SYRIA AND MIDDLE EAST: OPTIONS AND IMPLICATIONS 1/2
By Andrei Akulov – Strategic Culture Foundation
The Arab Spring has not had a major impact on regional or international balance of power so far, but this could change if there is a regime change in Syria. A dangerous and unpredictable chain reaction may set the region ablaze. The repercussions throughout the world are impossible to predict. Inciting escalation is Syria is like playing with fire.
Some say the situation’s is unfolding in the direction of a Greater Middle East. To great extent it’s the development of the events described in the famous Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East by Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy. The only thing there is no way to say definitely what the Greater Middle East will be like and who’s interests it’s going to meet. As well as nobody can say whether the events will have positive or negative influence globally. There is something new emerging but something being a far cry from what the major part of US think tanks ever predicted. Talking about Syria we see an extremely complex political regional power game leading the Middle East into uncharted territory. The positions of outside players to great extent determine Syria’s outcome.
Here is a cursory look at the prospects and possibilities of the situation unfolding.
Violence in Syria is on the rise. Even if civil war is not imminent, the uprising is nonetheless transforming into a low-scale insurgency with clear sectarian tilt.
Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions have failed so far to bring about any change. For instance the threat of Arab League sanctions carries little weight for Syria which has past experience of being estranged from other Arab countries. In the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Syria stood alone among the Arab countries sided with Iran against Arab Iraq. Its major trading partner is the European Union.
Western military intervention is really a remote possibility. Syria has not committed the grave mistake Colonel Gaddafi did, it’s air defense capability is up to par, an air attack against Syria is a risk of high losses, something extremely inconvenient for NATO at the moment. So the only option available for the West is to continue to ratchet up economic and political pressure, including the possible formation of “safe havens” within Syrian territory.
An international contact group established in Paris to coordinate Syria policy has come out with an idea of creating safe zones within Syrian territory. The idea has Turkish and Arab support. It is envisaged to establish two zones – one under Turkish supervision in the North and the other under Jordanian supervision in the South. Becoming a reality it could mark a turning point in the way the situation unfolds with the opposition forces gaining control over territory under international protection. Something like Benghazi in Libya becoming a safe haven for everyone opposing the Gaddafi government and a beachhead for military operations. No doubt the Syrian leadership sees the threat clearly and would go to any length to resist such turn of events.
The opposition’ organization is starting to take shape. During the initial period of the uprising, the majority of the demonstrators were civilians across the country – there was no coherent, organized opposition. Now we have the Free Syrian Army appealing to soldiers to defect with some effect. The defectors from the Syrian army not only have access to weapons, they have inside knowledge of the country’s armed forces. Outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is the leading opposition group. Most see the SNC as basically a Muslim Brotherhood branch. The Turks are already providing a moral and political support to it. However, the Syria’s renewal of material supplies and giving safe haven to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a serious deterrent. The Syrians can allow the PKK to launch cross border raids into southern Turkey.
What is the opposition?
Armed opposition forces are increasingly active. The Free Syrian Army is expanding its operations, attacking loyalist forces. The violence is becoming more sectarian, especially in places like Homs and Hama that have borne the brunt of regime repression. Intended originally to provide protection from army’ violence, the formation of armed units prompted use of force on their part making Syrian minorities wonder what’s in store for them in case the Assad regime collapsed.
Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is a group of mostly Sunni conscripts and low and mid-rank officers who fled to Turkey. This group set up a beachhead for operations in southern Turkey and has announced the creation of what it calls a temporary military council to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Taking into consideration the Syrian armed forces command is dominated by the Alawite minority, it will be very difficult for lower ranking Sunni members to wage a successful coup. Besides they need a sanctuary to organize and sustain an armed resistance. It’s yet to be seen if the refugee camps in southwestern Turkey, where the Free Syrian Army leadership is located, could be extended into a staging ground for Syria’s fledgling armed resistance. There is a lot of talk in Turkey discussing the expediency of establishing a military buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border with Arab League and possibly U.N. backing. No decision on the matter is sight as yet.
