International rivalry over Syria means conflict likely to intensify

In today's security briefing, Jaffar Al-Rikabi argues that rival interventions by outside powers threaten to intensify violence in Syria. Meanwhile, a gas discovery in the Eastern Mediterranean may add to disputes in the region.
Jaffar Al-Rikabi
20 September 2011

Beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received a boost yesterday with the visit of a Russian delegation led by Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umkhanov. Upon arriving in Damascus, Umkhanov declared that any Syrian reforms ‘should be carried in conditions when no outside pressure is exerted on Syria, and with no foreign interference.’ 

Umkhanov’s announcement consolidated Moscow’s position on the Syrian protests, which has included a rejection of any U.N. council resolution, and the advocating of a ‘political, non-violent’ resolution to the Syrian question. 

Russia’s moves counteract a western push in favour of regime change, which two weeks ago featured an oil embargo and expanded sanctions in an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on powerful business elites in Damascus and Aleppo that largely remain supportive of Assad. But while painful, these sanctions – and indeed, arguably any other that the west can bring to bear – are not lethal to the regime. 

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, immediately condemned the sanctions, illustrating the difficulty in putting together a robust sanction regime that can be universally implemented.

Yesterday’s Russian visit came just three days after Ghiyath Matar, a Syrian youth leader dubbed ‘little Ghandi’ for championing non-violence, was killed, his brutalised body returned to his family by the authorities with the claim that ‘gangs’ had been responsible. Matar’s killing sparked outrage and dismay, and the fear that protesters’ momentum was now ‘dying’.

The openSecurity verdict: As Assad’s Baath regime continues its crackdown against ongoing protests in Syria, the fate of the Syrian people may increasingly rely on the outcome of a tug of war between states who support regime change in Damascus and others who oppose it. 

The outcome is unlikely to be pretty. More probably, the result of the clashing international agendas, a determined elite fighting to maintain power, and an increasingly desperate protest movement, is a Syria that is broken. 

The question being asked is no longer whether there will be civil strife, sectarian violence, and economic hardship, but rather for how long and at what cost will Syria suffer under such conditions. 

The alignment of forces suggests uncomfortable answers. On the pro-Assad side, Russia has pulled hard. So has Iran. But others are not so easy to predict. In a recent visit to Paris, Lebanese Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi caused a sensation when he questioned whether the course of the Arab protests are serving the people, and Arab Christians in particular, warning of the likelihood of an Arab world divided into “confessional states.”

Along with the US and the European Union, the proponents of change include an unlikely but equally fervent player, Saudi Arabia. Of course, Saudi Arabia is not motivated by any regard for humanitarian concerns or democracy. Rather, its policy on Syria is driven by a combination of strategic interests and poisonous sectarianism: weakening an important ally of its chief rival for regional supremacy, Iran; and punishing the ruling Syrian Allawites, who are a Muslim sect Saudi deems blasphemous.

Saudi is not alone in putting its wider strategic interests first. It would be naive to think morality is the only impetus driving western actions, when much oppression in the region, not least in Bahrain, has gone largely unpunished. Weakening Iran’s hand and punishing Assad for a track record for intransigence (on Iraq, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) are likely equally compelling. 

But against these perceived ‘wins,’ questions regarding the costs and consequences of intervention arise in the context of troubled economies back home and the etched experience of regime change in Iraq.  

And so Europeans and Americans hesitate. They come to dither too when they consider the alternatives to Assad. While a secular Syrian opposition movement has tried to coalesce in Paris, it is the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi-backed Salafists that seem to be the most active participants in the protests – and the greatest victims of the Baath regime’s crackdowns. 

If the tide is now seemingly turning in Assad’s favour, there are no guarantees it will stay that way. More senseless bloodshed might enrage the millions of Syrians in Damascus and Aleppo that have thus far remained quiescent. A fresh cycle of even more dramatic protests resulting in even greater massacre may unfold, and that might finally move the UN Security Council into action. 

Alternatively, Assad’s instincts for survival may induce him to lessen repression when he feels protestors have learnt their lesson. He may promise reforms, and deliver some concessions. The west will likely reject such steps as too little, too late, while Russia and its allies may herald them as path-breaking. 

The likely outcome is more death, major economic disruption, and the possible onset of civil war. 

Gas discovery adds more fuel to middle eastern fire

A giant new natural gas field, straddling Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, threatens to add a new twist to conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Robin Mills in Foreign Policy magazine reports. In the absence of demarcated maritime borders (e.g. between Israel and Lebanon), disputes on how much of the gas belongs to which country are likely to escalate. And while Israel has been quick to start developing the resources, Syria and Lebanon’s troubled politics leaves them far behind. 

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