The Regional Implications of the Syria Crisis

By John Calabrese | Asst Prof / Director Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) - American University / Middle East Institute | Dec 21, 2012
The Regional Implications of the Syria Crisis

The Middle East Institute is proud to present a paper based on a series of discussions with Middle East analysts sponsored by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue held in Istanbul and Washington about the regional implications of the Syria Crisis. Guest Participants:  Geneive Abdo, Stimson; Amr al Azem, Shawnee State University; George Gavrilis, The Hollings Center; Leila Hilal, New America Foundation; Saban Kardas, TOBB University; Mark Katz, George Mason University; Meir Litvak, Tel-Aviv University; Phebe Marr; Caryle Murphy, Woodrow Wilson Center; Denise Natali, National Defense University; Randa Slim, Middle East Insititute; Ekaterina Stepanova, Institute of the World Economy and International Relations; Ilhan Tanir, Washington Point; Gonul Tol, Middle East Institute; Kadir Üstün, SETA Foundation; Alex Vatanka, Middle East Institute; Mona Yacoubian, The Stimson Center

INTRODUCTION

Syria’s geo-strategic position and history have added an important external dimension to the conflict there, now in its 21st month. As the Syrian crisis has intensified, it has roiled all of its neighbors, not just upending the regional status quo, but also threatening to spark a broader regional conflagration.

To date, there have been live fire incidents on all of Syria’s borders, including the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But even more destabilizing have been the new dynamics the conflict has unleashed, including a regional power struggle between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, heightened Sunni-Shi‘a sectarianism, the fanning of Kurdish separatism, and the destabilization of Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, among other regional consequences.

Regrettably, international diplomatic efforts have thus far failed to secure a lasting cease-fire to the Syria conflict, much less to lay the groundwork for a negotiated political settlement, and as a result, the region and its people are likely to face the prospect of greater instability and suffering. 

Against this backdrop, Middle East Institute scholars Geneive Abdo and Randa Slim convened a multinational group of Middle East expert in Washington, DC to discuss the regional implications of the Syria crisis. The gathering was inspired by a Hollings Center dialogue in Istanbul in the summer of 2012 on “Foreign Policy and Competing Mediation in the Middle East” that brought together American, Arab, Russian and Turkish Middle East experts.  With the support of the Hollings Center’s small grants program, Abdo and Slim reconvened several of the Istanbul panelists for a Middle East Institute Annual Conference panel entitled “Syria and the Regional Implications of the Crisis” held on Wednesday, November 14. The next day, the five panelists were joined by a larger group of Washington, DC-based analysts, to explore the dynamics of the conflict, its regional ramifications, and the roles of regional and key extra-regional actors as facilitators or as obstacles to the pursuit of peace. Their roundtable discussion served as the basis for this paper.

DYNAMICS OF THE SYRIAN CONFLICT

The current state of play and its immediate effects:   

For months, the Syrian regime and opposition forces have been locked in both a military and a political stalemate. On the military front, rebel forces have claimed control of certain areas — including large swaths in the northeast ― and have stepped up clashes in and around Damascus, disrupting activity at the airport, and putting significant pressure on the regime.  But while rebels control more than half of Aleppo, no major city has fallen completely into their hands. The Assad regime still contests the opposition forces in Deraa, Homs, Hama, Damascus, Idlib, Dayr al-Zawr and the coastal cities. Meanwhile, the Assad regime still has considerable military assets in reserve. And although its forces have largely abandoned the countryside around major urban hubs to the opposition, they can still reach these areas with long-range artillery and air power.

On the political front, the Assad regime, which from the outset viewed the situation as an existential conflict, remains single-mindedly determined to stay in power. The opposition, hobbled by internal divisions, has been unable to construct a vision of a post-Assad Syria in which minorities would feel secure. Lately, the political opposition has coalesced around the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), and the military opposition groups have formed a united military command. Both efforts are a first step in the opposition’s ongoing efforts to project the image of a viable governing alternative to the Assad regime.

The military and political stalemates have yielded troubling consequences. The political vacuum inside Syria has been exploited by extremists and helped the regime sustain its core support from Alawites, Christians, Druze, and certain Sunni elements. Within the international community, there is growing anxiety about the regional threat posed by the Syria crisis, including the potential use and proliferation of Syria’s sizeable stockpile of chemical weapons. Still, growing fears have yet to translate into a consensus at the political level as to the most appropriate response. Meanwhile, at the operational level, the provision of humanitarian assistance has been impeded by the security vacuum within Syria, mainly in the north, which is now suffering severe shortages of bread, water, fuel, and medicine.