Syrian National Council. The formation of the inclusive Syrian National Council a few weeks ago is to improve coordination among a Syrian opposition divided by internal divisions. It will provide at least some framework for engaging the international community. Even rudimentary governance structures would demonstrate its viability as an option to the Assad government. However, though a step forward, very significant compromises were reached to pull the opposition together. The divisions may constrain its capacity to provide a unified alternative to the Assad government.
The SNC is a coalition of a few major groupings, with the Muslim Brotherhood enjoying leading position. Leadership is supposed to function on the basis of rotation among the leaders of the factions. The decision making process is still blur. Its leadership is seen to be heavily Islamist. Minorities and women, as well as Syrian secularists, are underrepresented. As a result a number of influential opposition factions were leery of extending their support to this version of the SNC. Its international recognition is put to the back burner, at least for the time being.
President Bashar al-Assad will not step down. If removed that is only after much more bloodshed and civil strife in the country. That would be the death knell for the position of Alawi minority dominating position and for secular socialist Baath Party that has been in power for over four decades. It does maintain a stance against rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country and it brings it the support among a significant portion of the Sunni and Christian Arab members of the population. Many Syrians fear an Islamic fundamentalist government may come to power Syria.
As violence becomes more widespread and better organized, concerns have been growing about the possibility of a full-scale civil war. Yet Syria is still some distance from such a tipping point. The balance of forces is still weighted heavily in the government’s favor. The mentioned above defections do not yet pose a serious threat to the capacity of Syria’s armed forces. The security and intelligence agencies ace effective bodies reflecting a high level of coherence.
Besides there is a probability of continued transformation of the uprising into a low-scale insurgency meaning violence below the threshold of civil war.
What are the options the West, Turkey, and the Arab governments are facing? The formation of safe havens on Syrian territory, continued support for the Syrian National Council and peaceful elements of the Syrian opposition. We’ve yet to see if demonstrations continue to spread, especially in Damascus, if the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo, would become a Syrian Benghazi. Another determining factor is what neighboring states stance, Turkey on the priority list. Is Turkey’s military intervention an option?
A Syrian friend and major trade partner not long ago Turkey has gone to a hostility that stops just short of intervention. Right now Turkey’s view and position regarding Syria is harsh and uncompromising. Its policy is based on supporting the US and Europe, becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition. Troops concentrated on the Syrian border, it tries to organize Syria’s internal opposition and says it out loud the government in Damascus should be gone. Until now Turkey has used military force in the Middle East only to counter the intermittent threat of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It had never called for any government to be overthrown or ever resorted to military force. It refused to join the operation in Iraq in 2003. Furthermore those days it refused to let the USA armed forces enter Iraq from its territory. No opposition movement had ever used its territory as a base. What’s at the root of this about face?
Turkey taking lead in the region
In his “The Third Wave: the democratization in the late 20th Century” Samuel Huntington pointed out the existence of a “demonstrative effect”, meaning a chain reaction – an example of earlier transitions provided patterns to follow for subsequent efforts at democratization that in turn provided models for other efforts. Turkey may start this chain reaction. Besides there is cultural affinity between Turkey and the countries of the region. So its example is more relevant in comparison with non-Muslim nations. A page from the Turkey’s book could be brought to bear on a number of areas where reform is vital.
Turkey’s role as a leading example for other Middle East actors to follow may present its relationship with the West in quiet a different light. A Turkey acting to foster democracy and the rule of law in the Arab world is a way to make a long cherished idea of a “Greater Middle East” a reality.
Egypt has lost its previous status and has gone to the sidelines. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia have their own internal crises and Syria has also lost its important role in the Arab world due to the events in question. So Turkey tries to rise as a major power while other main actors in the Middle East are in grips of political, social, and economic problems. This has become the main focus of Turkey’s foreign policy in relation to Syria and other countries.
