Struggle over Syria: Russia vs, United States? (By Kevork Elmassian)

1 Feb


Struggle over Syria: Russia vs. United States?



The ruling elite of Syria find its root in Hafez Assad‘s coup détat on 1970, after several years of political struggle within the Baath party, between the political wing headed by Salah Jadid and the military wing headed by Hafez Assad, until 2000, when Bashar Assad succeeded his father (Dīb, 2011) for the moment of writing this research. Although the political power under the Baath rule continued under the mercy of secret services but ideology above all played its role too (Ajami, 2012). Baath promoted its ideology (Arabism) in a new language that was theoretically aiming to unify Arabs regardless of their sect or religion.

Until February 2012, the Syrian constitution of 1973 appointed Baath as the party that has the responsibility to lead both society and state thanks to the article eight of the constitution. The party members have priority in governmental, administration and educational missions. Besides, the regional leadership of Baath had the monopoly over nominating the only candidate for presidential referendum for almost forty years (Ziadeh, 2011). However, with the new constitution of 2012, the monopoly of Baath over the political arena has been theoretically abolished.

Syria has little recent history of mass unrest and rebellion. The Baathist government of Hafez al-Assad succeeded to effectively crush the Islamic oppositions – largely represented by the Muslim Brotherhood – through repression and dominance of state institutions (Stuart, 2011). But in 2011, taking advantage of the political climate in the Arab world, and in the aftermath of the so called ―Arab Spring, the Syrian oppositions managed to organize their masses and posed for the first time a real threat to the Baath leadership by calling to overthrow President Bashar Assad.


I‘m not going to characterize the nature of opposition movements in Syria, because there is a big debate and controversy over its description. Syrians themselves are divided among different views of what is the best solution for the economic, political and social future of Syria.

However, what most political analysts agree is that the Syrian crisis is no more an internal conflict between the government and oppositions, but a proxy war and a struggle over Syria according to the strategic interests of the regional and international powers. In our research, we will narrow the study to the American and Russian struggle over Syria and illustrate the strategic interests of each, using the qualitative approach which includes content analysis, personal and experts‘evaluation, and finally developing meaningful conclusions

Strategic Interests


The concept of strategic interests is often used broadly, that‘s why we need to bring a narrower definition and distinguish it from national interests, which include everything that affects the security of any state‘s well-being such as criminal, economic, environmental, and natural hazards, etc. However, these dangers have little or nothing to do with armed force. So what is strategic interest? Scholars believe that in order to reach to a clear definition of strategic interest, we need to define a still narrower category which includes a subset of security interests; interests that drive defense policy (White, 2008).In the case of Syria, it is important to define the strategic geography that is ―the control of, or access to, spatial areas (land, water, and air, including outer space) that has an impact—either positive or negative—on the security and economic prosperity of nations. Therefore, who controls Syria or who has a better influence will get a military geography that concerns on the deployment and power projection of military assets that would certainly have positive impact in both offensive and defensive military operations on the regional level (Kemp, 1997).

For the United States and Russia, strategic interests of each are intersecting at some points but particular in other areas. But what is in common, that both big powers are so keen to have influence in that small state, to further empowers their regional status and to shift the balance of power to their advantage.

The main purpose of the research is to define the strategic interests of both Russia and the United in Syria, and finally we will see the possibility of a potential deal between the both sides.

The United States


Relations between the United States and Syria were tense for almost five decades. Syria according to the successive American administrations is associated with supporting ―terrorism, by supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and some Kurdish groups such as the Kurdish Workers‘ Party (PKK), which has and still targeting Turkey a NATO member and U.S. ally (Lesch, 2005).

Neo-Conservatives and radicals in the American administration believe the United States has a powerful strategic interest in seeing the emergence of a post-Assad Syria with moderate, representative government that respects human rights, and upholds the rule of law. Syria according to them continues to pose a threat to the American strategic and security interests in the Middle East. The Syrian government sponsored armed groups listed as ―terrorists by the United States and developed programs suspected of being related to WMD, and strengthened its political and military ties with ―rogue‖ states like North Korea and Iran. Indeed, a nonpartisan Congressional Research Service quoted an American official as saying: ―The Syrians are doing things in terms of deepening their entanglement with Iran and Hezbollah that truly are mind-boggling. They are integrating their military/defense systems to unprecedented levels. Hafez al-Assad never would have gone so far and it is becoming hard to see how they can possibly extricate themselves.‖ Furthermore, numerous Palestinian groups—including those listed as Foreign Terrorist Organizations—continue to operate within Syria‘s borders. (Jamie M. Fly, 2011)

Therefore, relating to the above analysis, the core of the American strategic interests is: the security of the Zionist state.