The correlation of forces – regime vs opposition:

The Assad regime has a number of political and material resources at its disposal, and it enjoys qualitative military superiority. Despite defections, regime forces remain essentially intact. However, the regime’s launch of Scud missiles against rebel forces in early December is seen to signify increasing desperation on the part of the regime.  In a December 16 interview with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, Syrian Vice President Farouk al Sharaa acknowledged that Syria’s army units and security forces cannot achieve, as he put it, “a decisive settlement.”

Politically, the regime has profited from the fragmentation of the opposition and divisions among the major powers. It has also capitalized on the fears of minorities — fears which the opposition thus far has failed to assuage. The rise of the militant rebel group, Jabhat Al Nusra, and the rallying of the opposition around it, reinforces these fears among minority groups, as well as large groups of secular Syrians.

Still, the regime is viewed by critics and allies alike as increasingly weak. Even Assad’s erstwhile ally, Russia, admitted Assad’s possible ouster when deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov publicly stated in December that the Syrian government is losing more control and more territory to the rebels.

The Syrian opposition is multi-layered, and its power diffuse. The opposition consists of political and military groupings, each of which is divided along multiple, cross-cutting fault lines: “insiders” and “outsiders”; “establishment” figures and emerging grassroots leaders; secular, Islamist, and ethno-sectarian factions and combatant groups.

The military component of the opposition consists of an array of armed elements which vary according to their size, combat experience and effectiveness, sources of and access to weaponry, locus of operations, political orientation, and relationship to the communities in which they are active. Some militias maintain direct ties with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Others do not but nonetheless identify themselves as members of the FSA. The remaining dozen or so armed elements include Islamist groups such as the al-Tawheed Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Once on the defensive, Syria’s rebels have gained momentum in the past month with a number of tactical advances. They seized several military bases in December alone and now enjoy both improved access to weapons, as well as improved combat capabilities.  As their strength increases, the balance of power on the ground  is shifting away from the civilian opposition in favor of the rebels.

This dynamic is raising questions and concerns about future coordination and cooperation between military and civilian opposition groups. In an attempt to unify the political opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), comprised of members within Syria and abroad, was formed in Doha in November to replace its ineffective predecessor, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and create a provisional government ready to take over once Assad is gone. The SOC’s credibility is derived from its leadership, comprised of well-known Syrian dissidents, including Riyad Seif, Suheir Attassi and Moaz al-Khatib, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. However, some 40% of the Coalition is made up of former members of the SNC.

Another component of the political opposition is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which includes many figures long tolerated by or once part of the regime. Other groups, such as the National Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) — a network of local protest groups which encourages participation from all segments of Syrian society — are broadly anti-government rather than political per se.

Further complicating the picture are the Syrian Kurds who, up to this point, have generally remained on the sidelines. Were they to become part of the wider Syrian opposition, the conflict dynamic could fundamentally change. However, the Syrian Kurdish minority is not monolithic. Syrian Kurdish communities are not geographically contiguous, and Syrian Kurds are divided politically.

It is also important to note that the political landscape on the ground in Syria is changing rapidly. A “new layer” of opposition has emerged inside the country which consists of an assortment of youth and activist groups. However, there has yet to develop a mediating institution or mechanism between the “establishment” opposition leadership and this popular base.

The fledgling National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces faces the urgent but daunting task of forging some semblance of unity, coherence, and coordination under circumstances in which the regime appears to remain unshakably committed to its own political survival whatever the cost to the country, the Syrian people, or their neighbors. Among SOC’s key responsibilities will be facilitating the provision of international humanitarian and material support, including weapons, to the “liberated” areas of Syria.  

KEY REGIONAL AND EXTRA-REGIONAL PLAYERS

Syria’s neighbors are increasingly being drawn into the conflict ― as victims and as protagonists. All have a stake in its outcome. Whether and how Bashar al-Assad is forced from power and there is some form of internal reconciliation will reshape the balance of power politically in the country. This, in turn, will have significant implications domestically and regionally on Syria’s neighbors and allies. It is therefore not surprising that the situation in Syria has sharpened the divisions among them and spawned competing approaches to the conflict itself.

