by Webster Brooks
In 2009 President Bashar al-Assad unveiled Syria’s new “Four Seas” strategy to reposition Damascus as the vital center of Middle East investment, trade and energy transiting. Assad’s vision of Damascus emerging as the “nexus of economic integration” between Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Iran is arguably grandiose and out of scale with Syria’s role in the region. Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and its diminished role as a power broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has eroded Assad’s standing in the region. It is Iran and Turkey that have filled the vacuum created by America’s declining power in the Middle East and relegated Syria to the backwaters of a second-tier player. Thus it is not surprising that Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine seeks to recast Syria’s image as a modernizing power and leader of a new “Islamic economic bloc” in the Middle East. But it is Syria’s troubled economy marked by stagnating growth rates, high inflation and unemployment rates that most threatens President Assad’s presidency. Compelled by necessity to jump start Syria’s beleaguered economy, Assad’s economic revolution must deliver enough expansion, growth and jobs to pacify a nation whose patience with a collapsing economy and the existing order is growing thin.
It was not an accident that Assad first presented his “Four Seas” strategy at a joint conference in Ankara with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul last year. Assad stated that “Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran becomes integrated, we would link the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf to become the compulsory intersection for the whole world, in investment, transport and more.” Since articulating his vision Assad has been aggressively building the architecture of Syria’s new economic initiative. At the center of Assad’s strategy is Syria’s economic relationship with Turkey and connecting the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure to the region’s expanding energy pipeline networks.
Since 2005 Syria’s economy has flat-lined at a two percent growth rate; its unemployment rate has hovered above ten percent and its inflation rate is a crippling 14.5 percent. In addition, Syria’s four-year drought has raised profound questions of food security as three million people have been pushed to the brink of “extreme poverty.” Confronted with an economy that is not sustainable Syria’s economic opening with neighboring Turkey has taken on a critical dimension. Since signing a free trade agreement with Ankara in 2007 Syrian-Turkish trade is set to climb to $5 billion by 2012. Recently, Turkey’s Minister for Foreign Trade Zafer Ça?layan told reporters that 250 Turkish businesspeople have invested over $700 million in Syria. Forty agreements in the fields of health, education and transportation between the two countries are also slated to be signed. In addition, Syria and Turkey concluded a “no-visa” open borders initiative to increase trade and tourism exchanges across their 870 kilometer border.
These agreements paved the way for Ankara and Damascus to launch a joint energy project to integrate their gas grids and connect them with the Arab Gas Pipeline that originates in Egypt and serves Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Assad also visited Armenia and Azerbaijan where he signed 19 cooperation agreements including a deal under which Azerbaijan will export a billion cubic meters of gas annually to Syria via Turkey. Further, to support Syria’s role as a strategic transiting hub, Assad has revived talks with Iraq to open two oil pipelines between Kirkuk, Iraq and Syria’s port city of Banias that would transit 1.4 million barrels per day. Assad’s enlarged vision of Syria’s energy transiting role is to link the nation’s oil and gas pipeline network to the Nabucco pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey and on to Europe. With the Syrian government committed to spend $50 billion in infrastructure development by 2015, Assad’s aim is for Syria to be a net oil exporter in the near future. The obvious crack, if not deception in Assad’s big vision is that the success of his “Four Seas” energy strategy hinges on Turkey serving as the critical regional energy hub, not Damascus.
Similarly, in July 2010 Turkey’s state-backed company Turk Telekom announced an unprecedented deal to install a 2,500-kilometer, state-of the-art fiber-optic network in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia linking the countries through Turkey to European networks. Once at odds with the House of Saud over his ties to Iran and Syria’s alleged links to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Assad has been scrambling to mend fences with Riyadh. Europe’s role in Assad’s “economic breakout” was underscored in his May visit to Vienna. Insisting that Syria can serve as a critical access point for EU countries to Arab markets Assad urged “joint European-Syrian” investments in energy, manufacturing, mining, agriculture, information technology, telecommunications, banking and financing.” Although Syria never joined the TWO, Assad has now initiated the process to conclude an Association Agreement with the European Union.
President Assad’s “Four Seas” initiatives clearly demonstrate his intention to modernize and diversify Syria’s economy that is overly dependent on agricultural and oil exports. In particular Syria wants to expand investments in tourism, natural gas and its service sector. But the “Damascus Road” to economic recovery will be long and difficult. Assad has rejected privatization of government enterprises and has no intention of dramatically expanding opportunities for Syria’s private sector. In Assad’s view an open market economy, a strong private sector and an entrepreneurial middle class pose a threat as a competing power center to his rule. Unlike Turkey’s “Anatolian Tigers” who cracked the mold of inefficient and corrupt state-dominated capitalism, Assad’s “Four Seas” projects will channel the lion’s share of domestic and foreign investments into government run transportation, communication, infrastructure and energy projects. Creating a raft of government jobs, contracts and state funding programs that he can use to prop up his minority Alawite base and bribe high profile Sunni personalities is critical to Assad shoring up his regime. At the same time Assad’s attempt to revitalize Syria’s economy will fail if it doesn’t raise the standard of living of the working class and low-income strata of society.
Indeed, even if Assad’s economic stimulus measures result in rising incomes, increased access to consumer goods and opportunities for modest private sector growth it may not be enough to pacify the Syrian people’s demand for more political power. Since the September 2008 car bombing that killed 17 people in Damascus the government has cracked down on Sunni Islamists. After blaming the attack on Fatah al-Islam the government required imams to record their Friday sermons. Restrictions on influential Muslim women’s groups teaching Islamic studies were instituted and the Qubaisiate underground women’s prayer group was barred from meeting at mosques. After the Muslim Brotherhood left the National Salvation Front [an alliance of Islamists, Kurds, Christians and secular dissidents] in January 2009 Damascus briefly opened back-channel negotiations with the MB at Iran’s request. When Assad refused to repeal Law 49 that makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a crime, the talks broke down. Assad has all but ignored the MB since then. Whether an expanding economy and higher standard of living can serve as a buffer against Syria’s radical Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish dissenters remains to be seen? It’s a high wire act that requires Assad to move faster across the beam to avoid tumbling into the chasm.
With Assad’s regime approaching a critical juncture, President Obama’s focus on getting Syria to break with Iran, cut its ties to HAMAS and Hezbollah and recognize Israel lacks relevancy and imagination. Iran provides Syria with military assets, security agreements and diplomatic leverage with the West and other Arab countries. Assad’s orientation is not going to change in the short run. Notwithstanding Syrian Accountability Act sanctions that limited U.S.-Syrian trade in 2010 to $88 million, the Obama administration has not leveraged opportunities to expand trade or other initiatives to promote further dialog. Washington’s diplomacy with Syria seeks acquiescence to the imperatives of Pax Americana, not meaningful engagement.
While Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine shamelessly inflates Syria’s role as the center of Middle Eastern economic growth, the integration of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria’s economies is a significant development. Iran is Turkey’s major energy supplier and both countries have substantial security and economic investments in Iraq. Iran is the guarantor of Syria’s security and Turkey is emerging as Syria’s most significant investor and trade partner. Should Iraq’s political leadership stabilize, the nation’s formidable energy resources will greatly enhance the economic and political clout of the new Middle Eastern Quartet. Increasingly this constellation of Arab, Persian and Turkic Middle Eastern nations are evolving into a formidable economic bloc; not just a “rejectionist front” opposed to America’s imperial ambition in the region. The Obama administration should open its eyes and take note of the rising tide between the four seas.