Syria before Baath was weak and inactive in the regional politics. It was an arena for regional and international players to struggle on. Syria doesn‘t have energy and oil but it has strategic geopolitical position on the Eastern shore of Mediterranean Sea, and borders with the Zionist state.

Quoting Mr. Itamar Rabinovitch, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington “the events of recent months have pushed Syria back to its “pre-1970 state” (Losurdo, 2011). Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States also said ―We do see a possible ouster of Mr. Assad as affording an opportunity to us, (Cook, 2011). Similarly, John Hannah, a National security adviser to former vice president Dick Cheney quoted as saying ―This opportunity to take down this anti- Israeli, anti-US dictator [Assad] who is Iran‘s sole Arab ally and has extended its tentacles into Lebanon and Gaza is absolutely imperative,‖ (Kessler, 2011). Therefore, many Zionist officials believe overthrowing the Syrian government would push Syria back to a semi-colonial condition (Losurdo, 2011).

Dr. Col. (Res.) Moshe Elad who has spent 30 years in Israel Defense Forces and an instructor today at the Faculty of Political Sciences/Security studies and History of the Middle East at Western Galilee College, he believes the Arab Spring brought strategic achievements for the occupation state, one of the most important goal that Israel sought to accomplish was to destroy Syria, the biggest Arab force hostile to it. He further added that Syria, which has always been a fierce enemy to Israel for many decades, is bleeding today and disintegrating and losing its military strength, and all these things taking place without the interference of the Jewish state. Syria is collapsing and not even a single shot being fired from the Zionist side (Andraus, 2012).

The former Military Intelligence Chief and Head of the Institute for National Security Studies Amos Yadlinin a seminar held at Tel Aviv University agrees with Dr. Elad saying “The changes in Syria bear strategic benefits for Israel,” (Hadar, 2012).

In further details, the Annual Report of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, presented by General Aviv Kochavi in 2011 stated that any decline in the strength of the Syrian regime is a blow to Iran, which, in turn, is aiming to increase its regional influence and role by backing its allies both financially and by arms. The report also stated that Iran is concerned from the possible loss of Syria “as one of the main actors in the axis of evil,” constituting a strategic achievement for Israel which sees any weakening of Iran as a big political and military gain (Helal, 2011).

Therefore, many Israeli analysts argue that weakening or eliminating the Syrian regime will bring a pro-Western oppositions to power, a government that believes in peace and works to cut its close ties with the Palestinian resistance, Hezbollah and Iran, which is also an opportunity to strengthen the Zionist position in Lebanon, something that would greatly serve both the American and Israeli strategic interests. This strategy has been presented by the former intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, as well as many Israeli analysts, especially those who view the Syrian conflict as an uprising of the Sunnite majority against Alawite minority. This leads them to believe that the victory of “the Sunnis” against the Alawite “Shiites” in Syria will inevitably lead to the collapse of the Syrian alliance with “Shiite Iran” (Helal, 2011).

Consequently, if the Americans succeeded to destroy Syria and install a pro-Western government, out of the Greater Middle East area from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast to Kazakhstan on the Chinese and Russian borders, only Lebanon, Eritrea, Iran and Sudan would be independent from NATO through multinational and bilateral partnerships (Rozoff, 2011).

Pessimists on the other hand, believe the American strategic interest is not only to weaken Syria and install a puppet government. They go further by arguing that what is happening in Syria is the extension of the ―New Middle East‖ project which is to end the Syrian influence in Lebanon, to break the alliance with Iran, and to end supporting ―terrorist‖ organization such as Hezbollah and Hamas (Marina Ottaway, 2008). Pessimists who also call themselves as ―realists‖ remind us to the essay which was originally publish in Hebrew in KIVUNIM (Directions), a Journal for Judaism and Zionism in February 1982. The strategy of the United States and Israel was since that time ―The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druze who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach toda (Yinon, 1982).

