Syria and the unfolding hegemonic game

A new strategic alliance has formed, Ankara and Riyadh against Tehran, all trying to gain influence over Damascus.

Erdogan and Assad
If Assad falls, Turkey would loose all their investments in Syria and are worried about spillover effects along the border [EPA]

London, UK – In spite of mounting international and regional pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime, there is still no real prospect of a quick end to the on-going instability and instead Syria is set to enter a long and bloody civil war. And as political stalemate continues, a genuinely regional hegemonic contest between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey over this small but strategically important nation has begun to unfold.  

Since the fall of Mubarak, Saudis have decided to drastically reduce their reliance on the US for securing their foreign policy interests. Riyadh has not only begun to strengthen its armed forces, but it has also decided to use its petro-dollar more aggressively seeking to buy influence in return for the provision of generous financial assistance. Capitalising on Egypt’s weakness, moreover, Saudi has assumed the leading role in the Arab League to the extent that many Arab observers see the League today as “an extension of the GCC”. Finally, preferring evolution to revolution, Saudis have crushed revolutionary movements in Bahrain and Yemen albeit via different means.

Turkey’s continued economic growth in the face of the current global crisis, its remarkable success in achieving societal cohesion by needling the gap between secular and religious forces, and its boosted standing on the world stage as a role model for Arab revolutionaries, on the other hand, have enhanced her assertiveness. Today, Turkish leadership is keen to behave “as a kind of independent regional power similar to the democratic members of the BRICS”. To this end, Ankara has sought to expand ties with Egypt in order to defuse any potential Arab criticism of its hegemonic tendencies. According to the Turkish Foreign Minister, “a partnership between Turkey and Egypt could create a new, democratic axis of power”.

Lacking Turkey’s democratic appeal amongst the Arab public and Saudi’s money, Tehran has followed a different path seeking to strengthen its alliance system as opposed to trying to expand its influence into new theatres. And as American troops begin their withdrawal, Iran’s influence in Iraq is set to rise even further especially that Ankara is more interested in intra-Kurdish affairs and Saudi appears to have abandoned Shia Iraq altogether. Iran’s influence in Lebanon will also go unchallenged as Hezbollah continues to dominate the Lebanese politics. This leaves Syria as the first theatre in which this regional hegemonic game will begin to fold out.

Syria is important to Iran for two broad reasons. Firstly, it is the link between Iran and Hizbullah. Assad’s fall will therefore be a massive blow to Iran’s foreign policy by greatly reducing Tehran geopolitical reach. Given the Iranian regime’s own unpopularity, secondly, Tehran fears that Assad’s fall could dangerously revitalize Iran’s own anti-government movement. Saudis, on the other hand, are eager to see an end to the Assad’s rule not least because he is an Alawi. Moreover, Assad’s demise will enable Saudi to challenge Tehran in Lebanon with greater ease. For its part, Turkey is mainly concerned with the Syrian situation because it shares a long border with Syria, and that on-going instability in Syria could have destabilising effects on Turkey’s own Kurdish population. Also, Ankara knows all too well that Assad’s hold on power could mean a near-total loss of its investment in Syria. This is not to mention that there has been a historical rivalry between Iran and Turkey over Syria dating back to the Ottoman-Safavid era.

Currently, Turkey and Saudi seem to have entered a tactical alliance against Iran by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and calling on Assad to resign. Yet it is not at all clear if this alliance will achieve its desired outcome. It could in fact crumble over time. Ankara and Riyadh have opposing interests in Egypt. Saudis prefer a strong presence of military and Mubarak-era personalities in the government, whereas Turkey favours a newly and democratically elected government in place as soon as possible. Given Cairo’s dire financial needs, Saudis are more likely to obtain the upper hand there which will almost certainly antagonise Ankara. More importantly, as US is preparing to leave Iraq, there are already reports of tension between Kurdish and Iraqi security forces along the trigger line. If the civil war in Syria and the US departure lead to the revival of independence discourses amongst the Kurds, Turkey should then be expected to join forces with Iran so to preserve Iraq and Syria’s unity even if that means supporting Bashar al-Assad.

Interestingly, as the United States reorients its foreign policy focus towards the Asia Pacific, this rivalry is the clearest indication of how the future regional order will look like: a multipolar system with Iran, Saudi, Turkey, and Egypt, once it stands on its feet again, as its poles. And as this new order takes shape, one can be certain that there will be more instability ahead, and the greatest challenge facing these would-be powers will be the regulation of their rivalries.

Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at Transnational Crisis Project, London. His areas of interest and expertise include the Middle East, Political Islam and De-radicalisation, China, Caucuses, Energy Security and Geopolitics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.