Assad walls off West with BRICS and then there’s Trump

Sunday 18/12/2016
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) meeting with Chinese Special Envoy for Syria Xie Xiaoyan

Beirut - Ten years ago, the Syr­ian government began implementing a Head­ing East policy, aimed at solidifying its relation­ship with countries other than the United States and EU members — an initiative that has paid off hand­somely for Syrian President Bashar Assad and helped him defy his for­eign foes.
Syria’s state-controlled media marketed the look-eastward policy on the basis that Western oppo­sition was linked to the region’s stormy colonial past, when France, Britain and Italy swept into the Middle East with the fall of the Ot­toman empire after the first world war.
The French colonised Syria and Lebanon for nearly three decades after years of occupying Algeria and Morocco, while the British ran Egypt, Palestine and Iraq in the post-Ottoman era. The Italians sought to colonise Libya.
The United States, which be­came Israel’s chief benefactor, in­tervened in the region during the Suez crisis of 1956 and more disas­trously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2005, the Syrian government daily Tishreen proclaimed in an editorial: “There is an entire new world out there waiting to be ex­plored and its members are eager to cooperate without taking dic­tates and ultimatums from the United States.”
The newspaper was referring to an association of five emerging and powerful economies — Brazil, Rus­sia, India, China and South Africa — collectively known as BRICS.
All are Group of 20 members distinguished by fast-growing in­dustrial economies. Together they represent more than 3.6 billion people — half the world’s popula­tion — and have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $16.6 trillion, equivalent to approxi­mately 22% of the world’s GDP.
The shift to BRICS was a direct reaction to the dramatic slump in Syria’s relations with the West that followed the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Paris and London blamed Da­mascus for the killing but BRICS countries did not support the UN-engineered Syrian military exo­dus from Lebanon and refused to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus.
They continued to see eye-to-eye with Damascus over support­ing paramilitary groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. None was critical of Syrian-Iranian relations and all backed Syria’s position in the peace process with Israel.
Although Syrian-US relations improved slightly when Barack Obama became US president in 2009, they quickly collapsed after the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011.
Before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent military forces to support Assad in September 2015, BRICS countries collectively lobbied against US air strikes on Syria. Today, they still stand firmly behind Assad’s government, refus­ing to support regime change in Damascus.
In August, China sent a senior military officer to Damascus to discuss cooperation against ter­rorism. Beijing’s main concern was the 200 Muslim Uighur jihadists operating in northern Syria, affili­ated with Islamic State (ISIS).
One of them, an Istanbul-edu­cated fighter, had returned from Aleppo to Xinjiang in north-west­ern China and was arrested while allegedly planning terrorist at­tacks.
Beijing provided the Syrians with intelligence on the Chinese ji­hadists, with requests for their ar­rest or extermination before they could return to China.
China has provided the Syrian Army with advisers and weapons. In October 2015, Beijing hosted a top Assad adviser and in March named Xie Xiaoyan, a former am­bassador to Iran, as special repre­sentative to Syria.
The Chinese embassy in Damas­cus functions at ambassadorial level and China has used its veto in the UN Security Council three times to defeat French and Saudi-backed resolutions against Damas­cus.
One reason for this support comes from China’s excellent rela­tionship with Putin, who signed a treaty of friendship with Beijing in 2001. This was perceived by many as a defence pact because it gave China access to Russian military technology.
In the spring, Putin travelled to Beijing for the 15th time since he emerged as Russia’s strongman in 2000.
In the summer, India’s minister of state for Foreign Affairs went to Damascus, carrying yet another message of support from BRICS.
Like China, India did not close its embassy and, after receiving Syr­ian Foreign Minister Walid Mual­lem in New Delhi, it has agreed to jump-start economic projects with Damascus.
As a reward, Damascus provided India with lists and coordinates of Indian jihadis operating with ISIS around Aleppo and Idlib in north-western Syria.
The Indian push towards Da­mascus followed an ISIS attack in neighbouring Bangladesh in July in which 28 civilians, including an Indian citizen, were killed.
For now, Syria’s Heading East policy has paid off for Damascus as BRICS countries have rallied around Syria when most countries were refusing to talk to, let alone recognise, the Assad government.
However, this might change if the West opens up to Syria after Donald Trump is inaugurated as US presi­dent on January 20th and with the possible election of François Fillon as president of France later in 2017?
If France and the United States ever normalise relations with Da­mascus and EU countries follow suit based on a common policy of combating ISIS, will the Syrians shift focus back towards the impe­rial West, despite its recent hostil­ity and colonial past, or is Russia too deeply entrenched in Syria to allow that to happen?