international analysis and commentary

The Syrian conflict and the international alliance race

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Unrest in Syria has been ongoing for the past 13 months. It was initiated by 15 kids in the southwestern city of Deraa, who were inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and openly mocked the regime by creatively expressing their dissent. When these kids were arrested and tortured, anti-regime demonstrations were triggered. Protests spread from Deraa to Damascus, Homs, Homa and other cities. Since then, the regime has stepped up its repression, increasingly targeting villages that host protesters and armed fighters. There have been approximately 9,000 casualties, 200,000 people are displaced within the country and almost 40,000 have escaped to neighbouring countries – mainly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Two critical junctures in particular are key to understanding the diplomatic stalemate. The resulting choices shed light on both the humanitarian consequences and the regional and international power politics that played out.

The first of these junctures occurred last summer, when the regime’s actions towards the uprisings turned increasingly violent and bloody. The international community started to divide itself among different interpretations of the events on the ground and their implications. While Moscow deplored all solutions ignoring an involvement of the regime and of Alawites in general, the Gulf states started to envisage ways to support the Syrian opposition. European and US declaratory policies became assertive but toothless. Some of the difficulties in adopting a clear-cut stance were linked to the status of the Syrian opposition – which started as civic uprisings, then turned into militarized forms of resistance and eventually, as we see now, paved the way for guerrilla warfare dynamics. Parts of the opposition coalesced around the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which however falls short of representing a unified front of opposition against the regime. Also, minorities, such as Alawites, Druzes, Christians and Kurds failed to be integrated into the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the political body supposed to represent the opposition. This led many to suspect that sectarian logics would dictate the evolution of the opposition, something which significantly diminished the SNC and FSA appeal and atout. More broadly, many in Western capitals shared the Russian fear that a post-Assad Syria would become a buffer zone between regional powers (Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other), characterized by persistent internal instability, with potential devastating regional spill-over effects.

The second juncture happened in New York last February at the UN Security Council. The US and Europe put forward a resolution on Syria, supported by the Arab League, guided by Qatar. The idea was to try to broker a Yemeni solution with the Assad regime, devising an acceptable exit strategy for the Assads. 

The resolution called for a strong condemnation of the violence, the oust of Bashar al Assad and a swift political transition headed by a regime figure leading the country to early elections. Russia and China vetoed it on February 4th.

China’s motivations appear clear to all: the country is ideologically and politically committed to the principle of national sovereignty and specifically rejects R2P logics. Responsibility to Protect allows breaches to a state’s territorial integrity if that state is accused of serious human rights violations against its population.

On the other hand, Russia is rightly seen as the pro-status quo player that might be induced to change its stance, once the right carrots are offered on the table. At first, the most obvious explanation for the Russian veto is the country’s reluctance to accept changes in regional politics that might undermine its alliance politics. This is especially so in the case of a long-standing ally in a geopolitically crucial region. In terms of great power politics, as was often the case during the Cold War, Moscow wants to be at least one of the necessary arbitrators of last resort in Middle Eastern affairs. Thanks to its veto power and alliance with China, Russia might have transformed the Syrian conflict into a war by proxy. 

The solution to the Syrian dilemma lies in the dynamic interplay between regional and international politics. Syria interests namely a plethora of regional and international actors. 

We could distinguish at least four fronts: unwavering supporters of Bashar al Assad out of personal interest (the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon); supporters of the Assads but open to intra-Syrian solutions including the Alawites (Russia and China); the West, caught in cognitive dissonance, between calls for R2P, realistic assessments of the risks posed by the complex scenario and by possible unintended consequences and; lastly, those financially and possibly militarily supporting the rebels, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Another way to account for the different stances among regional and international players on Syria is through the lenses of what determined or would determine their alliance with Syria.

Some have built or would like to build an alliance with Syria based on ideological similarities, i.e. sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran fall into this group. The Sunni-Shiite divide is the axis that accounts for national preferences. What many in 2003 depicted as a Shiite Crescent, including Iran, the new Iraq and Lebanon, looks particularly fragile today. On the other hand, the Sunni front, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, has been strengthened by the 2011 uprisings. Even the Shiite protests in Bahrain, violently crushed by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, did little to turn the tide against the Gulf states.

Others have built relations with Syria based on common interests and potential economic synergies. This was the case of Turkey, which is today Syria’s top trading partner and dominant source of foreign investment. Syrians share an Ottoman past with Turkey, a 500-mile border, and, since 2009 a free VISA area, enlarged in 2011 to Iraq and Iran.

Internationally, some countries have built a strategic alliance with Damascus. Russia supported Assad’s Syria since the 1970s, which was reciprocated by Damascus with providing Moscow an access to the Mediterranean, with a maritime base in Tartus. Tartus is the only maritime base Russia has today in the “warm waters”, an enduring aspiration of Russian leaders which goes back at least to Catherine the Great, important both in its symbolic as well as economic dimension.

While it is undoubtedly true that no solution will be devised without an active role played by regional actors and institutions, as the US continues to stress, this by no means implies that regional actors represent a unified front, or that “re-rising” powers, such as Russia, play by new rules of the game. Syrians are caught in an alliance race, characterized by a double logic: alliances following sectarian lines, which accounts for the foreign policies of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and strategic alliances following the guarantee of specific national interests, which accounts for the Russian stance. While the US and Europe struggle between a principled foreign policy (R2P in its different interpretations) and realpolitik considerations (fears of a chaotic, Iraq-style Syria), Turkey appears to have won the moral high ground that all other international players aspire to. Whether this will be enough to broker solutions acceptable to the main stakeholders, unfortunately, is another matter.