August 22, 2019

The Foreign Policy Background to Syria’s Civil War

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a cabinet meeting.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a cabinet meeting.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a cabinet meeting.

Who are Syria’s closest friends and who are its enemies?

The riots that began in Syria in 2011 soon evolved into a revolt of local Sunni people against secular rule. With the intervention of neighbouring and Western countries, by 2012 the region had become the arena of a furtive war. Today, the number of local and foreign combatants killed in the hostilities is counted in the hundreds of thousands, while those who were forced to leave their homes number in the millions.

In addition to the “trench warfare”, at least a dozen levels of combat can be identified in Syria. On the religious front, the Alawi religion is desperately seeking to survive with the help of Shiites against the global Sunnism destroying the Nusayris and Rafidis (disparaging Sunni Islamic terms for the Alawis and Shiites). Ideologically, the Arab nationalism and Arab socialism cultivated by the Assads collide with Islamic extremist Wahhabism and Salafism and international jihadism invading from the east, and with the moneyed capitalism and colonialism attacking from the West, behind which, quite a few Syrians believe, “the ears of global Jewry” can be seen. In a fierce media war, Western media giants, in collaboration with the Sunni Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, attempt to create a fiction of “Assad murdering his own people”, in response to which Syrian state media, in collaboration with the Russian RT and Western alternative publications, indiscriminately label all rebels as Islamic extremists.

Angry confrontations take place in the “war of the fatwas”, in which Sunni imams proclaim everything related to the Assads as un-Islamic, to which Syria’s state imams and Shiite clerics all over the world keep issuing refuting counter-fatwas. But the Syrian theatres of war are far from limited to this: according to anti-government Sunni statistics, most civilians are killed at the hand of the Syrian regime and its allies, while Assad’s supporters come up with completely contrary figures; a similar war is being waged over mutual accusations of using chemical weapons and destroying hospitals and schools, to such an extent that it is impossible to consider them all in a single article.

Thus, this article seeks to look at just one perspective: the international aspect of the Syrian civil war and the question “who cooperates with whom”?

Syria’s “enemies” and “friends”  can be divided into four groups, each of which has clear leaders and collaborators.

1. Syria’s Enemies in the West

A symbolic declaration of war by the “Western front” against Syria is a statement made by the US, British and French leaders in August 2011 declaring that Syria’s future should be determined by its people but president Bashar al-Assad, who is opposed to people’s desire for democracy, was “standing in their way”.1 However, Assad—who had seen the failed attempts to export democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq—did not rush to hand over power to the Islamists. Thereupon, the Western countries, led by the US, recognised the Syrian National Coalition, based in Istanbul, as the only legitimate representative of Syria2 and began arming these Sharia ideology-based armed forces in the form of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), justifying this in the Western mass media as support for “moderate anti-regime forces”.

The US had already become an enemy of Syria as early as the 1970s, with its vigorous entry into Middle East politics through the Camp David peace accords. The low point of the relationship came with Washington’s accusations that Syria had connived with Hezbollah in 1983 to organise suicide attacks that cost the lives of nearly 300 Americans and to take dozens of Westerners hostage.

But relations miraculously improved in 1990, when the US needed an ally to isolate Iraq. Meetings between Hafez al-Assad and US secretary of state James Baker and then president George H.W. Bush led to any charges of terrorism against Syria being removed, after which Western citizens held hostage by Lebanese extremists for years were magically released. Pragmatic relations between the two countries lasted about a dozen years. Syria, which was fighting local Islamic extremism, provided the US with information collected by its intelligence services on individuals connected to al-Qaeda―information which, according to the Americans, exceeded all expectations and helped prevent major terrorist acts in the Middle East and the wider world—and Syria was temporarily “forgiven” for its support of extremist Shiite groups and its cooperation with Iran.

But Syria’s loud opposition to the US attack on Iraq in 2003 immediately secured it a place on the “axis of evil”.

Since 2012, the US has grown to be the biggest supporter and trainer of the Syrian Islamic rebels, and also their biggest supplier of weapons, while much of the aid aimed at overthrowing Assad has ended up in the hands of Islamic extremist groups. US policy in Syria during the administration of the Islamophile Barack Obama cannot be considered anything other than the shaping of a new Taliban, the lunacy of which Donald Trump has failed to stop despite his grandiose promises.

