Large parts of the Syrian people have risen up against their regime. But a Middle East expert tells DW that the country's leadership and the opposition have quite a few points in common when it comes to foreign policy.
Günter Meyer is a Professor of Geography at Germany's Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and head of the Center for Research on the Arab World.
DW: Syria practically has the entire world turned against it at the moment. The regime's brutal crackdown on its population in fact forced the international community to act. At the same time, not all countries criticizing Syria are prime examples of democracy and human rights. This is also the case for several Middle East states. Which motives do you think lie behind the Arab League's attempts to push through a regime change in Syria?
Günter Meyer: A decisive point is the influence of the United States, in particular on Arab governments. This is evident in particular in the new alliance the US has sought with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which is supported by the remaining countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey. They follow the common goal of toppling the regime in Syria. This would most likely lead to a regime in Damascus dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled from abroad.
However, this goal, which most Arab League governments have agreed to under pressure from the major players named, by no means coincides with the notions of large parts of the Arab population. The Syrian government's strong support of the Palestinians, the opposition to Israel and the rejection of US predominance are arguments which are gaining increasing prevalence in this later phase of the Arab revolutions. This is why a large part of the population in the Arab world identifies itself with the positions represented by the Syrian regime.
In the past few years, Syria has often presented itself as an adversary of western predominance in the name of pan-Arab ideals. Which role will Syria play in the future in this regard?
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Syria still clearly took the position of the alliance and fought against the Iraqi regime on the side of the US. This fundamentally changed in 2003, when the US marched into Iraq. Syria opposed this US intervention from the very beginning.
Also, the Syrian government doesn't see any purpose in peace negotiations with Israel as long as general conditions don't improve. This means a basic yes to peace in the Middle East, but not under the conditions dictated by Israel and the US. Syria will be unwilling to agree to peace negotiations with Israel as long as Israel continues its settlement construction, which is illegal under international law, in the occupied territories. A further reason for the opposition towards the US is the rejection of the so-called New Middle East where essentially the political and economic interests of the US dominate in the region. The eastern parts of the Arab world are meanwhile packed with US military bases. This directly clashes with the pan-Arab goals of the Baath regime in Syria.
President Bashar Assad's regime is being accused of ties to groups which the West considers terrorists. How do you view this accusation?
Those groups in the Middle East conflict which Israel, the US and other western countries designate as terrorists are freedom fighters from the point of view of the Assad government and a large part of the Arab population. Given its pan-Arab political orientation, Syria has precisely for this reason supported the fight for Palestine's liberation from the Israeli occupation for a long time.
This makes it understandable why Hamas had its political bureau in Damascus and its leader Khaled Mashaal for many years worked very closely with the Syrian government. It's only in the past few months that it has come to an estrangement between Hamas and the Syrian government - mainly on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood and as a result of political pressure from Qatar and Turkey. Some leading members of the political bureau have already left Syria. According to Palestinian information, negotiations are underway on moving Hamas' headquarters to Cairo.
How do you assess the Syrian government's support for Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is for the large part being supported for the same political motives as Hamas. According to the ruling Baath party's pan-Arab ideology, the Syrian government is pursuing the goal of liberating the Palestinian territories from Israeli occupation.
Furthermore, Syrian support for Hezbollah is also political leverage in order to get Israel to return the annexed Golan Heights. Strengthening the military potential of Israeli opponent Hezbollah is therefore in the interest of the Syrian regime. If the reports are true that Hezbollah's weapons arsenals are largely being filled by Iranian missiles, these weapons can only be delivered to southern Lebanon via Syria.
Which options do you think will bring peace to Syria as quickly as possible?
The sole possibility is the direction proposed by the UN special envoy Kofi Annan. An escalation of the violence can only be avoided with an inner-Syrian negotiated settlement which includes all Syrian groups with their diverse interests. On the one hand, there is the inner-Syrian opposition, represented by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which mainly consists of 13 predominantly left-wing parties. On the other hand is the majority Free Syrian Army made up mainly of regime defectors, and also members of the Syrian National Council (SNC). The SNC is mainly controlled from the outside and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is banking on the support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and its goal is to violently topple the regime.
But if the UN mission can manage to reduce the fighting and bring together the most important groups for negotiations, there would truly be a chance for a peaceful transition within the country. If this doesn't work - and I see mainly the opposition's readiness to use violence as a major reason for failure - then Arab media say the risk of denominational conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites will increase significantly beyond Syria's borders across the entire Middle East.
Interview: Kersten Knipp / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge