The dilemma for Syria’s neighbours

Brahimi and Joffe see how Syrian domestic repression has immediately affected its allies – Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq.

Despite the fact that it has lost its credibility, the Assad regime still appears to retain the support of minority communities in Syria [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – There is no doubt that, in the face of Russian and Chinese vetoes, the failure of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria has removed all restraints on the government’s use of repression. Not only are the permanent members of the Council now irredeemably divided, with Russia and China opposing further pressure on the regime in Damascus, but their Western counterparts seem to have no viable policy alternative on offer, apart from the disastrous course of arming the opposition to the Assad regime. Their disarray became painfully evident at the meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, held in Tunis on February 24, 2012.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime, meanwhile, continues its crackdown, despite the subsequent criticisms of its behaviour by the United Nations General Assembly and the Arab League, and irrespective of the withdrawal of the ambassadors of the Gulf Co-operation Council states together with those of major Western countries and other Arab nations. 

Syrian activists mobilise in Assad’s power base

Indeed, the growing chorus of international condemnation against Assad is counteracted by anxieties, in western and Arab capitals alike, over what a post-Assad Syria would look like. Additionally, in the worsening conflict in Syria, great power politics are mapping dangerously onto regional power struggles, which are in turn underpinned by sectarian ones. What, then, does this unstable dynamic mean for those states surrounding Syria that are directly affected by its domestic repression?

Shia allies

Those most immediately affected are, perhaps, its allies – Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and curiously, Iraq. At one level, these alliances are sectarian in nature since they bring together Shia in Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Iraq, with the admittedly heterodox, but Shia Alawi regime in Damascus. In reality, however, the sinews of the alliances reflect shared political and diplomatic objectives, especially for Iran. Syria and Iran were first united by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) through their shared detestation of the Saddam Hussain regime.

Hezbollah, as an Iranian client and a Syrian dependant, was an automatic partner, even though it has lost popular support in Lebanon and the wider Sunni Middle East because of its continued support for Syria over the past year. That, in turn, incidentally, has sparked pro- and anti-Syrian clashes along the two countries’ common border recently.  The Lebanese government, however, is desperate to keep out of the conflict inside Syria itself for, should the conflict spill over, the threat of renewed civil war would loom terrifyingly large.

Iraqi diplomatic support reflects the influence of Iran inside Iraq, particularly over the Shia majority, as well as ties between the Iraqi premier and Syria where he spent much of his exile as al-Dawa’s representative in the 1980s and 1990s. It does not yet appear to have included material support to the Assad regime as well. One adverse consequence of this is that elements amongst the Iraqi Sunni population, some of them extremist and linked to al-Qaeda which has openly endorsed the opposition to the Assad regime, now actively support the Syrian opposition.

The real key, of course, is the Syrian-Iranian alliance – the core of the Jordanian King Abdullah’s “Shia arc of extremism”. The importance of this alliance between states is crucial to Iran’s project of challenge to moderate Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Gulf. 

Certainly, that power struggle has recently intensified, owing to the military departure of the US from Iraq and the shifting political and ideological sands of the Arab Spring. The “new regional cold war”, as Rami Khoury labels it, aligns in both politics and perceptions with a broader and more historical Sunni/Shia tension. In the words of one Saudi official, “Iran is a direct and imminent threat not only to the [Saudi] kingdom, but to Sunnis across the region.” 

In that context, Iran has provided at least $1bn in aid to Syria, to counter the sting of Western sanctions, and is said to have promised $5bn in total. As such, suggestions that the regime in Damascus will collapse under economic rather than political pressure, are too optimistic. Iran has also provided weaponry and ammunition and is even believed to be considering sending specialised personnel, if not troops. 

Teheran, in short, seems determined to prevent the collapse of the Baathist regime in Syria. It wants to preserve the geostrategic alliance at all costs, but it is also desperate to prevent regime change in Syria becoming a spur to its own disaffected population through the “Green Movement” or to the sinister ambitions for “regime change” that it suspects are housed in Tel Aviv, Washington and Brussels. 

This implies that it is not the Assad regime as such that it seeks to support; any regime that guarantees Iranian interests would be acceptable. Even though it might prefer the Assad regime to survive, Iran could conceivably support current Chinese moves to promote dialogue between regime and opposition, alongside Russian ambitions for similar outcomes.

Friends of Syria: An expensive talking shop?

However, the prospect of Teheran softening its position on Syria is complicated by bellicose noises from Israel about the intention to strike Iran’s nuclear programme by the summer. Israel hopes to attack before supplies of enriched uranium are moved to an underground site at Qom and thus enter “an immunity zone where practically no surgical operation could block them” (Ehud Barack). Unfortunately, these sustained murmurings provide Iran with even more of an interest in entrenching support to its Alawi allies, which, along with Hezbollah, constitute an important lynchpin in the quest to balance Israel in its own backyard.

