For thirty years, the regime of Hafez Al-Assad (1970-2000) conducted a love-hate relationship with the Arab League and with fellow rulers of the Arab countries. On one hand, the Syrian ruler presented himself as the “keeper of the seal of Arabness”, and Damascus, its capital, as the “strong fortress” and the “direction of prayer” for Arab nationalism. The image that Assad tried to create for Syria was as a country that would never yield Arab rights, since it expresses the feelings emotions of the Arab multitude; whereas the other leaders – and chief among them Egypt’s president Saadat and the Jordanian King Husein – grovel at the feet of Israel and the United States, and betray Arab interests, and the values and sensitivities of the Arab nation.
The kings of Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan, like the emirs of the Gulf Emirates, were represented in the Syrian media as “reactionaries” and “stuck in history” while Syria, under the Ba’th (“Resurrection”) banner were portrayed as innovative and progressive and leading the Arab nation to a bright future “under the enlightened leadership of President Assad”. This picture enraged the rulers of the Arab countries but they couldn’t do much against the Syrian ruler.
The meetings of the Arab summit served Assad’s interests – when he found it useful to attend them – as an arena for harsh public criticism of the other Arab countries rulers, but many of the summits he didn’t attend at all, claiming that since the Arab League lacks an agenda with an Arab character, it has no practical meaning and cannot take effective decisions. In some cases he sent junior officials to the summit committees, in order to express disgust with the Arab rulers. Caricatures in Syrian newspapers derided the Arab rulers and showed them as incompetent and ridiculous.
But the great sin of the Syrian regime in the eyes of Arab rulers was the alliance that he formed with the “Ajamis”, that is to say, the Persians at the expense of Syria’s loyalty to the Arab world. All during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Assad supported the Iranians, despite the fact that Iraq is an Arab country, and this created a springboard for the Ayatollahs into the Arab world. Hafez al-Assad supported and aided the Shi’ite Hezbollah, which does Iran’s bidding, in order to take control of an Arab country, Lebanon. And this sin is especially severe in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, the radical Wahhabi Sunnis, who see Shi’ism as a kind of heresy in Islam.
Despite his elimination of some fifty thousand Syrian citizens who identified with the “Muslim Brotherhood” between 1976 and 1982, Assad supported Hamas, the Palestinian arm of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, which undermines the political order within the Arab world on an ongoing basis. Also his open friendship with Gaddafi raised the ire of the other rulers.
This is how Assad the father earned the enmity of the Arab world. His son, who inherited the leadership from him in July 2000, did not do much to improve Syria’s standing in the eyes of the rulers of the Arab world. He gave preferential treatment to Iran, strengthened and promoted the connection with it, and broadened the area of participation even in the nuclear field. This came about in spite of the fact that most of the citizens of Syria are Arab Sunnis, who never felt that their government was responsive to their wishes. They remained poor, unemployed and hungry, while the corrupt individuals who had connection to the regime, “the fat cats”, became richer at the expense of the people.
The Arab League habitually ignored what was happening in Syria because in most of the other Arab countries the internal situation is was not much better. Also, one of the founding principles in the constitution of the League stipulates that each country will deal with its own internal matters and that the League has no right to interfere. However, this rule has been broken several times, mainly when the internal turmoil in an Arab country became intolerable.