Syrian Alliance Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era: The Impact of Unipolarity

By Wallsh, David | The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Syrian Alliance Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era: The Impact of Unipolarity


Wallsh, David, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs


This paper explores Syrian alliance formation strategy since the end of the Cold War. While previous research has sufficiently covered the alliance- making strategies of Syria and other Middle East states during the Cold War, surprisingly little work has been done to address the changes that have occurred in the past two decades. Chief among these changes was the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition to a unipolar balance of power marked by American primacy. Accordingly, this study seeks to answer the following question: how does the change in structure of the international system from bipolarity to unipolarity affect Syrian alliance formation strategy?

The answer to this question has important implications for international relations theory and U.S. foreign policy. From a theoretical perspective, few studies have examined the effects of unipolarity on international alliance-making. Of what exists, the majority focuses on America-the unipole-at the expense of relationships among medium powers themselves. Yet recent events have demonstrated that relations between medium power states like Turkey and Israel, Syria and Iran, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia are extremely important even for external great powers. This study will offer insights into second-tier power behavior by focusing on Syria's relations with a number of regional peers.

From a policy perspective, this research will inform readers about a country that has long perplexed analysts despite only dominating international headlines for the past two years. For decades, Western policymakers have debated how to bring about Damascus's "strategic realignment" away from Iran and organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.1 Henry Kissinger once said that the Arabs cannot make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and they cannot make peace without Syria.

Understanding Syria's tendencies in the recent past will pave the way for clearer expectations about the future. No matter which individual or type of government emerges from the present chaos, the post-Arab Spring Syria will inhabit a unipolar global balance of power that provides constraints and opportunities similar to those of the past twenty years. What is more, the Syria of the future will inevitably share some of the interests, relationships, and institutional legacies of its former self. By examining Damascus's decision-making over the past two decades, this paper offers a template for explaining how states in general, and Syria in particular, will behave under certain conditions moving forward.

The following study argues that the change in the structure of the international system from bipolarity to unipolarity did in fact alter Syria's alliance formation strategy. It finds that while one strategy, balancing against threats, dominated strategic decision-making during the Cold War, a diverse and nuanced assortment of strategies characterizes the post-Cold War era. These strategies remain a function of threats, but vary inasmuch as those threats-and newfound opportunities-fluctuate more frequently in a less stable unipolar world.2

Specifically, when the United States projects its power offensively and in a threatening manner, Syria will, as expected, join forces with others to balance against the United States. But when the United States restrains its use of force, the Syrian response varies. The default approach seems to be neither balancing nor bandwagoning, but rather forging closer ties with other regional actors in order to achieve maximum diplomatic flexibility by avoiding both dependence on and confrontation with the world's greatest superpower. At certain junctures in time, however, Syria has turned toward the United States either to secure offensive gains in the regional theater or to check domestic rivals at home.

The first section of this paper offers an overview of the relevant literature concerning alliance formation and unipolarity. The second section provides a brief summary of Syrian alliance behavior during the Cold War. …

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