Ever since the Middle East emerged as a geopolitical term in the 1940s it has nurtured myths that have perturbed the analysis of events in the region.
One myth is that there could be no war without Egypt.
The past half a century shows a different picture.
The eight-year Iran and Iraq war did not involve Egypt. Nor was Egypt engaged in the war over Western Sahara. The wars to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait and then to topple Saddam Hussein had no Egyptian input. More recently the mini-wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon occurred without Egypt.
And all that, not to mention the civil war in Yemen and Algeria and that Turkey’s 30 years of war against the PKK.
One might also mention 32 years of war in Afghanistan.
The above myth has a sister.
It is that there could be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.
Yet, we have seen Egypt and Jordan make peace with Israel without Syria. We have also seen the Palestine Liberation Oganisation becoming engaging Israel in a peace process. The Pax-Americana in Afghanistan and Iraq after the fall of the Taliban in Kabul and the Ba’athists in Baghdad have nothing to do with Syria.
The two myths have cousins.
One is that Syria is the arrowhead of resistance against Israel.
Facts reveal a different picture. Since 1967 no one has attacked Israel from Syrian territory. One reason Yasser Arafat broke with Damascus was that Damascus would not allow any operations from Syria.
Visitors to northern Israel are surprised by the lack of military muscle in the Golan Heights while a heavy Israeli military presence is maintained along the ceasefire line with Lebanon. Clearly, Israelis expect no attacks from Syria while they regard “terrorist operations” from Lebanon as a constant threat.
Israelis describe the ceasefire line with Syria as their “most secure border”. Today, many Israeli commentators express concern about possible regime change in Syria. In a recent article, the daily Haaretz warned that the fall of Assads could be a threat to Israel.
Another cousin-myth is that the Syrian regime belongs to the “anti-Imperialist” left.
But does it?
The coup led by Hafiz al-Assad, then Commander of the air force, in 1970 was a move by the right wing of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party against the left led by Salah Jadid.
As a young officer, Assad had joined the Ba’ath which, at the time, was modelled on European extreme-right movements such as the Fascist Party in pre-war Italy. Ba’ath’s chief theoretician, and one of its founders, Michel Aflaq was a classical fascist. It was when the Arab Socialist Party of Akram Haurani merged with the Ba’ath that the new party acquired a leftist allure. Even after the fusion, the original Ba’athists retained their rightist profile.
In 1970, Tehran, under the Shah, and Washington, under President Richard Nixon, regarded Assad’s coup as a setback for the Soviet Union.
Assad underlined Syria’s change of direction by refusing assistance to Palestinians in Jordan during the Black September massacres.
With the leftist wing of the Syrian regime eliminated, the Shah’s government moved to normalise relations with Damascus. One measure was the lifting of the ban on travel by journalists to Syria. That enabled me to go to Damascus for an interview with Assad. The result was published under the headline “Syria’s Liberal Hour”.
An hour with Assad had left the impression that Syria was moving away from the leftist policies espoused by President Nureddin al-Atasi, Premier Yussef al-Zuayyen and “sorngman” Jadid.
Relations warmed up soon and Iran started propping up the Assad regime with cut-price oil and an annual aid package totalling $150 million. In 1975 during the Islamic Summit, I was present at a meeting between President Assad and Iran’s Foreign Minister Abbas Ali Khalatbari. Assad, who talked endlessly, harped on the theme of
” two threats to both of us: religious extremists and misguided Communists.”
It was an amazing experience. I have seldom seen such a dramatic difference between what a political leader says in private and what he utters in public.
I comforted myself by arguing that Assad was a “realist” practising a balancing act. He had to maintain the domination of his minority in the name of “resistance” to please the majority while adopting a radical rhetoric to outflank the left. What was important was that he had stopped supporting anti-Iranian terrorists and kicked anti-Shah exiles out of Syria.
Under Assad, Syria became the only Arab military regime not to sign a military pact with Moscow. It also broke talks, began in 1968, about mooring rights for the Soviet navy in Syrian ports. In contrast, Iraq invited the Soviet Navy to Um al-Kasar, its only port on the Gulf.
Assad burnished his anti-left credentials in other ways, including the destruction of the left in Syria. By 1973 Syrian leftist parties had disappeared in all but name. Some he bought, others he forced into compliance, and still others he pushed into exile.
He crushed the left in Lebanon by dismantling some and silencing others. In some cases, such as that of the leading figure of the Lebanese left Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze leader, assassination was the method used.
Whenever the US needed help, Assad was there. As Henry Kissinger shows in his memoirs, Assad’s intervention in Lebanon came with a nod from Washington with the aim of flushing out the PLO and wiping out Nasserist and other anti-American armed groups. In 1990, Syria was in the forefront of the US-led coalition in the first Gulf War.
Assad was rewarded by becoming the only Arab military ruler to have one-on-one summits with US presidents from Nixon to Bill Clinton. George W Bush ended that tradition by rejecting Assad’s demand for a meeting.
No region is free of political myths and ours is no exception. And as old myths fade, new ones take their place.
The current popular uprising in Syria signals the end of the myths spun around it since 1970. That might foster a better understanding of the past and a clearer vision of the future.