Talk delivered at the ATFP/Carnegie Endowment briefing, "Owning a Piece of Palestine: Syria’s Assad Regime and the Palestinian Question," July 27, 2011. For an audio recording and full transcript of the event, click here.
The policies of the Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad regimes in Syria have systematically undermined independent Palestinian national leadership and asserted control over the Palestinian cause and movement. These policies did not arise in a vacuum, but rather are a continuation and intensification of traditional Syrian approaches to the question of Palestine. These Syrian efforts to “own a piece of Palestine" — if not the whole thing, at least as an issue — are not unique among the Arab states. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others have also been involved in efforts to deploy this issue in the service of their own foreign policies. None, however, has been as adamant about its right to define and control the Palestinian issue, the subordination of that issue to a broader Arab agenda which it also defines, and to consistently oppose and undercut the independent Palestinian leadership by supporting opposition movements first from the far left and more recently the religious right under the Orwellian rubric of “independent opposition.”
As the Ottoman Empire was being dismantled following World War I, most Syrians, Palestinians and other Arabs regarded Palestine as “Southern Syria,” and particularly during the era of Prince Faisal's rule in Damascus, agitated for the “reunification” of a greater Syria as opposed to the creation of several independent states. Faisal was seen as the one leader who might unite a broad alliance of Arabs to both unify a "greater Syria" and, from a Palestinian point of view, be the vanguard of a broad-based Levantine opposition to Zionist ambitions. Over time, however, the Palestinian national movement gained an increasing sense of independence in several stages. First, after the downfall of Faisal, there was a need to focus on defending Palestine from Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state rather than reunification with the rest of "greater Syria." Second, before, during and immediately after the establishment of Israel, several Arab states, particularly Syria, Egypt and Jordan were maneuvering to try to both mitigate the damage it caused to them and to foreclose each other's ambitions.
After the collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961, and particularly the crushing defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, Palestinians were confronted by the unavoidable necessity of creating independent national institutions and decision-making. Several Arab states sought to control this process, but Palestinians proved adept in playing one off against the other to gain as much space as possible. Syrian governments initially supported Fatah as an insurgent challenge to the first incarnation of the PLO, but rapidly turned against the organization, at least at the ideological level. From the 60s through the 90s, Palestinians were divided between three main perspectives: 1) independent nationalists led by Fatah; 2) Arab nationalists led by the PFLP; 3) Marxist-Leninists led by the PDFLP. Syrian regimes strongly preferred the second two groupings, but even more their own self-created "Palestinian" institutions, particularly the PFLP-GC and As-Sa'iqa, as well as Syrian dominated elements of the Palestine Liberation Army. All three of these forces came to blows with the mainstream national leadership throughout the decades.
This pattern was intensified following the establishment of the Baathist regime by Hafez Al-Assad in the early 1970s. As a Baathist, Assad was by definition part of the absolutist Arab nationalist camp, however within the Baath party he was leader of a pragmatic and Syria-first camp. From these twin and often seemingly contradictory ideological positions he continuously harassed the PLO for decades, frequently accusing its leadership of treason and betrayal of the Arab and Palestinian causes, while at the same time unabashedly asserting particular Syrian national interests and imperatives, including occasionally bluntly resurrecting the assertion that Palestine remains, in essence, “southern Syria.” This ideological oscillation between maximalist, absolutist forms of Arab nationalism and strident assertions of Syrian particularism and primacy gave the Assad regime a unique ability to harass independent Palestinian national leadership on multiple fronts simultaneously.
The main Syrian ideological position, or the one repeated most consistently, was that the Palestinian cause was subordinate to a broader Arab revolution, and that Palestinians should be a vanguard of transformation in the entire Arab world first, before their own cause was attended to. The PLO, particularly under Yasser Arafat, essentially took the contradictory stance that while Arab states and societies had a responsibility to assist the Palestinian cause by whatever means possible, the Palestinians nonetheless had a completely free hand in decision-making. In early decades, this PLO expectation included launching attacks against Israel from the territory of those states, with or without permission. Plainly neither of these stances is, on its face, politically functional or defensible, and reflects not only strongly opposing but also fundamentally unreasonable positions.
The Assad regime also repeatedly confronted the Palestinian national leadership with force, including numerous assassinations, proxy conflicts and occasionally direct armed conflict. This was most dramatically expressed in Lebanon, where in the 1970s the Syrians consistently sided with anti-PLO elements and militarily intervened on behalf of forces confronting the Palestinians and their allies. It was even more starkly revealed by strong Syrian backing for Lebanese Shiite forces, as well as direct military intervention by their own forces, in the “war of the camps” when the PLO tried to reassert its presence in Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion. However, despite decades of relentless effort, the Syrians were never able to gain control of the Palestinian movement or place its subordinates in leadership positions.
In the late 1980s and early 90s — following the Gulf War, the first intifada and the collapse of the Soviet Union — both Syrian and Palestinian calculations shifted. The PLO completed the process of moving away from a program of armed struggle to one based on negotiations and eventually entered the Oslo Accords with Israel. Syria, on the other hand, became the leading Arab state opponent of this approach and rhetorical champion of Arab rejectionism. However, it shifted its support from left and nationalist opposition groups, which had lost support and momentum after the collapse of the USSR, to right-wing Islamists, particularly Hamas.
While the PLO had carefully avoided numerous efforts to get it to locate or relocate its headquarters in Damascus, understanding the implications of such a decision, for the bulk of its existence Hamas' Politburo and much of its military command has been based in the Syrian capital. By shifting its attention from left and nationalist Palestinian opposition to that based on the extreme religious right, in spite of the ideological incoherence of this position, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has continued the tradition established by his father of confronting and co-opting the Palestinian national independent leadership and agenda by whatever means possible.
Events since the Syrian uprising began illustrate the cynicism of this approach. The manipulation of border regions on this year's Nakba and especially Naksa days; the killing of at least 11 Palestinians by the pro-Assad PFLP-GC at the Yarmouk refugee camp; the virtual split with Hamas because of its inability to side openly with the regime against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood; and the recent move to recognize independent Palestinian statehood in contradiction to all past ideological pronouncements and almost a century of Syrian policy that has opposed such independence, all demonstrate that for this regime, as with the last one, the Palestinian issue is a card to be played in foreign policy, regional affairs and, at long last, in a bid to clinging to power by any means necessary. In fairness it should be noted that other Arab states have also tried to manipulate the Palestinian issue to similar ends, although none with the same intensity and harm caused by that of Syria. It's also worth noting that almost none of the Arab states have had any comment on the brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising by the regime, and that includes the Palestinian national leadership.
Were the regime to survive its present extreme difficulties, it is almost certain that the rhetorical recognition of an independent Palestine would prove as cosmetic as Syria's recognition of Lebanese independence. In neither case have the regime and its supporters truly accepted that these are independent societies and states, and in both cases efforts to exercise Syrian hegemony, at an absolute minimum, over their leaderships and decision-making is virtually guaranteed. And so is a determination to continue to "valiantly fight" against Israel… at least until the last child in Gaza and southern Lebanon, that is.