Lebanon: Clashes between Lebanese security forces and anti-Syrian demonstrators in October following the funeral of assassinated intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan (whose death many blamed on Hezbollah, acting on Syria’s behalf) raised the specter of renewed civil war. Since then, there has been no violent escalation perhaps because there is widespread recognition that sectarian strife will produce far more ill effects than gains for all concerned. As for Hezbollah’s leaders, they do not appear to believe that the regime is on the verge of defeat. In contemplating the possibility of “Syria without Bashar,” their main concern has been whether mutual deterrence with Israel is sustainable.

Nevertheless, the situation in Lebanon is precarious, negatively affecting Lebanon in several ways. First, it has precipitated a refugee crisis which the Lebanese state — whose social service networks are underfunded and understaffed — is ill prepared to address. Second, it has inflamed sectarian, mainly Sunni-Shi‘a, tension at the community and national political levels. Third, it has deepened the political impasse between the country’s two most powerful political players, Hezbollah and the Future Movement, which views Hezbollah as increasingly  vulnerable politically due to its backing of the Syrian regime.  More than at any time in recent years, Hezbollah is facing scrutiny and pressure inside Lebanon because of its partisan position on Syria and the possibility that it may lose its main conduit of weapons from Iran.

The scenario most feared by Hezbollah is  an outright victory by the Syrian opposition leading to Assad's forced ouster from power, especially if it results in a Sunni-dominated Syrian leadership that adopts an anti-Hezbollah policy in Lebanon. Instead, most beneficial to Hezbollah’s interests in the short to medium term would be a protracted civil war in Syria that weakens all protagonists and prevents the emergence of a strong central state dominated by the Sunni-majority opposition.

Iran: Tehran remains committed to supporting its Syrian ally and — framing the conflict as a “proxy war” — believes it is justified in doing so. Tehran has provided various forms of assistance to the Syrian regime, ranging from arms and money to an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) presence and technical expertise to clamp down on the Internet and social media. Iranian leaders do not regard the possible defeat of the Assad regime as constituting an existential threat to themselves. Tehran’s “worst-case scenario” would be a US-led Western military intervention with a UN Security Council imprimatur, but this does not seem imminent, or likely.

Iran’s primary objective in Syria is to maintain the transit route for arms to Hezbollah and to prevent Syria from becoming a platform to conduct activities against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Accordingly, Iran has sought to replicate in Syria the tactical collaboration between Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force which it established and employed in Iraq.

However, the Iranian leadership has drawn a distinction between the survival of the Syrian regime and of Bashar al-Assad, and Tehran has sought to position itself as a potential mediator in the “long game” of an eventual negotiated settlement of the conflict. Most recently, it proposed a six-point peace plan that calls for the establishment of a transitional government leading to presidential elections, a sign that its support for Assad may be cooling.

In the meantime, though, the Syrian conflict has already damaged Iran’s regional position. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis has fundamentally changed as a result of the conflict. A future Sunni-dominated Syria is unlikely to remain a close Iran ally, and Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah via Syria are likely to be curtailed, putting new pressure on the Lebanese Shi’a movement.

Meanwhile, sectarianism has taken a sharply anti-Shi a, anti-Iranian character throughout the region as a result of the war in Syria. Even Shi'a in some Arab states, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, who once supported Iran have either parted ways with the regime for its continued support of Assad, or have remained silent. Iran's claim of pan-Islamism across the region, which would unite Sunni and Shi'a, is no longer credible, if it ever were. Although Iran will face great obstacles if Assad falls, its degree of isolation cannot be measured at this stage. Iran will still remain influential in Iraq, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and among some Shi‘a in the Persian Gulf.

Iraq: Since the 2003 invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, Iraq has gone from being a strong to a weak and fragile state. In addition, there has been a major shift in the ethno-sectarian composition of the government from Sunni- to Shi‘a -dominated, and in the locus of authority from the center to the periphery. In addition, Iraq has moved from having had close ties to Moscow to close collaboration with Tehran, while its relationship with Washington remains uneasy.

Given these profound changes, Iraq finds itself in a very delicate position vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. The foremost concern of the Iraqi government is the possible spillover of the conflict whether in the form of an even larger influx of refugee returnees (many of whom are former Baathists and opposed to the Maliki-led regime in Iraq) or of anti-government insurgents operating from sanctuaries in Syria with or without the Assad regime’s active support. Prime Minister Maliki also fears the pressures that might be placed on his Shi’a-led government in the likely event that a post-Assad Syria is headed by a Sunni-dominated government.