In France, relations with Syria, its former mandate territory, have been strained since the latter’s independence in 1946. The Syrians have so far been unable to forgive the French for playing large areas (the entire Hatay region and areas north of Aleppo) into the hands of Turkey, which France hoped to use to buy Turkish allegiance against the growing threat from Germany.

But France’s attempt to overcome its historical burden seemed to bear fruit in the decade before the Syrian civil war: president Jacques Chirac was the only Western leader to attend the funeral of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, and even cautiously attempted to back Syria on issues related to Lebanon in 2005; moreover, during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Bashar al-Assad paid a state visit to France in 2008.

However, relations deteriorated immediately under François Hollande (2012–17) who, in the opinion of Bashar al-Assad, began to worry too much about the welfare of the Islamists revolting against the central power. Hollande became the first Western leader to recognise the Islamist rebels (in November 2012), and France demanded a direct military intervention following the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013. The presidency of Emmanuel Macron has brought nothing new to the relationship.

Other Western nations express less anti-Syrian sentiments, recognising the government in exile of the rebels in Turkey, and are, rather, attempting to crush the Assad regime by covert operations, the best example being the activity of the White Helmets, an Islamic propaganda machine coordinated from the UK and funded by the Netherlands and the US, in ideologically exploiting the victims of the fighting.

Against the backdrop of Western attempts to overthrow Assad, the position of Israel, historically Syria’s main foreign-policy opponent, deserves attention, as Israel is doing nothing to contribute to the fall of the Syrian regime, being well aware that a state run by Islamic extremists would be a much worse alternative.

2. Syria’s Enemies in the Islamic World

Syria’s biggest enemies in the Islamic world are currently Turkey, which is reviving its former Ottoman glory and re-Islamising itself, and the oil-rich Wahhabi states of the Arabian Peninsula. They apply all the ideological practices adopted in the West to attack Assad and to use the historical hatred of the Sunni Islam against the Alawis.

Turkey. The former Syrian province of Hatay, which was lost to its northern neighbour in the late 1930s, is still a much more painful subject in Syria than the border laid down in the Tartu Peace Treaty is for Estonia. Turkey, however, accuses its southern neighbour of inciting the Hatay Alawi separatists, as well as the Kurds and Armenians. Although attempts were made in the 2000s to establish pragmatic communication, in 2011 relations deteriorated immediately following president Erdoğan’s statements about the oppression of Syrian Muslims by Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime. By 2012, Turkey had become the Syrian regime’s biggest enemy, with the Syrian rebel government-in-exile concentrated in Istanbul and Turkey becoming a stopover for jihadist internationalists heading to Syria. However, following the final collapse of the fiction of the FSA, Turkish interests in Syria—the “Assads’ Farm”—are being promoted by both the Turkish FSA and the Turkish regular army, which may remain there to protect its interests for as long as in northern Cyprus, for example.

Saudi Arabia and other Wahhabis on the Arabian Peninsula. In religious and ideological terms, the Syrian socialist Alawi regime is a complete nightmare for the Arab Peninsula’s oil-rich Wahhabis, the community of the richest but also the most xenophobic countries in the world. Although the Wahhabis used to consider Syria quite valuable because of its fierce anti-Israeli sentiment, in recent decades there has been an increasing perception of the Syrian regime as being un-Islamic.

Thus, in the wake of the Sunni riots in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates became major supporters of Islamic rebels in 2012. However, it was soon realised that volunteers who were sent to fight in Syria would become new Bin Ladens upon their return, so after a few years their citizens were banned from going to Syria and, at least on the national level, the flow of money to the rebels was shut down, and in 2018 there was even talk of allowing Syria to return to the family of Arab and Islamic states.

Historically, Syria has a tense relationship with its neighbour Jordan, which has repeatedly backed Syrian Islamists since the 1970s and criticises the Alawi sect in power in Syria. In the current civil war, Jordan actively supported the rebels, but in recent years, as the tables have turned in favour of Bashar al-Assad, Jordan is trying to wash its hands of the affair by proclaiming neutrality.

3. Syria’s Friends in the Islamic World

Syria’s greatest friends in the Islamic world are the Shiites led by Iran and by Hezbollah, its extension in Lebanon. Iraq, which has been turned into a Shiite country as a result of extraordinarily sloppy fumbling by the US, is now firmly in the circle of Syria’s friends. The Saudis are therefore not in vain in talking about the “Shiite axis”, a major threat stretching from eastern Afghanistan all the way to the Mediterranean. Following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, Syria may also consider Egypt a friend.

