The Syrian crisis: what is at stake for regional players?

Competing regional interests suggest that arriving at a coordinated response to restoring order to Syria and preventing instability in the region is highly improbable.
Maysam Behravesh Mohammad Reza Kiani
10 September 2011

President Bashar Al-Assad, who has often boasted of his country’s immunity to movements for change, is experiencing unprecedented waves of anti-government protest that have grown increasingly violent in recent months. Although he has struggled to appease protesters by promising reform, his efforts to fend off their wrath are insufficient. Demonstrations have swirled around Syria, raising serious questions about the credibility and durability of his regime. As the crisis continues, different regional and international actors have sought to take a range of measures to bring to an end the potentially explosive situation in Syria, as developments will advance the (trans)national interests of some at the expense of others, both if they spiral out of control or come to democratic fruition.    

Map of Syria: CIA (2009; public domain)

Whether the Assad regime will be dealt the coup de grace is still a moot point. Protests in Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s largest cities have subsided while no high-profile political or military figure has turned his back on the government and joined the opposition forces - as witnessed in Libya and Yemen. This may imply that the beleaguered president remains relatively popular among the high echelons of Syrian society, including the military chiefs, influential clerics, business heavyweights, and perhaps portions of the middle class. Yet, with almost daily news of escalating violence emerging from Syrian cities, any prospect of the government restoring peace and order diminishes. How could a destabilized or a new Syria without Assad impact on its neighbours? What is at stake for Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the primary powerhouses in the Middle East?        

Iran is viewing the unfolding turmoil with considerable alarm. Syria’s Assad has been Tehran’s closest Arab friend, as the close ties of both governments, with similar political and religious leanings, maintained since the early years of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), were further deepened by sharing a common enemy – Saddam Hussein - during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and its western allies, with which both Tehran and Damascus have often been at loggerheads, sealed their partnership. They have developed shared interests and attitudes vis-à-vis Israel, Palestine, and resistance groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Add to these bonds the support Syrian leaders have consistently expressed for the Iranian nuclear programme, and it is clear that the Islamic Republic and Syria have a strategic alliance.   

The potential collapse of Assad’s regime would disturb not only the regional but also trans-regional balance of power at the expense of Iran, leaving it virtually alone amidst foes such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and rivalrous friends such as Turkey and (potentially) Egypt. The IRI officials have made no secret of their strong desire that Syria under Assad should be protected from what is usually presented as a foreign conspiracy against an Islamic resistance front. Theirs is a deep-seated fear that any substantial change in Syria that loosens the grip of Assad at home will similarly loosen the already challenged grip of Iran abroad. It is the Syrian situation which will in important part determine the regional geopolitical meaning of the Arab Spring for Tehran, as far as power dynamics in the Middle East are concerned.

Nationwide unrest in Syria has also affected Turkish national interests, confronting Ankara with an acute security dilemma. Though various geographic, political, and historical links bind the two adjacent states together, Syrian–Turkish relations have been strained as a consequence of the crisis of authority in Damascus. On the one hand, Turkey cannot remain silent on the Assad regime’s violent treatment of demonstrators, mostly because of the growing popular expectations of its renewed role as a powerful player in the Middle East and Muslim world. Additionally, thousands of Syrian immigrants and refugees, forced to flee from growing insecurity in their home country, have flooded the border areas inside Turkey, posing another grave politico-economic challenge to the Ankara government. It is no wonder that the Erdogan administration has protested vigorously against the massive repression of widespread dissent by Damascus.

On the other hand, however, Turks are deeply concerned about the political aspirations of Syria’s Kurdish minority for autonomy, a minority which makes up about 10 per cent of the Syrian population and which has been consistently contained in one way or another by the Ba’athist government. The potential marginalization of Assad and the ensuing power vacuum in Syria could empower the Kurds and raise the prospects of an Iraq-like autonomy for them. The issue gains more significance when it is considered that there is no civil society in the restive country able to lead a ‘peaceful transition’ to a stable and democratic nation-state. Syria may degenerate into a ‘proxy battleground’ for regional and trans-regional powers; something Ankara as well as Moscow and Beijing are averse to seeing. Turkey’s pressures upon the Syrian regime to institute immediate and structural reforms in the country coupled with its refusal to champion the US call for Assad to relinquish power, should be interpreted, above all, as indication of its strong desire for the maintenance of stability in Syria. This does not mean, however, that Ankara sponsors the Syrian president: rather, it does not want Syria to turn into another Iraq or Lebanon.   

In a similar vein but rather different terms, Saudi Arabia has been faced with a delicate dilemma in the wake of momentous developments in its neighbourhood. Keen to contain its entrenched Shiite rival, Iran, Riyadh wishes, in tune with its powerful western partners, to see Assad off. In addition to wielding greater influence with Sunni communities in the region, the policy has another significant advantage for the Saudi establishment. This may enable it to offset the public-diplomacy fallout from its repressive intervention in Bahrain and project itself as a pro-democracy force in the region, something it has been striving to do since the outbreak of turmoil in Syria.

In a recent statement, King Abdullah urged an end to the clampdown and proclaimed that the kingdom would summon its ambassador from Damascus. The King presented Syria with two options: “Either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of chaos and loss." He went on to call for "quick and comprehensive reforms … reforms that are not entwined with promises, but actually achieved so that our brothers the citizens in Syria can feel them in their lives,” as if our brothers in Saudi Arabia had long been feeling such effects deeply in their lives. This irony represents a fault line over which Riyadh fears to tread. Riyadh’s pleas for reform and democracy are in marked contrast to the type of governance the Saudi King and his Wahhabi entourages have practised during their decades-long rule.

Most curious of all is perhaps the Israeli position. The Netanyahu administration has for the most part remained silent on the massive protests in Syria, desiring a weakened Assad on the one hand while fearing a more audacious government if the demonstrations succeed in ousting the current regime. In spite of much vocal speculation blaming Tel Aviv and its western allies for the crisis in Syria, Israel would prefer the retention of Assad in power – as he has proved to be a cautious opponent, willing to be restrained in the face of Israeli aggressions – to the rise of a group in Damascus which might not tolerate the Israeli regime’s assertiveness. What underlies this argument is the assumption that any potential change in Syria is unlikely to bring to power a Sunni pro-Israeli government like that of Saudi Arabia, and more likely to result in a pro-Palestine one, similar to that of post-Mubarak Egypt.

In such an environment, arriving at a coordinated response to restoring order to Syria and preventing instability in the region is highly improbable. The uncertainty has been further compounded by the creation of two opposing trans-regional fronts over the Syrian crisis – the US and EU which have levied severe sanctions against the Ba’athist regime and are eager to take its case to the UN Security Council versus the BRICS group of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that are against another Libya-style campaign in the country. All told, perhaps the only viable option Damascus has been left with, is to put an immediate halt to the systematic violence, it has so far deployed and make the necessary arrangements for a national dialogue, not only to introduce profound structural reforms but also to share power with the opposition. Assad must allow the Syrian people a greater say in their country’s affairs if he still thinks of having a stake in the Syrian polity.   


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