In crafting its approach to the Syrian conflict, the Maliki-led government has sought to balance pressure from the United States with the substantial influence Iran has over the Baghdad government. Against Washington’s wishes, however, Maliki has allowed Iranian use of Iraqi airspace to provide Assad logistical support. Iraqi Kurdish factions, too, have had to balance the manner and extent of their intervention in Syria against their broader political, economic, and energy interests.

Israel: On the whole, the Israeli policymaking establishment has opposed becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict, believing that involvement of any kind is likely to be counter-productive. Israelis view Bashar al- Assad as a problematic yet familiar, cautious, and predicable foe. Nevertheless, they prefer that the Assad regime falls because they regard the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance as posing the gravest threat to Israel. Even so, the possible demise of the Assad regime presents serious risks for Israel in the form of the possible transfer of chemical weapons to hostile actors, the spillover of hostilities to the Golan Heights, a Salafi takeover, or the possible disintegration of Syria.

Saudi Arabia: The Saudis’ strong opposition to the Assad regime is rooted in a combination of personal and geopolitical motivations. King Abdullah holds Bashar al- Assad personally responsible for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. From a strategic perspective, Saudi Arabia aims to have a strong hand in developing a “new Syria”, i.e. one that is not aligned with Iran.

On the domestic front, the conflict in Syria has created an opening for senior clerics to increase anti-sectarian rhetoric. However, this has reinforced the prevailing sentiment of disaffection and alienation among Saudi Shi’a youth. The Syrian conflict has also sharpened the contradiction between Saudi Arabia’s external policy of supporting revolution and its domestic policy of suppressing protests.

This combination of personal, political, and sectarian rationales has made Saudi Arabia one of the most vocal regional actors in calling for an end to the Assad regime and has translated into significant Saudi financial support for the opposition, which has used the money to buy arms on the black market. At the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh in early December, Saudi Arabia joined more than 100 other countries in endorsing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and pledged $100 million in aid to the opposition.

Turkey: The Syrian conflict has been a major test for Turkey’s Middle East policy as well as its domestic politics. Regionally, Syria has become the test case for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s vision to engage regional actors, including former adversaries, through trade, investment, and political and cultural exchanges.

On the domestic front, Turkish engagement with the Syrian regime ensured its cooperation with Turkey in its three-decade fight against the PKK.

Faced with a high-stakes crisis on its southern border, Turkey pursued a cautious approach vis-à-vis the Syrian uprising. However, as the Syrian regime’s crackdown became increasingly bloody, Ankara progressively distanced itself from the Assad regime and sought to coordinate its policy with Arab countries and the West, while reaching out to Tehran and Moscow in an effort to undercut Assad’s international support.

By the fall of 2011, Erdogan was calling for Assad’s ouster, with Turkey playing host to Syrian opposition gatherings and sheltering the Free Syrian Army, offering the group a safe zone and a base of operation. In retaliation, Assad granted several concessions to the PKK and the Democratic Union Party, the PKK offshoot in Syria, to operate freely and recruit new fighters for its campaign against Turkey.

The Syrian crisis has exposed the limits of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy while calling into question the utility of soft power instruments. The Syrian crisis has also posed a direct security threat to Turkey. Both the PKK presence in northern Syria and the ongoing fighting between opposition forces and the Assad regime on Turkey’s border have raised concern in Ankara. The deteriorating security condition on the border has prompted Turkey to request Patriot missile batteries from its NATO allies to protect Turkish territory from Syrian missile attacks.

Russia: Moscow’s approach to the Syrian conflict has been driven by its determination to prevent a repetition of the Libyan intervention and to avoid abandoning a long-term client state. Its initial position of placing a heavy bet on Bashar al-Assad, based on an instinctive affinity with the Syrian regime, could prove to have been a strategic miscalculation but one that was perhaps unavoidable. For one thing, it took Russian authorities a great deal of time to make sense of the rapidly changing situation in Syria and formulate a coherent stance. For another, the unexpectedly turbulent election season in Russia compromised Moscow’s ability to respond pragmatically to the Syrian conflict.

