international analysis and commentary

The regional meaning of Syria

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The Syrian crisis is a real game changer in the context of the Arab transitions – and potentially beyond. One year ago, Hosni Mubarak, after a thirty-year rule over Egypt, resigned from office due to mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and mounting international pressure calling for (to quote President Obama) “a stable and ordered transition”. Quests for freedom and democracy were spreading throughout the region in a totally unexpected and endogenous way as the reasons and the key players of this process of change were rooted in the basics of Middle Eastern societies. The scenario started to modify (more than with NATO intervention in Libya) with the opening of the Syrian crisis. The regime’s increasingly brutal repression could yet trigger a dangerous chain reaction at the international level. Damascus represents, so to speak, the “external deviation” of the Arab Spring.

Grounded on a fragile equilibrium, Syria is a peculiar country. It is widely recognized as a sort of religious melting pot, where Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, have coexisted quite peacefully for centuries, one next to the other. But Syria is also (and mostly) an intricate maze of regional and global power relations. It is one of the key pieces of a chess game characterized by a constellation of political, economic, and religious ramifications, in which all of today’s great powers are involved, either directly or indirectly.

During the Cold War, Syria was the Soviet gateway to the Middle East: through a naval base in the Mediterranean (Tartus) and the guarantee of safe oil supplies, Moscow enjoyed direct access to regional affairs, much like Washington (thanks to its support of Israel and pre-Khomeini Iran). Above all, Syria used to play a crucial diplomatic role, being at the crossroads of the Sunni-Shiite division and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the most influential actor in Lebanon’s cronically unstable balance. Syria’s relative importance grew in the 1980s when, as Egypt and Iraq passed to the US side, it remained the only pan-Arab country aligned with the USSR. Furthermore, given the rule of the Alawite el-Assad family, Syria turned into a strategic ally of Iran and a point of reference throughout the Shiite world.

This relatively favorable situation (from Syria’s point of view) changed completely in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era. A combination of factors explains the deterioration of Syrian international influence. First, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Although Moscow still remains a key partner, Russia has inevitably reshaped its foreign policy interests and tools by cutting financial aid to allies and bringing its fleets back home. Most importantly, Russia has become a primary energy exporter and has broadened its diplomatic portfolio in the region (specifically, to include Iran and Qatar, thereby forming the so-called “gas troika”); this, as a result, has diminished the role of Syria. Second, the US-led invasion of Iraq not only overthrew Saddam Hussein, but created a new political system favoring the Shiites – the majority of the Iraqi population. With a large Sunni majority, Syria’s status declined.

Damascus also lost control over Lebanon. In 2005, Damascus had to withdraw all troops as a consequence of widespread anti-Syrian demonstrations and rising pressures that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was openly demanding that a UN resolution calling for the end of the country’s military occupation be applied. Furthermore, in the summer of 2006, Israel launched a rapid and successful military operation in South Lebanon against Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Shiite radical movement. The aggregate result is, clearly, a double defeat for Damascus and a significant loss of leverage with respect to its neighboring countries.

Finally, the balance of power in the Middle East today is undergoing remarkable changes. On one hand, the old pan-Arab and secular regimes are ceding to the oil-exporting and Sunni Gulf monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. Though Libya is an exception, the evolution of the Arab uprisings otherwise shows that protests have developed mostly in countries with negligible oil and gas resources and exhausted nationalist ideologies. Such countries have much more limited revenue to invest in, for instance, financial assets (sovereign wealth funds) and media communication (broadcasting companies). They can also ill afford economic aid for fellow political Islamist groups and movements. Furthermore, infra-Arab rivalries are hit by the return of two traditional non-Arab actors (Iran and Turkey) whose conflicting interests and policies, along with those of the world’s great powers (the US, Russia and, to a lesser extent, China), create an increasingly treacherous situation.