No loss in trying. No way Turkey can join the EU but its NATO membership is not imperiled. Not with a NATO missile defense radar and a new drone base deployed on Turkish soil. Becoming a Greater Middle East leader is a good try.
Challenges on the way
But does Turkey have a stable rear? It has to fight the Kurds in the East. The further escalation means running serious risks. Kurdish separatist activity may spill across the border. So far, Kurdish protesters in Syria have been relatively contained but what if? Then further escalation would make Turkey vulnerable to Syrian and Iranian militant proxy attacks, at the time it has to deal with a significant rise in PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) activity and has a mission to uproot the organization’s cells in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Syria and Iran do not exert direct influence on PKK’s activities, but they do influence splinter factions that could demonstrate the repercussions of driving the Syrian government to the wall.
Inter ethnic and inter confessional strife in Turkey is here to stay. About 12 million Alawi Muslims (the estimates are very different – from 5 to 20) make up a part of the country’s population. It’s not the most prosperous or powerful part of it. Will they support a military action against Syria where the Alawis are in power?
Turkey’s relations with Iran have become problematic due to several issues. For instance, the installation of missile shield elements in Turkey and close relations with the United States and other countries that are hostile to Iran – all this causes anxiety among Iranian leaders. Right now relations between Iran and Turkey are very good and there are no issues reaching a crisis state. But once Turkey thinks of itself as a leader in the Middle East and strives to have a key role in the regional developments Iran becomes an serious obstacle and a mighty rival because by and large it pursues the very same objectives. For instance in Syria.
Of course, the Turkey’s foreign policy is based on its own interests. Therefore if influential countries like Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have internal challenges in their nation-building, the only country that can be the center of attention in the region is Turkey. The role is played aggressively in the framework of these developments. This does not mean that Turkey’s foreign policy is a total success until now, in fact, there are internal challenges, tensions with its neighbors and Iran is a strong rival. These are the factors to take into consideration. Think twice before jump.
SYRIA AND MIDDLE EAST: OPTIONS AND IMPLICATIONS 2/2
By Andrei Akulov – Strategic Culture Foundation
REPERCUSSIONS FOR REGION
No doubt Syria is the country where the so called the Arab spring has the most profound geostrategic implications. The fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government would make the Middle East quiet a different place. The impasse we have now emphasizes the polarization of regional actors along for and against Assad lines having in mind the risk that the ongoing internal escalation in Syria will have unpredictable repercussions on regional scale.
The West. The West has long loathed the Syrian government, just enough to remember its interventions in Lebanon, its support for Palestinian Hamas and enabling of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But there are also examples of constructive cooperation the Western media somehow forgets about these days. Syria fought alongside the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. It offered to join the West in intelligence gathering efforts after 9/11 terrorist acts in the USA. It should also be taken into account that the Assad’s government fall could have negative impact on neighboring countries whose own sectarian power balances connect with Syria’s own. So a desire to get rid of the Syrian government is here to stay. But it’s an open question if its fall would really serve the Western interests. It’s a pity cool thinking is not up to fashion at present among Nato and EU leaders and a major part of Western think tanks.
The Persian Gulf states. The events in Syria give the Gulf States a chance to get rid of an important Iranian ally (the dangerous rival for influence in the region). They can offer significant financial support to those who oppose the Syrian government. Their ability to influence events directly is rather limited. Syrian opposition and Gulf states are divided along sectarian lines. Parts of the Syrian opposition have been courted by the respective governments, but there is still deep mistrust to overcome and that’s a long way to go. Of course no part of the Arab world is immune from the repercussions of the Arab spring. But by and large, the oil monarchies are clearly the least affected area. Bahrain and, to lesser extent, Oman and Kuwait saw some demonstrations but things seem to cool down there as the region is heating up. They are all rather small places easy to police, compared to Syria, for instance They have oil and money as tools to mitigate whatever discontent may spread among population. But they lost their most important ally – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Iran is a dangerous opponent and a powerful actor in regional politics. Many in the Gulf states elite see playing the sectarian card as the best way to limit Iranian influence, since there are more Sunnis than Shia in the region. Though it may exacerbate their problems in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon, and encourage extremist salafi reactions in the Sunni community. In turn it may strengthen al Qaeda adherents and other extremists positions. Playing the sectarian card may backlash causing too much harm.