Because the Shiites accept the Alawis governing in Syria as Shiites (in Syrian terms, they are “Shiite Alawis”), the ideological rationale of Iran and other countries is to protect “their own people” from the Sunnis, and especially from the Wahhabis, who they claim distort the religion; a common language has also been found in counteracting the ambitions of “Western neocolonialism”.

Iran. In the early 1980s, at first glance, a strange alliance emerged in world politics between Iranian Ayatollahs, wearing turbans and practising medieval Shiite ideology, and Syrian socialists wearing jackets and ties. The reason for the friendship was geopolitical: Iraq was situated between them and was hated by both sides. The anti-imperialist stance of both Syria and Iran greatly contributed to the friendship. At first glance, the apparently insurmountable religious differences were alleviated by the fact that, between 1930 and 1970, first the French mandate government and then the Syrian authorities had the Alawis declared as Shiites by their Iranian and Iraqi Shiite scholars to be better suited for Syria. The Alawis, practising their religion for centuries in the guise of religious pretence, had nothing against this, nor was it difficult for the wholly secular Assad clan in power in Syria to claim to Iran that they were Shiites.

Syria became a bridgehead for Iran in defending the Lebanese Shiites and, through them, establishing Iranian influence in the Levant, with the ultimate goal of destroying the root of all evil “plaguing the Islamic world”.

By 2011 the friendly nature of relations was demonstrated by visa-free travel between Iran and Syria, active cooperation in all areas at the national level, and a healthy flow of tourists between the Big Brother and the Little Brother.

In the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, Iran sparked unrest in Western-minded Tunisia and Egypt, defining what was happening there as a legitimate Muslim pursuit of freedom from oppressors, but declared what was happening in Syria a foreign conspiracy.3 In 2011 Iran began supplying Syria with raw materials, money, weapons and special forces; since 2013, Iranian high clerics have been urging Shiites to protect their brothers in faith in Syria, including by paying for both Iraqi and Afghan Shiite anabases to go to war. However, this help comes at a price: Iran proclaims, with the arrogance of a Big Brother, that without the Iranians, Bashar al-Assad would have been overthrown long ago,4 and Syria’s vigorous grassroots turning to Shiism in recent years marks Iran’s new victory on the religious front after Iraq.

Iraq. Although the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party had been in power in Iraq, just as in Syria, since the 1960s, based on power issues the two countries hated each other as passionately as  Stalin’s coterie waged war against the Trotskyists decades earlier or al-Qaeda competes with ISIS today. In the Syrian press, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was derogatorily called the “Tribalistic Clique of Tikrit”, and Iraq reciprocated by referring to Syria as the “Assad Clan Gang”.

Although Syria supported the international coalition against Iraq in 1990–1, in the UN it tried in 2003 to prevent the attack against its own enemy, Iraq, until the last minute, by warning against the inevitable concomitant rise of Islamic extremism (it subsequently accepted about two million Iraqi refugees).

Following the execution of Saddam Hussein and the Shiites taking power in Iraq, relations between the two countries immediately improved, and Iraq became one of Syria’s few loyal Arab allies in the civil war. Before the rise of ISIS in 2014, numerous Iraqi Shiites fought on the side of the Syrian government, and their assistance was crucial for the survival of the Assad regime during the critical period of 2012–13; now, even an agreement on Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian military cooperation has been signed.

Another loyal ally of Syria is Hezbollah, a regional extension of Iran based in Lebanon. Its proportional losses (about 2,000 killed out of about 30,000 members) in the Syrian conflict are the largest after the Alawis (the total number of Alawis is about two million, of whom about 150,000 have now fallen in the fight against Islamic extremists). Of its old friends, Syria still has Algeria as a relic of secularism and socialism in the Islamic world.

Egypt. Syria’s relations with Egypt worsened as a result of another Arab-Israel war in 1973, in which Egypt’s treacherous actions led to Syria losing the Golan Heights to Israel, following which Egypt signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1978—adding insult to injury. The then president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, replaced Nasserist socialism with a pro-Western foreign policy, and replaced domestic policy with Islam, and did not hide his anger against the secular Assads by declaring in his public appearances that Syria was led  by “filthy Alawis”.5 Under Hosni Mubarak (president from 1982 to 2011) diplomatic relations were restored; however, they were broken once more when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012 and the Sunni clerics of Cairo again backed Syrian Islamic rebels with statements about “Islamic enemies Syrian Alawis”.6 But since the overthrow of the Brotherhood by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, Egypt has become a strong ally in Syria’s fight against Islamic extremism.