Opponents, near and far

Moderate Arab states are increasingly outraged by Syria’s confrontational and repressive behaviour. Despite the new activism of the Arab League, its observer mission did not prove to be a renaissance but a damp squib, making no difference to the Assad regime’s aggressive policies against its increasingly disaffected population. The Gulf states, perhaps fearing sympathetic reactions amongst their own populations if they do not express their distaste for the Assad regime, have fallen in line behind Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia itself has, unexpectedly, turned out to be extremely hostile to the Syrian regime’s behaviour. 

The Gulf states and the Levant

Riyadh’s public comments on Iran have been striking for their departure from the usual subtleties of Saudi diplomacy, as was King Abdullah’s pronouncement in August that the Syrian “killing machine” had to stop. In part, this is because of a natural sympathy for the plight of the Sunni majority in Syria, but it also seems to reflect the Saudi monarch’s personal fury at Syrian behaviour. This is surprising, given his close personal ties with Syria where he spent several years after his estrangement from King Faisal in the 1960s.

However, the Kingdom will almost certainly have to consider material support for the beleaguered Sunni population as repression continues – even support for armed opposition. The great danger for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – and this goes for other, unreconstructed states in the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Awakening – is that events in Syria catalyse their own disaffected populations as well. Few of them, after all, are wholly immune to the charge of repressive illegitimacy that they now level against the Assad regime. Assad has picked up on that irony, telling his neighbours: “You have drowned your ships. The next storm will not exclude you”.

That is a danger that certainly faces Iraq and will restrain the Maliki government from too overt support for Iranian and Syrian objectives. In the reverse sense, it will also restrain Jordan, mainly because of Amman’s fears of spillover effects, particularly of mass emigration as the country moves towards a bloody and protracted civil war. Jordan has extremely uncomfortable memories of the Iraqi exodus in the 1990s as sanctions in Iraq began to bite, with the result that unrest and criminality in the Jordanian capital increased as Iraqis challenged Jordanians and Palestinians for available resources. Yet, despite such caution, Jordan will not able to stand completely aside while Syria’s Sunni majority comes under increasing threat – and while one of its main political opponents, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, leads the clamour against the Assad regime’s violence.

The one state that is directly implicated by the events in Syria, but which still has taken no public position is Israel. This is almost certainly because the Israeli Prime Minister would, on balance, prefer the Assad regime to continue; it is a known quantity and any new regime could severely destabilise the effective balance-of-power between two uneasy neighbours. As a result, it has so far confined itself to protecting its borders, as when in June 2011 it opened fire on Syrian demonstrators trying to cross the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights, and to condemning the escalating violence without calling explicitly for Assad to step down. 

However, as demonstrated by the docking of two Iranian warships on the Syrian coast last Saturday, at a time when Tel Aviv has not ruled out launching a unilateral strike against Iran, the Israelis may well begin to reconsider the desirability of the devil they don’t know. The hawks in Israel will see the need to determine which poses more of a threat: the “Islamic fundamentalist” Shia state, or the “Islamic fundamentalist” Sunni groups who are sure to gain a foothold in Syria if Assad’s regime suddenly caves in. In order to forestall the emergence of the latter, it is possible that Israel will increasingly advocate dialogue between the Syrian regime and its opponents, in the hope of averting a fully-fledged sectarian war that will not leave the borders of the “Zionist entity” unmolested.     

North Africa and Turkey

Egypt and, behind it, North Africa are not likely to play much of a role, although Libyan revolutionaries have threatened to flood into Syria to support the armed opposition there. In response to popular pressure, Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Damascus, marking a nadir in relations between two states which were once united (1958-61) under an Arab-nationalist “Republic”. However, Egypt is still obsessed with its own revolution, where the ramifications of the army’s future role will take until the end of this year to be fully resolved. 

Inside Story – Iran and Syria: A show of strength and unity

The Maghrib itself is too remote to be involved beyond moral and diplomatic condemnation. That has been, after all, its default position for decades over events in the Middle East. Algeria is ambivalent – the situation in Syria is too close to its own domestic circumstances for it to wish to become explicitly critical. Tunisia and Libya will maintain their formal condemnations of Syria, but are too engaged in the sequelae of their own revolutions last year, even though thousands of Libyans have been volunteering to bring their revolutionary experience to the protesters in Syria. 

Morocco condemned the Assad regime early on and takes an active part in diplomatic moves against it – as its presentation of the unhappy Security Council resolution demonstrated. However it would not wish to become involved in material support unless as part of an Arab League intervention force after the Assad regime collapses.

The remaining state that is directly affected by events in Syria is, of course, Turkey. A former cautious ally of the Assad regime, the Erdogan government has become increasingly outspoken in condemning the state-directed violence there. 