Hotspots. As mentioned before Syria occupies a strategic crossroads in the region. The potential fires from a spark are too many to enumerate. An event in Lebanon, for instance, could divert attention of the Syrian government from domestic situation. Or insurgents could slip across Syria’s long and porous border with Iraq to spark discontent among hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Kurdish discontent is vulnerable to a spark too. Despite the 1974 “separation of forces” agreement with Israel, war scare is common. Although monitored regularly by U.N. peacekeepers, the two countries keep fingers at the triggers. Israel is locked in a dangerous standoff with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas-ruled Gaza. The future of the standing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan is uncertain in light of the protest movements. So, the Syrian instability makes Israel more nervous and on edge. Besides what about the regional unrest spreading to the Palestinian territories? Overall, it’s hard to know what implications are there for regional peace and security until there is greater clarity about Syria’s political future.
Iraq. Iraq’s reaction to the popular uprising in Syria is mostly determined by the chaos that would follow the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Baghdad has little to offer to support Iraqi government but it does what it can to help. The sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, however, is a hurdle on the way of developing a decisive position on the issue. .
Jordan. The Jordanian government is deeply concerned about the turmoil in Syria, The spillover effect is a nightmare. Syria’s capacity to undermine Jordanian internal situation has some historic examples. So, the official reaction is cautious no matter outside pressure. It just avoids to provoke the neighbor. Amman is doomed to react carefully to events in Syria to ensure the security of the state.
Lebanon. Lebanon’s leading political actors hold vastly different views on the situation and desirable outcomes. But all sides fear potential descent into a sectarian civil war and seek to insulate Lebanon from its repercussions. Lebanon’s ability to influence the conflict inside Syria is almost non – existent.
Despite their common interest in toppling Syrian government, there is thing that is common for all players. No one wants to set the region ablaze.
POSSIBILITY OF MILITARY ACTION
This possibility exists, but now it seems the odds are not high. Syria is completely different from Libya, it has allies. Iran, Lebanon, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. They will take action, especially Hezbollah and Hamas.
Syria and Iran has long maintained a close relationship. The West imposed sanctions on both what makes them be in the same boat.
Hezbollah in Lebanon is Syria’s loyal ally, with more than 20,000 soldiers, with tanks, missiles. The personnel got experienced confronting Israeli army. The organization has branches in Jordan, Yemen and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Hezbollah would immediately start these organizations if need be. The dilemma for the West, Turkey, and the Arab governments now openly opposed to the Assad regime, is what more they can do short of military intervention in some form. The formation of safe havens on Syrian territory is a significant step. So too is continued support for the Syrian National Council and peaceful elements of the Syrian opposition. Intensifying subversive actions is an option. Creating “humanitarian corridors” is an issue on the agenda. No doubt they will be used to transport Syrian spies, armed anti-government forces, military material and whatever is required for subversive activities. Although the Western countries the possibility of military intervention in Syria at present does not seem high, but “civil war in Syria” will create conditions for those who seek to undermine the Syrian state intervening on the side of militant opposition.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made his first official visit to Syria on May 10-11, 2010 after President Assad visited Russia in 2005, 2006 and 2008. It was the first visit by a Russian President to Syria, either from the Soviet or post-Soviet era. At the time of the visit President Medvedev gave definition of the bilateral relations to the Syrian daily al-Watan. The Russian leader wrote, “Naturally, elevating bilateral relations to a new level requires efforts. Before anything else, it requires multi-level political dialogue. What unites us is the idea of creating a just world order, based on the rule of law and equality between all nations—be them small or large—and to work amongst them to solve international affairs facing the world in the 21st century.” The President stressed that that what unites him with Syria is the common vision for a new multi-polar world order. The former USSR had played an important role in the in the development of Syria’s economy. With the participation of the USSR and then Russia, 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure have been built in Syria. Soviet-era assistance led to the development of one-third of Syria’s electric power capacity, one-third of its oil-processing facilities, and the three-fold expansion of land under irrigation. There areas of Russian interest include the development of Syrian oil and gas fields, as well as construction projects in fields such as power generation, sea ports, and the renovation of Syria’s industrial infrastructure. Before that following President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow in 2008, Syria had agreed to allow Russia modernize port facilities at Tartus and Latakia to provide the Russian Navy with Mediterranean berthing. With a significant history of cooperation behind them, and with many Russian energy companies focusing on expansion abroad in recent years, it would seem that Syria and Russia could have had much to offer each other if not for the present political turmoil.