On the other hand, critiques believe Western politicians in general are pursuing a wishful thinking policy, without taking into consideration the real strength of Assad‘s army, and the widespread terrorist attacks which might one day spill to neighboring countries such as Turkey and Israel, and the ideal policies would become nightmare for the ―free world‖. Realists argue that Syria has no intrinsic strategic value (Babbin, 2012), and moderate Islamic and secular oppositions are weak, and those who are effectively fighting the Syrian Army are Jabhet-al-Nusra and other armed factions affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Therefore, it is true that the Americans worked to push Syria into a war of attrition, and partly succeeded so, but the outcome of this war is not favorable to the American interests. Americans wanted to exploit the existence of armed groups and multinational Salafists in Syria for short term-tactical reasons, to weaken the Syrian government and impose a compromise, but the influence of these groups became stronger and they are actually dominating the actual Syrian Armed groups or what is called the ―Free Syrian Army‖. That‘s why the Americans listed Jabhet-al-Nusra as terrorist group.

Opposing voices have been heard in the United States. For example, Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush argues that the Americans have no vital strategic interest in Syria. Although, Syria supported ―terrorism‖ in the Middle East but it was never a real threat to neither the American hegemony nor its strategic interests. Babbin believes, if the Syrian government survived, it would be a client of Islamic Iran. But what if the Syrian government collapsed? Babbin say, the Americans should learn from their previous mistakes in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, because the fall of Arab dictator doesn‘t necessarily means the accession of Jeffersonian democrats (Babbin, 2012), especially in the Syrian case, where the anti-regime fighters are far cry from democratic and freedom values. Babbin further add the intervention strategy might doom the United States to another nation-building process like the examples they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan (Babbin, 2012).

In a related context, although the American administration listed Syria as state sponsors ―terrorism‖, the Syrian government headed by Bashar Al-Assad offered the Americans exchange of information about Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups which constitute a common threat. Seymour Hersh wrote in one of his contributions in The New Yorker magazine, that the information shared by the Syrian intelligence to the American side, exceeded the expectations of the CIA in terms of quantity and quality. And depending on this information, the Americans were able to foil several terrorist operations and saved the lives of many Americans. However, the neo-conservatives in the American administration, didn‘t consider the Syrian intelligence aid as sufficient, because while Syria offered cooperation with the United States against Al-Qaeda, but the American war against ―terror‖ included states and non-state actors who are still allies of Syria, such as Iran and Hezbollah. Therefore, the neo-cons considered the politics of sticks and carrots would be a reward for Bashar Assad (Leverett F. , 2005 ).


For Russia, Western intervention in Syria is an absolute no-no (Escobar, 2011). Syria is one of the most important countries in the Middle East, and that instability there would have serious consequences in areas too far from Syria itself. Russia believes that Syria is the “cornerstone” of the security in the Middle East, and that instability or civil war will inevitably destabilize the situation in the neighboring countries, especially in Lebanon, which might lead to inevitable chaos in the entire region, and a real threat to regional security (Sheikh, 2013).

Russia has vetoed on three Western Security Council projects to set limit to Western arrogance, and especially after the scandal of the Libyan intervention. But what exactly is Russia‘s interest in the Syrian crisis? Is it part of its usual bargaining process with the United States? Is it possible that we are dealing with the same Soviet Union of old? Why is Russia engaging so heavily with Syria, where it did not with Libya or Iran? (Kaileh, 2011).

Back in August 2011, the Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said in a press conference: “Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria” (Hearst, 2011). This statement means, Russia do not consider what is happening in Syria is a ―revolution‖, but a violent conflict between its ally (regime) and militant Islam using irregular warfare (terrorism) to obtain power in order to conduct political, social, economic and religious reform according to Sharia Law (Kiras, 1997). This project according to the Russian understanding is happening under a covert support of regional and international powers that are themselves considered ―unfriendly states‖ with Russia such as Turkey and the United States.

It is worth to mention, Russia itself suffered from militant Islam in the self-declared independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI). In October 2007, with the dissolution of ChRI by President Dokku ―Abu Usman‖ Umarov, he created the Caucasus Emirate (CE), and made the Salafization and jihadization processes official (Blank, 2012).

It is obvious from the Russian strategic calculations, that if Syria falls in the hands of Islamic militants, the Takfiri trend will move to Caucasus area, and the Russian trouble with Chechnya militants will reemerge.

