Owning a Piece of Palestine: Syria's Assad Regimes and the Palestinian Question

08/09/2011 10:21 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

What follows are my opening remarks at Carnegie-ATFP.

Wednesday, July 27, Moderator Ziad Asali: Thank you very much, Marina. It is a privilege to be doing this program with Carnegie and have you with us, and we look forward to more association in the future. Thank you, everyone, for attending this program. It is about Syria, and the title is, "Owning a Piece of Palestine."

This panel was put together because not enough attention has been paid to the particular relation of Syria and the Palestinians under the Assads, and this would seem like a good time to do it. It's rather fortuitous that the Syrian government just recognized the state of Palestine nine days ago, way after we put this event together. So that underlines the need to be dealing with this issue now.

Since its independence in 1946, Syria has undergone too many changes to enumerate -- from coup d'états, upheavals, wars, revolutions, unity with others, disunity, and further revolutions and coup d'états -- until one man took charge in 1970. He was well-prepared for his job, and he introduced and enforced stability in Syria.

Hafez Assad's formula, which has lasted up till the present, has been fairly clear in its outline. He held all reins of power in his own hands. He controlled the three main elements of power: the Ba'ath party, the only political party allowed; the army and the security apparatus; and the government-run socialist economy. All of them were under the aegis of the president, and his tools to implement these degrees of control were, in descending order, the family, the clan and the sect, members of which were placed in leadership positions along all these levers of power. That power was contested and, when it was contested deeply, it was met with brutal force, as we know what happened in Hama in 1982.

His rule was a continuation of the ideological policies of the past, but it bears saying clearly that it rested on two essential pillars: Arab nationalism and championing the cause of Palestine. Arab nationalism, as defined by the Ba'ath party under the first Assad, was in fact translated into a regional and international policy, which laid claim to a "Greater Syria," as a domain of influence of the government of Syria. This claim manifested in policies vis-à-vis Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, as well as, up till recently, Iskenderun, which is part of Turkey.

The Assad policy on the Palestinian issue, on the other hand, was a pillar of what was defined as resistance and rejectionism to any kind of deal-making without Syrians' involvement. Attempts at totally controlling and dominating the Palestinian leadership, as constituted by the PLO, were met with resistance by the leaders of the PLO. This led to confrontations - military confrontations included- on many occasions, most dramatically in Lebanon.

Eventually it was clear that Damascus was the center of rejectionism that was leftist in the '60s through the 90s, and turned to Islamists in the past couple of decades. In essence, Damascus was the seat of opposing any kind of a settlement by other actors, and laying claim to Syria as an independent party to decision-making and indispensable player.

Now, the relation between Syria and Palestine is multilayered and operates on so many levels, starting with the claim, pre-independence, of Palestine being actually part of Syria since historically the area of Palestine was defined by Syrians, as well as Palestinians, as "Southern Syria." So the very concept of Palestine was challenged right from the beginning of the twentieth Century. Later on, it was clearly identified as a separate cause, and claiming its leadership was, and still is, a very popular tool to gain political support anywhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. So, in and of itself, being a champion of Palestine has political dividends.

The twin pillars of Arab nationalism and ownership of the Palestinian cause - have metamorphosed - changed over time - from being meaningful objectives to be achieved by the Syrian regime to becoming excellent tools of maintaining control within the country.

Domestically, they formed the ideological foundation for legitimacy and control. Any domestic opposition could be branded as traitors to these concepts. They also afforded opportunities for the Assad regimes to divert attention from its domestic woes, as it tried recently to exploit the Palestinian Nakba and Naksa days to stir up trouble at the border with Israel.

Externally, it used these emotionally potent pillars to garner a large regional constituency in support of the Assads, and to brand its regional opponents, particularly those who are pro-Western or who engage in negotiations with Israel, as sellouts. It used this support to exert regional influence either directly, as it did in Lebanon, or indirectly through supporting opposition groups as it did regarding Jordan and the Palestinians. This influence is also a card it maintains in reserve, ready to use to destabilize neighbors if it feels threatened.

We have a distinguished group of panelists here: Hussein Ibish, Robert Danin and Radwan Ziadeh to discuss these issues and we look forward to an informative and lively discussion.