4. Syria’s Friends Outside the Islamic World

Syria’s greatest friends alongside Iran can be found in the former—and current—socialist camp, headed by Russia. Syria, which since the 1960s has been cultivating “Arab socialism”, became a natural ally for the Soviet Union and its main foothold in the Middle East during the Cold War. Convergence had begun in the 1950s, and after Egypt’s turn to the West with the assumption of power by Sadat, Syria became a loyal ally of the Soviet Union/Russia, where Assad father and son were trained as fighter pilots.

In 1971, when Hafez al-Assad came to power, the Russians gained the only Mediterranean naval base in the port of Tartus, and a friendship agreement signed in 1980 (expressly guaranteeing Soviet military intervention in the event of a military offensive in Syria)7 resulted in the creation of a community of hundreds of thousands of socialist brethren in Syria and the conduct of important military training. Russian instructors and state-of-the-art weaponry were effective in suppressing the 1978–82 Sunni uprising, which can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the current Islamist revolt. Hafez al-Assad, who rushed to Brezhnev’s funeral in November 1982, renewed his alliance in a private conversation with Andropov so successfully that thereafter a telegram to Moscow was all that was needed to bring in new weapons.8

After decades of slumping relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “brother nations” have now found each other again, and Syria has become the centre of Russia’s international “return doctrine”. Russia has cleared most of Syria’s 15 billion-dollar outstanding debt, has been supporting Syria politically since the outbreak of the civil war and, since 2015, has defended it against Islamic extremists with its air force in the skies and numerous advisers on the ground. In return, Russia will receive Syria’s full support over Georgia and Ukraine and its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Under an agreement signed in 2017, Russia acquired the naval port of Tartus for half a century with complete extraterritoriality. Without exaggeration it could be argued that, absent Russia’s help, Bashar al-Assad would have been overthrown; at best, he would have been left to rule the 1920s–30s-era Protectorate “Alawi State” along the coastal strip from Latakia to Tartus, and in the worst case scenario up to several million Alawis would have fallen victim to the sad plight of religious minorities under Sunni extremism.

Apart from Russia, China is Syria’s main eastern supporter, vetoing international condemnation of the regime and concluding lucrative contracts for post-civil war reconstruction; and, of course, it has an interest in Uighurs fighting in Islamist ranks. For half a century, Syria has been able to consider as a close ally North Korea, whose specialists were to build a nuclear power plant that was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007. Kim Jong-un’s people are said to be involved in establishing “gymnastics programmes” for the Syrian army. Thus, the Assadists have maintained good relations with nearly all their former friends from the socialist camp, starting with India, the Central Asian republics, Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba, Myanmar and Belarus, and ending with the most diverse company—Burundi and Zimbabwe.


1 Barack Obama, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way”, 18 August 2011. Washington DC: The White House.

2 Üllar Peterson, “Süüria Kodusõja Ideoloogilistest Manipulatsioonidest”, Sojateadlane (Estonian Journal of Military Studies) 5 (2007), pp. 243–307 [267].

3 Ali Parchami, “The ‘Arab Spring’: the view from Tehran”, Contemporary Politics 18(1) (2012), pp. 35–52.

4 “Senior Iranian commander: Assad would have been toppled without Iran’s support”. Middle East Monitor, 18 April 2014.

5 Nikolaos Van Dam, “Middle Eastern Political Clichés: ‘Takriti’ and ‘Sunni rule’ in Iraq; ‘Alawi rule’ in Syria. A Critical Appraisal”. Orient [German Journal for Politics and Economics of the Middle East] 21(1) (January 1980), pp. 42–57 [42, note 1].

6 Matthew Barber, “Clerics in Egypt Call for Global Jihad Against Regime’s Shiite Allies, Egypt Cuts Syria Ties”. Syria Comment, 17 June 2013,

7 ред. В. А. Золотарев, “Россия (СССР) в локальных войнах и военных конфликтах второй половины XX века”. Кучково поле: Полиграфресурсы, 2000.

8 Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 398–400.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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