Syria and the west: another wasted decade

As Bashar al-Assad celebrated his 10th year as president of Syria earlier this month, Human Rights Watch marked the occasion with a commendable report on the continued human rights abuses and anti-democratic nature of his regime. The report describes Assad's reign thus-far as a "wasted decade", with the 44-year-old eye doctor disappointing many by entrenching authoritarian rule rather than promoting greater political openness.

While these domestic failures should not be excused, they should not be viewed in isolation since they are closely related to the other major disappointment of Bashar's first decade in power: Syria's bumpy relationship with the west.

External threats have long provided the Ba'ath regime with a pretext for repression at home, and the past decade has seen no shortage of those. The invasions of Iraq in 2003 and Lebanon in 2006, followed by sectarian violence in both, as well as direct attacks on Syrian territory by Israel in 2007 and the US in 2008 have provided Assad with an arsenal of evidence to support his regime's claim that it provides citizens with stability and safety in a rough neighbourhood.

Islamists, intellectuals and political dissidents are often arrested on charges of "weakening national sentiment" and other threats to this coveted stability. While Human Rights Watch correctly highlights that "a review of Syria's record shows a consistent policy of repressing dissent regardless of international or regional pressures", repression is still justified by the regime as part of a wider nationalist narrative of Syria constantly under threat from Israel, the US and its allies.

Western behaviour towards Syria in the past decade has only exacerbated this view. Despite initial intelligence co-operation between Washington and Damascus after 9/11, Syria's opposition to the Iraq war placed it on a collision course with the Bush administration. With economic sanctions following, the withdrawal of the US ambassador from Damascus after the Hariri assassination in 2005, a cross-border raid by American marines in 2008 and the White House actually opposing indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks in 2007-8, it was not difficult to paint the Bush administration as a genuine national threat.

While relations have warmed a little under Obama, sanctions have been renewed and, though the White House has named a new ambassador, the Senate has thus far refused to confirm the nomination. Despite Obama's initial positive rhetoric, from the Syrian perspective the new president's inability to stand up to pro-Israeli elements on Capitol Hill and his inertia on the Israeli-Arab peace process means little has changed. While the US is no longer the immediate enemy it was under Bush, Obama shows no sign of being able to restrain the hawkish Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, whose threats to Assad have further served to justify Syria's tight security regime.

The EU's approach to Syria has done little to balance the US's confrontational stance in the past decade. Though European states resisted Bush's request to implement their own economic sanctions on Syria, they did join in a diplomatic boycott for several years after Assad's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, and suspended Syria's accession to the Euro-Med Partnership (EMP) in 2004. Although the boycott was eventually broken by French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and an EMP Association Agreement was revived the following year, Syria seems not wholly convinced of European intentions.

EU members seem to hold Syria to a higher standard than they do its neighbours. Britain and France inserted a line in the 2004 draft Association Agreement requiring Syria to renounce weapons of mass destruction – a condition they had not demanded of Israel when it joined the EMP in 2000. Though this clause was eventually removed in the 2009 version, a new human rights "break clause" was added, not required of other EMP members with similarly poor records such as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Not surprisingly, Syria remains suspicious of this new agreement and has yet to sign it.

Syria therefore feels unfairly victimised by the west and Assad is likely to continue to exploit this to bolster his domestic support while simultaneously justifying curbed freedoms. Having survived the Bush onslaught, Assad is visibly more confident: securing his position at home and reaching out for new allies abroad (notably his ever-closer ties to Erdogan's Turkey). The US and EU, in contrast, look weak and less and less able to influence the region as they focus on internal problems.

The question for these western states is whether their antagonistic approach towards Syria has achieved any of the US and EU's professed goals. After a decade of dithering, the region is no more stable, Israel is no safer and Syria no more democratic or free than it was when Bashar took over in 2000. The last 10 years have shown that none of these aims can be achieved by bullying, threatening or ignoring Syria. Full engagement on an equal footing would seem the best way to avoid wasting another decade.

Chris Phillips, a London-based writer and analyst of Middle Eastern Affairs.