Syria attacked on all fronts, Russia is among countries bucking the trend. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said further attempts should be made to engage with Damascus against the backdrop of Turkey considering imposing a buffer zone along its border to protect Syrians. Sergey Lavrov opposed the idea of an arms embargo, saying it is unfair to expect the Syrian government not to respond to unrest. He said something very important and absolutely true that is seldom mentioned by Western outlets in general – the most part armed opposition groups were provoking the Syrian authorities. The Russian support for Syria is not just empty words. Early December 2012 Moscow sent the air capable guided missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov and two escort ships on a two-month tour of the Mediterranean and would be dropping in on the Syrian port of Tartus. At present, the base is mostly used to support vessels of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Some 600 military and civilian personnel of the Defense Ministry serve there. The US aircraft carrier groups are frequent visitors off the coast of Syria. “Of course, the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean will be incommensurate with those of the US 6th Fleet, which includes one or two aircraft carriers and several escort ships,” Admiral Kravchenko, former Chief of Main naval staff, explained. “But today, no one talks about possible military clashes, since an attack on any Russian ship would be regarded as a declaration of war with all the consequences.” “Having any military force other than NATO’s is very useful for the region because it will prevent the outbreak of armed conflict,” the admiral added.
The events in Libya weigh heavily on the Russia’s policy with Syria. Back in August Lavrov said “Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria.” meaning brazen exceeding by NATO the limits imposed by the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. Russia accused NATO of breaking the spirit of the U.N. resolution by picking sides in the Libya conflict and openly backing the opposition. Negative experience of NATO’s air campaign in Libya made it unlikely that Moscow would back the imposition of an arms embargo against Syria. Russia teamed up with China last month to veto a Western-backed U.N. Security Council October resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s government for violence the United Nations and presented a draft of its own this December calling for all parties involved to show constrain. Sergei Lavrov has also said Western nations had taken an “immoral” stance on Syria by criticising Russia and increasing pressure on Assad while turning a blind eye to violent action by armed anti-government protesters. Russia holds an opinion there is little evidence to suggest that sanctions would help end the crisis in Syria or anywhere else.
By and large the Russian stance is based on the fact that both sides are to show restrain, it’s not a fair game to put the blame on the Syrian leadership only, the assessments of the situation are to be impartial. The UN or any other international body doesn’t serve the purpose of toppling governments. Russia firmly opposes the repetition of the Libyan scenario and calls to moderation and talks instead of provoking further escalation. It urges an end to violence in Syria but said the West should not ignore the danger posed by what he called extremist groups in the country.
WHAT’S IN STORE?
The Syrian internal situation will continue to escalate, causing a further rise in tensions between Turkey and Iran. And all this at a time when no one really knows how the political forces inside Syria are distributed and when which way the confrontation between Ankara and Tehran may turn. Any military intervention against Syria, the Middle East will break the pattern, resulting in a regional rebellion. Russia is an important actor trying hard to prevent the worst to happen. It had warned the USA not to start the Iraqi adventure.