Therefore, Russia’s strategic interests in Syria are: geopolitical position, threat of militant Islam and also a proxy war with the United States.

Putin in his first presidential era has planned to restore Russia‘s role and image as a Great Power. He pursued foreign policies characterized as ―an anti-American zero-sum game‖ in order to reposition Russia as a counterweight to West‘s influence in the Middle East. Syria is Russia’s most important ally in that region and a key state to Putin’s strategic calculations. Syria’s location — bordering the Mediterranean, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq — makes it too important to lose (Borshchevskaya, 2013).

On the other hand, President Putin in his third presidential term has made clear that Russian sea power is one of the pillars of Russian political strategy “I would like to reiterate again that the development of a powerful, effective navy is one of Russia’s chief priorities,” he stated on January 10, at the inauguration of Russia’s first new class of submarines since 1991. That’s why, if Assad falls, Russia will lose the only military base outside the former Soviet Union (Borshchevskaya, 2013).

Without Tartous, every Russian naval vessel in the sea would have to return through the Bosphorous to Odessa for every nut, screw and cigarette packet it needs (Fisk, 2011). Tartous military base may form (if developed) a natural place to respond to the American missile shield in Eastern Europe and Turkey (Asmar, 2013). Therefore, it is not by accident, Russia has installed its sophisticated S-300 air defense system – one of the best all-altitude surface-to-air missile systems in the world, comparable to the American Patriot – in Tartous (Escobar, 2011).

Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former chief of naval staff, said Moscow was sending a message to the US and Europe. “Having any military force other than NATO’s is very useful for the region because it will prevent the outbreak of armed conflict”, Russia’s fears about a civil war developing in Syria are geostrategic and may not be too dissimilar to some of the more cautious western foreign policy analysts, war-gaming the effects it would have on the region (Hearst, 2011).

Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “They don’t just sell the equipment. They also help man the crews and train the crews. Sometimes there is just no domestic capacity to run these systems, and that is the case in Syria where Syrian crews are not capable of using the equipment to its full capacity.” (Borger, 2012).

Consequently, the US and NATO are taking Russia‘s position into account when contemplating the possibility of any kind of intervention in Syria. Foreign intervention would mean something wider than stopping at Syria. Therefore, the Russian position along with Hezbollah and Iran stances is an indicator that these parties do not want the regime to fall and that they will defend it (Kaileh, 2011).

The economic improvement of Russia has repositioned it in the rode of effective countries of the world. The rise of the Russian role didn‘t satisfy the Americans as it bodes the emergence of a new competitor to lead the international community. This potential threat gave the rise to the American idea of deploying missiles shield in Poland, Turkey, Romania, and Czech Republic, and if we look to the missiles map, we will see it is forming a fence to surround the eastern and southeastern Russia, not Iran as the U.S. is claiming.


The idea of establishing such missiles shield is to drag Russians to a new arms race, in order to restore its economy again tens of years back, because the direct cost of such race is very big for the Russians, and it will affect the rising economy of Russia (Asmar, 2013).

For Russians, the current events in Syria are exploited by the Americans to:

-To tighten the Western grip on one of latest states not linked with NATO by any kind of cooperation or agreements.

-To install a pro-Western government, maybe a Muslim Brotherhood coalition under the umbrella of Turkey.

-To break the alliance between Iran and Syria and to promote Shiite Iran as a new enemy instead of Zionist Israel.

-And most importantly, to tighten the siege on the Russians and to isolate them from last vent on the Mediterranean and Near East region.

That‘s why the Russians are pursuing their own ‗Realpolitik’ or modern Machiavellianism by putting ethical considerations aside and focusing on their nation‘s strategic interests regardless of the ethical consequences while seeking their own political goals (Kissinger, 1995 ).

Any chance of compromise?

American-Russian agreement in Syria is crucial. Russia is Syria‘s most powerful and strategic ally, its main arms supplier, and protector in UN Security Council. On the other hand, the U.S is the biggest military and economic power with extensive interests in the Middle East. Guaranteeing Israel‘s security and safeguarding the energy supply is top priority. Moreover, a deal with Russia would help to re-secure the instability in Iraq and prevent Turkey –a valued NATO ally—to slide into a regional war with Syria and Iran (Tisdall, 2012).