Over time, the Russian position regarding the Syrian conflict has become one of damage control. The primary reason for this shift was the unprecedented, overwhelmingly negative repercussions of its initial pro-Assad stance and its multiple vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions seeking to pressure the Assad regime. Russia emerged as the main external scapegoat among non-Western states in the U.N. General Assembly and throughout the Middle East.

As the professional foreign policy community in Russia has regained their normal influence, this has given way to more pragmatic considerations. Indeed, the Russian position has evolved, and Moscow has devoted greater attention to humanitarian concerns. Officially, Russia does not take any side in the conflict. However, Russia has retained its historical role as the key weapons supplier to the Assad regime.  Meanwhile, though, Russian diplomats have been talking to a broad range of opposition elements and have participated in Track II dialogues. In a sign of Moscow’s growing disillusionment with its ally, on December 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was advocating a solution in Syria that would prevent the collapse of the region and continuous civil war, “not retain al-Assad and his regime.”

TOWARDS A BREAKTHROUGH?

It is not far-fetched to imagine a protracted political and military stalemate marked by even greater loss of life, population displacement, and physical destruction, coupled with more frequent live fire cross-border incidents and other potentially destabilizing activities. What, then, could mitigate these risks? Is a breakthrough leading to a negotiated political settlement possible, and if so, what are the prerequisites for achieving it?

A large-scale Western-led military intervention seems out of the question. Therefore, breaking the military stalemate would likely require the introduction of heavy arms of the type that opposition fighters have lately captured in relatively small quantities ― artillery, howitzers, and surface-to-air missiles. Yet, it is far from clear whether this would deter the regime and create conditions for a negotiated settlement or trigger the further escalation of the conflict. The Obama administration has steadfastly opposed supplying such weapons, lest they fall into the hands of extremists. Furthermore, a fundamental change in the military balance alone is unlikely to expedite a political settlement.

Hope for a more unified opposition currently rests on the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) gaining traction, but many questions remain unanswered about how effective its leadership will be and its credibility among rebels and opposition groups on the ground in Syria.  

That the SOC has won growing Arab and international acceptance as a legitimate interlocutor is an encouraging development.  But the SOC needs more than just recognition.  It needs a credible political strategy to oust Assad. This, the international community can encourage and support but not create out of whole cloth and impose. The SOC will also need help in achieving a monopoly on external funding and supply of weapons to armed opposition groups. Here US diplomacy could prove helpful in persuading regional and extra-regional actors of the risks of effectively sabotaging the efforts of the SOC . For, while many wish to remove the regime, none really wants to topple the state. In the end, the common fear that Syria might become a “failed state” could provide the enabling conditions for a cease-fire to take hold and negotiations leading to an eventual political settlement to take shape.

SUMMATION

The Syria conflict has the potential to change the regional balance of power significantly with all players nervously eyeing the gains and losses to their regional status and strength and responding accordingly. Whether Syria faces an ongoing military stalemate, the collapse of the Assad regime or collapse followed by civil war and fragmentation, several regional trends appear to be unfolding in the country that will continue to impact the calculations of, conditions in, and relationships among the regional states. The rough outlines of such a picture are already apparent:

  • A shift in the regional power balance, marked by the possible fatal weakening of the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis and with it, the diminishment of Iran’s ability to project its influence.

  • The worsening of Sunni-Shi‘a sectarianism, which has already contributed to tensions between Ankara and Baghdad as well as between Ankara and Tehran, and which could unsettle the fragile confessional equilibrium in Lebanon, deepen the societal cleavages in Iraq and elsewhere, fuel Sunni Arab extremism.

  • The fanning of Kurdish separatist tendencies, which would threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq and Turkey, not to mention Syria itself.

  • The continuation of a “proxy war” whereby Syria’s neighbors — whether motivated by fear or ambition — contribute to an escalation of violence which, in turn, results in an even greater civilian death toll and population displacement.   

After more than forty years of authoritarian, minority-rule in Syria, new social, political, and sectarian dynamics have been unleashed that are upending the regional status quo. As the conflict drags on, the challenges of stitching Syria back together grow, as does the risk of further regional destabilization. At what point the international community finally reaches consensus on how to end the bloodshed may well depend on the extent to which Syria's problems continue to threaten the security and stability of its neighbors.

Syria's neighbors are increasingly being drawn into the conflict as victims and as protagonists

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