Put differently, Syria symbolizes a Gordian knot of early twenty-first century international relations. As a matter of fact, Assad’s ruthless repression of internal revolts is explicitly based on a rational gamble: unlike fellow Arab dictators who have recently been overthrown, Syria sits at the top of a web of ambiguous alignments and counter-alignments designed to play a key role in resolving the issue of Iran’s nuclear proliferation program. Syrian leadership is confident that its own removal as an actor here would provoke a spiralling conflict in which outcomes promise to be profoundly negative, politically and economically. Basically, two coalitions are currently facing off. On one side, Assad and the Alawites are backed by Iran in a sort of Shiite brotherhood for which, in fact, Syria plays the role of a buffer between Tehran and Jerusalem. Syria and Iran are then sponsored by Russia (followed by China) which aims to prevent the loss of key military and economic partners as well as further developments of radical Islam in the Caucasus. We might call this group (Syria, Iran, Russia, and China) Group A, which is confronted by Group B: the latter brings together Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates (the anti-Shiite rentier states’ coalition), Turkey (home of Syrian opposition parties), the US, and Europe.

This situation, however, is complicated by internal contradictions within Group B: Turkey (a close US ally and NATO member) is developing a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that recently brought Ankara to break its long-lasting friendship with Israel and oppose the NATO campaign over Libya. Also, being a former ruler of the Arab peninsula, Turkey is an unnatural partner of the Saudis. Yet, Prime Minister Erdogan agreed with NATO’s decision to install anti-ballistic systems on its territory to prevent Iran’s nuclear threat, which is also the primary goal of the Americans, the Europeans and the Saudis, not to mention the Israelis. Qatar’s position is somewhat different: along with neighboring monarchies, it has been advocating military intervention in Libya and Syria, but it is also a member of the “gas troika” with Russia and Iran – a cartel created in 2008, which controls around 60% of global gas supplies. In other words, while all these countries have a vested interest in keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power, they are at odds with each other on the way in which the modern Middle East should be run and – especially – by who should run it.

The end result is that the Syrian crisis is blocked by an evident stalemate. A direct, Libyan-style intervention from the outside still looks very unlikely as it would not guarantee the oust of Assad nor even stop the mass killings. Worse, the degree of violence could further degenerate in a chain reaction that would inflame the whole region. Also, it is not at all clear who would now prove able and willing to bear the (economic and military) costs of such action. It will not be NATO, which emerged as a washed-out and fragmented coalition in Libya. Nor will it be France or the United States, as both Sarkozy and Obama face crucial general elections. It will not even be Israel, which has recently developed a sort of peaceful coexistence with Syria and, above all, is uniquely focused on Iran’s nuclear reactors. Finally, it will not be Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf Emirates, in particular due to their military dependence on the US.

Conversely, a highly surgical operation conducted by British and/or Turkish intelligence might be a viable option. Cameron and Erdogan are stable leaders, not up for re-election any time soon, and renewed nationalistic feelings in London and Ankara could serve as a strong basis for some kind of covert action. Also, Turkey and the UK have a long military tradition and well-established and efficient special forces. Indeed, secret negotiations with some of the regime’s top officials are probably ongoing: the threat of an external military intervention could yet be used in a strategy to compel Bashar el-Assad to leave the country and begin a transition process. For the time being, however, the Alawite elite still looks monolithic and no clear and reliable leadership seems to have galvanized the galaxy of Syrian opposition groups in Istanbul.

Overall, today’s Middle East represents an ideal Hobbesian scenario: a hyper-competitive environment dominated by opportunistic countries possessing strategic energy resources. The situation is further exacerbated by an evolutionary pattern putting declining regional powers (Egypt, Libya, and Syria) against new rising players (Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey), all under the ever-resilient US shadow. But as we know from historical experience, power transitions are the most risky phases in international relations. Those states unable to accommodate the gap between their internationally recognized role and their own perception of their ranking in terms of power might turn aggressive and jeopardize regional, or even global, stability, with disastrous consequences. We know this from a wealth of literature on the origins of World War I, in particular. Our priorities must now be to halt the bloody massacre of civilians in Syria, but also to avoid at all costs going “back to the future”: from Damascus 2012 to Sarajevo 1914.