Six months ago, it appeared obvious that Bashar Al-Assad was on his way out of Syria. What was less clear, however, was who was likely to succeed him. And it is this particular point – the absence of a clear opposition – that has kept him in place. The various countries that have an interest are both local and global, and the rationale of each bears thinking about.
Let’s start with the neighbours. Immediately surrounding Syria are Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Hizbollah – and therefore Lebanon – is supporting Assad, primarily one suspects because they think he will win. Syria has long been a friend of the Palestinians. Assad himself put it thus in 2002: “As far as an occupier is concerned, there is no distinction between soldiers and civilians… There is a distinction between armed and unarmed, but in Israel everyone is armed. In any case, we adopted the following concept: resistance to occupation is a legitimate right.”
Hizbollah and Hamas have strong connections, supporting one another across the border in an effective defensive alliance against Israel. Iran has an overtly anti-Israeli perspective, and supplies both Hizbollah and Hamas with arms through a protected Syrian corridor. Anti-Assad refugees in the South of the country have fled in their hundreds of thousands into Jordan, with Lebanon and Israel being less receptive destinations. Jordan’s interests are best served by peace; additionally the cost of supporting the refugees is something King Abdullah could do without.
To the east, Iraq would hardly appear as one of the top ten destinations for sanctuary on most people’s lists, but for Syrians near its borders, it’s a case of the lesser of two evils. While in Baghdad the car bombs and suicide bombings continue, and the rest of the country remains unstable, thousands of Syrians continue to flow into Iraq to escape factional fighting in Kurdish Syria. Iraq has its own problems at home; instability on the border is something it could do without. Northern Iraq, and particularly the area known as Kurdistan, which spans Turkey, Syria and Iran, has some regional autonomy, and the leaders of the Kurds in Iraq see themselves in some ways as the de-facto leaders of a nation (small ‘n’) that will see its integrity restored some day. In April, Massoud Barzani went so far as to threaten to intervene in Syria in order to defend the Kurdish people there.
To the north, Turkey fears the flow of refugees, spillover of the conflict from Syria, and further destabilization of its Kurdish region. Bombings in May in the Turkish border down of Reyhanli were directly attributed to Syria’s government forces.
Beyond the immediate neighbours, Iran and Egypt are the two major regional players with a significant concern. Egypt remains roiling in its own internal strife, and one wonders – given the scale of Egypt’s military – whether this conflict in Syria would have persisted for as long as it had had Mubarak remained in power. Certainly Egypt is a lesson for those who think that all dictators are bad and should be ousted. The alternative can often be much worse. Iran continues to support Assad. Partners for some time in supporting the Palestinians, and by extension defending against Israel, and it is unlikely to change that position any time soon. Its new president Rohani last week sent a message condemning the use of chemical weapons, without attributing blame. It provides weapons to Assad, and Iranians are fighting in his army.
An Odd Position: Israel
Israel is of course at the heart of much of the debate, but it has remained very quiet in all of this. To have neighbouring Arab states fighting amongst themselves is on the one hand good for Israel, as it preoccupies and weakens them. However, further fragmentation or destabilization of the region is simply bad. Dealing with strong, self-interested leaders (such as Assad and Mubarak) is a reasonably straightforward exercise. Dealing with factions, ideologs, and rogue elements is far more cumbersome. In addition, the emergence of chemical weapons in Syria is extremely worrying, as those weapons in the wrong hands could cause terrible devastation in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Taking sides is not really an option; no one really wants to have Israel as their cheerleader in the region. So really Israel needs to hunker down and keep the border protections up.
The Secutity Council Members: Grand Strategy
America remains aloof, desperately trying to shake off the self-assumed mantle of Global Policeman while at the same time defending both its middle eastern oil interests, and those of its ally Israel. Russia has long oil and other interests in Syria which it is trying to defend, but this has become as much about Russia’s new place in the world now – and Putin’s place – as about anything regional. Putin is positioning himself directly opposite Obama, even to the point of refuting fact, in the case of the chemical weapons deployments there. China too remains a blocker to increased US hegemony, not that the Americans are really after that. France is using the opportunity to try and maintain itself as a kind of post-colonial conscience, while Britain is desperately trying to maintain some kind of global relevance.
The ball is now in America’s court. The UK has stood down. France will support the Americans in military action at least with diplomacy, possibly more. Russia has declared its overt intention to back Assad, and deny a UN Security Council resolution through its veto. China doesn’t need to take a strong position in such circumstances, and so she waits. America can do nothing; in these circumstances, she would lose face to Russia, and Russia – in diplomatic terms – would win, as would Assad. She can strike ‘strategic targets’ as some kind of punishment of the Chemical attacks, in an attempt to develop some kind of unilateral deterrent (which seems almost entirely devoid of legitimacy, and is therefore both pointless and counter-productive; the weakening of international institutions that would inevitably result would offset any deterrence). The third alternative is to side with the rebels in a more significant way. The problem is, there is no coherence to the rebels. There are factions all over the place; the Western rebels fighting near Damascus are wholly different from the Kurdish factions in the Northeast, and those on the Jordanian border to the south. It doesn’t seem like America has any good options, and has painted itself into a corner.
Meanwhile, Assad continues to rule over Syria, a dysfunctional, broken state whose functional apparatus is diminishing by the day. It is difficult to tell the extent to which it is reliant on the support of Russia and Iran, though these supports are undeniably significant. Weariness may in the end determine the end of this war that has raged now for over two years. The Arab Spring appears to have found its Winter.