therefore no surprise that Turkey has essentially abandoned hopes of preserving good relations with Assad.

The one major faction of the resistance bloc that seems to have declared support for the Syrian regime is Hamas, which issued a statement two weeks after the uprising began to emphasize Syria’s support for the terrorist group [7].  Yet even here, a gray area exists, as Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor Tariq Alhomayed and Al-Arabiya TV general-director ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote that one of the reasons behind the Hamas-Fatah peace deal was the deterioration in Hamas-Syria relations [8].  Furthermore, it was reported that Hamas’s leadership decided in May to relocate from Syria [9].

All the evidence thus points to the fact that the Syrian uprising is in Israel’s best interest, regardless of the eventual outcome.  Assuming (as is most likely) that the Syrian army sticks with Assad, thereby allowing the dictator to retain power and defeat the demonstrations, it follows that the Ba’athist government will survive, but with an end to the formal alliance with key members of the “resistance” bloc.

Moreover, in Lebanon, there will be tensions between pro-Syrian factions, with Hezbollah’s and its supporters’ tacit approval of Assad’s tactics on one hand, as opposed to the other pro-Syrian groups’ disappointment at the regime’s repressive methods.  This will of course reduce the risks posed to Israel’s security from the north.

Hamas may well wish to have friendly ties to Syria if Assad triumphs over the protesters, but such a move will only alienate other members of the “resistance” bloc and probably harm relations between Hamas and its supporters in the “resistance” camp.

Even in the scenario wherein Sunni Islamists seize power in Syria after the Ba’athist regime falls, it is unlikely that they will want Syria to rejoin the “resistance” bloc.  After all, they will associate it with past support for the Alawite minority that disguised its anti-Sunni despotism under the veil of pan-Arab nationalism, just as the Iraqi Ba’athist regime’s ideology was a façade for Sunni Arab minority rule at the expense of the Shi’ite majority.

The ideal result of the Syrian uprising would be a secular, liberal-democratic government that eschews Arab nationalism and Islamism in favor of Syrian nation-state patriotism and is willing to establish a lasting peace with Israel.  However, even if this outcome does not arise, the best thing about the Syrian uprising is that it has divided the “resistance” bloc, which is of enormous benefit to Israel.


[1] Al-Arab (Qatar), April 24, 2011

[2] Al-Watan (Syria), April 10, 2011

[3] Fars (Iran), April 3, 2011

[4] Kayhan (Iran), May 5, 2011

[5] Mehr (Iran), May 6, 2011

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 11, 2011

[7] See palestine-info.info, April 2, 2011

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 11, 2011

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 9, 2011

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