After two years of proxy war on the Syrian territories, and despite hard-line statements between Russia and the U.S., it seems both sides finally convinced to work together for a face saving solution by preventing a chaotic implosion and a regional war. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in December 2012, only about quarter of Americans (27%) think the U.S has a responsibility to do something regarding the fight in Syria; more than twice as many (63%) don‘t (Majority says no U.S. Responsibility to act in Syria, 2013).This indicates the fact that even the Americans are not in the mood for any kind of intervention in Syria. Some believe this was thanks to the alternative media and other social media outlets, where huge campaigns have been launched to deter war and promote diplomatic solution for the Syrian crisis.

For Russia, the national pride demands that it prevent another Libyan style western military intervention in Syria, to assert its authority as a major world player. But compromise with the United States might be acceptable if it guarantees Russia‘s influence in Syria; to keep Tartous port open, and to maintain arms export. Therefore, to save Russia‘s strategic influence in Syria. That‘s why loosing Assad without reaching such a deal with U.S. means Russian strategic interests are threatened (Tisdall, 2012).

This is however, the ideal approach of international relations. Realists on the other hand, believe that perhaps Putin might consider a deal in return for U.S. concessions on other fronts. But such an outcome is by no means clear, nor is there any indication Washington would make such an offer (Borshchevskaya, 2013). That is why the possibility of a political compromise between Russia and the United States is very small. Realists believe such deals would probably work if the conflict was on natural resources such as gas and oil. But in the case of Syria, it is about geopolitics and strategic security matters, which means both sides, cannot be on the same geopolitical spot and there should be a victorious to benefit from Syria‘s position (Asmar, 2013).

In any case, if a deal happens between Russia and the United, it might stop the bloodshed that is threatening the regional stability, but it has nothing to do with the so called democratic transition in Syria. Recent historical examples proved that states strategic interests had always priority over people‘s aspirations.


Syria experienced similar diplomatic and economic pressure in 2005, in the wake of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri‘s assassination. At that time, most Western governments practiced huge pressures on the Syrian leadership and their experts confidently concluded that President Assad was finished. Instead, he not only survived, but became stronger and acquired greater authority in the region and asserted Syria‘s feet and imposed itself as unavoidable player in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy. In light of this history, assumptions that Assad cannot survive are, to say the least, premature. This is yet another example that characterizes the way in which Western politicians and analysts approach Middle Eastern affairs, which is analysis based on wishful thinking rather than power politics and security calculations (Leverett F. L., 2011).

President Obama has so far been extremely concerned of getting involved in another Middle East adventure; he preferred to stay in the back stage, covertly supporting the ―rebels‖ by its proxies. However, analysts believe with the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus, Obama‘s current administration has lost its most powerful advocate of Syrian intervention (Borger, 2012).

While the United States underestimated and did not show sufficient respect to the growing role of Russia, Obama‘s choice of nominating advocates of engagement such as John Kerry as secretary of state, and Chuck Hagel Secretary of Defense gives positive indicators that the United States is willing to engage for a deal with Russia over Syria. Both Kerry and Hegel once argued that non-engagement policies of U.S. regarding Syria have isolated them more than the Syrians. They further argued, involvement can work in the American advantage and it might open the door for greater cooperation on the regional level (HAGEL, 2008). It is true that Syria and U.S. never had friendly relations but common ground can be found such as fighting Militant Islam and other security issues.

Russia on the other hand considers Syria one of the key states in the Middle East. There is a real cooperation on the security and intelligence levels, and therefore, Russia will not allow the old-new enemy Turkey (NATO member) to dominate on Syria.

Since the conflict erupted in Syria, Russia has supported Syria unequivocally, despite some statements to the contrary. He sent sophisticated arms to the Syrian Army, shielded the government of Syria twice at the UN Security Council, and further agreed to take Syria’s crude oil in exchange for refined oil products to sustain Syria‘s military and economy, and provided loans to save Syria from bankruptcy (Borshchevskaya, 2013).

In brief, American and Russian struggle over Syria will shape the nature of relations in the Middle East. The robust of the Syrian army, combined with Moscow‘s fierce defense for its strategic ally, and the fragmented nature of the opposition which has been dominated recently by militant Islam and radicals who are ages away of democratic and freedom values, help us to explain why a American-led intervention which was predicted by many Western commentators for more than a year has so far failed to materialize (Borger, 2012)



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