by: Sami Moubayeds
After 9-11, American intellectuals began asking the question: “Why do they hate us?” A better question for today’s world would be: “Why don’t they trust us?” If one were to dig through history, a million answers would arise, starting with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration, reaching up to the 2003 war on Iraq. The US, simply put, has repeatedly called on Arabs to come to its aid, in combating Nazism during World War, Communism during the Cold War, Khomenism since 1979, and global terrorism since 2001. Never for once, however, did the US lift a finger to help Arabs challenge the one thing that has kept them awake at night, for the past 62-years, being Zionism. On the contrary, it systematically did the exact opposite, using its heavyweight influence at the UN, among world capitals, and within the Arab world itself, to ensure a peaceful and sustainable environment for Israel, in which it can flourish and grow.
Probably because of the West’s colonialist past, when we think of the outside world as Arabs, what immediately comes to mind is Great Britain and France, or the superpower that replaced them after WWII, being the United States. Five years ago, Syria’s relations with all three countries hit rock bottom, during the difficult years of the Bush White House. A foreign policy orientation began to emerge in Damascus, saying that the outside world does not stop at the gates of Paris, London, and Washington DC. There was an entire world out there filled with heavyweight nations willing to step into the oversized shoes of the Western world. The list of potential allies was long, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina in Latin America, onto Turkey, Malaysia, India, China, and Russia. All of these countries were willing to do business with Syria, with no preconditions. These countries had emerging and very promising economies, were willing to engage, and happened to share views on topics that were dear to Syria’s heart, vis-à-vis liberation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, for example, and lifting the siege of Gaza.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a respected Syrian intellectual who now serves as presidential advisor on media affairs, wrote an article five years ago, outlining this approach. “Perhaps the time has come to bring the Arabs, from a state of complete submission to the hostile West, towards the East and countries that share with us values, interests and orientation.” She then asked: “What did we get from the West, to which the Arabs affiliated themselves for the entire past century, except for occupation, hatred and war?” She made reference to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, one of the many champions of the East, who similarly “headed East” towards Japan, Korea and China when reforming his country between 1981 and 2003. It was only logical for Syria to pursue this policy even after relations began to mend with the US and Europe from 2008 onwards. The West, after all, had collectively wronged Syria under orders from Bush White House in 2005-2008–blaming it for instability in Lebanon and Iraq, accusing it of murdering ex-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and steering clear from engagement with Damascus so as not to cross George W. Bush. When US planes stormed into Syria, violating international law by killing innocent Syrian civilians on the border with Iraq in 2008, for example, the entire West looked the other way. It would have been madness for the Syrians to focus on relations with the US after 2009 when an entire universe was out there, heralding an entire new world order.
The heading East policy had begun to crystallize during the high profile visit by President Bashar al-Assad to Malaysia in 2003 and was taken to new heights with a similar trip to India in 2008.
All of that coincided with a concentrated effort to boost political and economic ties with Turkey, a regional heavyweight in its own right, whose bilateral trade with Syria stands at US$1.5 billion and which is expected to reach $5 billion, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One year ago, Syria and Turkey signed 47 trade agreements and lifted visa requirements between both countries, with Erdogan famously telling the Syrians, “Cooperate with us [in economy and business] and we will extract milk, even from the male goat.” Trade with China, for example, currently stands at $2.2 billion, while Syrian imports from Malaysia are $119 million, with bilateral trade at $156.7 million. With numbers like these, ordinary Syrians were asking: who needs an Association Agreement with Europe?
In 2010, President Assad welcomed the presidents of Pakistan, Russia, and India in Damascus and paid high profile visits to Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. Last summer he visited Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been to Syria three times, the last being two months ago, and during Assad’s visit to Caracas, the two countries decided to boost bilateral trade and create a $100 million fund for development. In Argentina, the trade volume already stands at $158 million and Argentinean exports to Syria have increased by 75 percent over the past two years. Politically, one common denominator for all these countries is their vocal support for Syria’s right to restore the occupied Golan Heights. All of them, additionally, are loud supporters of the Palestinians. Chavez severed his countries diplomatic relations with Israel during the Gaza war of 2008; Turkey did it during the Freedom Flotilla incident last June, while Cuba does not even recognize the State of Israel.
Being close to one country — if it supports Syria’s aspirations — does not mean severing ties with another, only because that is a wish of the Obama Administration. Clearly the US is un-impressed with these countries stepping into what since 2003 Washington considers its own backyard. This is very true, for example, for Syrian-Cuban relations, which are arousing a stir in Washington where many have asked: “We can understand Venezuela and Brazil; but why Cuba?” The reason, Syria seemed to be saying, is: why severe our relations with Cuba and Iran — or not invest in them — so long as Cuba and Iran have done nothing to anger us as a people and nation? The same argument, do doubt, applies to Brazil and Venezuela. The US cannot continue to warmly welcome Avigodor Liebermann to Washington DC, for example, and then expect the Syrians not to maintain a historical relationship, for example, with countries like Iran, Argentina, and Cuba.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is also a writer, political analyst, and historian, based in Damascus. His articles on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria appear regularly in The Daily Star, Asia Times, Al-Hayat, Gulf News, al-Ahram Weekly, and The Washington Post. He lectures frequently at the Assad National Library on the founding years of the Syrian Republic, in association with the Friends of Damascus Society and appears regularly on Syrian TV, Al-Jazeera, and BBC.