However, it is notable that, despite early hints that it might create a “safe haven” along the two countries’ common border in which the Free Syrian Army might regroup and train, it has deliberately avoided doing anything so provocative. It has provided a refuge for the fragmented political opposition and has probably turned a blind eye to more militant activities as well. In the wake of the failed UN Security Council Resolution, Turkey is also spear-heading a new diplomatic initiative which will probably aim to tighten sanctions, block arms shipments to the regime, and increase support to the Syrian opposition. However, it is not prepared to overtly espouse armed resistance.

The question is why Turkey – not only a leading Sunni state, but increasingly seen as the paradigm for political change inside the Arab world – should be so reluctant to become actively involved. It certainly does not lack the military power to protect itself from spillovers of the crisis inside Syria. 

Nor does it lack the moral authority to take a more active role. Indeed, it has featured prominently in the international war of words over the crisis in Syria. Exasperated by Tehran’s unwillingness to reign in its regional ally, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc went so far as to call into question the Iranian government’s religious credentials: “I am addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran: I do not know if you are worthy of being called Islamic. Have you said a single thing about what is happening in Syria?”

However, given Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s policy of avoiding problems with neighbours, Turkey’s reticence to intervene militarily is, perhaps, not surprising. This is not because it does not sympathise with its Sunni co-religionists in Syria, although it must pay attention to its own Alawi community and to its much more important Alevi community as well. It reflects, perhaps, the recent threats of renewed Syrian support for the PKK, should Turkey become involved, as well as a preference in Ankara for a negotiated outcome. After all, Turkey will have to live with the consequences in Syria, whatever they may be and it is by no means clear that, in the short term, the Assad regime will collapse.

Teheran seems determined to prevent the collapse of the Baathist regime in Syria [GALLO/GETTY]

West and East

And that is a lesson that Western policymakers should, perhaps, take on board. The comforting assumption in European capitals and Washington that moral disapproval and economic sanctions can take care of the Syrian problem is seriously misplaced. 

Despite the fact that it has lost its credibility, the Assad regime still appears to retain the support of minority communities in Syria and even, although increasingly reluctantly, of the country’s economic elite. Its military capacity is, for purposes of domestic suppression, formidable and it is not hindered by issues of moral constraint from using it. 

As civilian casualties mount, we can expect growing numbers of defections from the armed forces – but these will not have a decisive impact on the balance of power. Most of the key command positions are staffed by Alawis who are personally loyal to Assad. In addition, Assad can depend on a network of internal security agencies, whose interests are entwined with his own. In that respect, the dynamic between the regime and the security forces resembles more Gaddafi’s Libya than Mubarak’s Egypt.

“Friends” aim to help fractious Syrian opposition

Assad is also insulated by active external support from Iran, together with diplomatic support from Russia and China, both of whom are determined to avoid a replay of the Libyan scenario last year. Assad has been prepared to cement that support by professing his willingness to engage in dialogue and has even offered a referendum on a new constitution allowing for a multiparty political system, albeit under Alawi control. 

It is extremely difficult to see how a referendum could be undertaken during an incipient civil war – amidst “the smell of corpses and the dust of the rubble of Homs”, as Walid Jumblatt put it. However, a part of the opposition inside Syria, despite its intense distaste for the Assad regime which it considers has lost all legitimacy, has indicated that, in principle, it might consider such an outcome.

Russia and China, of course, have material concerns too – Russia, in particular, is about to start operations at its new naval base in Tartous and has ongoing arms contracts with the Syrian regime. It also regards Syria as part of its new “near abroad”, and the future Putin presidency in Moscow would not like to see a Western ascendency emerge in the Eastern Mediterranean, alongside the existing pro-American outpost of Israel. 

China has, perhaps, less focused concerns, but it too has economic interests at stake, not so much in Syria but in Iran – and embargoed Syrian oil, 30 per cent of which used to go to European consumers, could always provide a useful addition to the oil flows from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Yet both Russia and China predicate their opposition to United Nations intervention on their belief in the inadmissibility of external intervention and point to the aftermath of victory in Libya to justify their claims. They both, too, propose a negotiated outcome – although who the partners to such a negotiation might be, in the face of the brutality of the Assad regime, they have not as yet made clear! It is worth noting, in this context and both states have quietly been making their own contacts with the Syrian opposition.

In reality, of course, both Russia and China, like Iran, also formulate their stance on Syria with one eye on their own populations. By propping up Assad, Putin frees his own hand to crackdown on the Russian protest movement after the presidential elections in March.  Tens of thousands of demonstrators are calling for an end to rigged elections, the release of political prisoners and for Putin to step aside. China is similarly vulnerable to unrest, with the biggest worry coming from Tibet and from restive Tibetan communities in its western provinces, followed by the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Violent protests are anticipated around the five-year anniversary of the 2008 Tibetan uprising in March and potential unrest in Xinjiang has led to violent repression of the Muslim Uyghurs’ culture and religious belief.

Regrettably, Western powers face a much greater constraint on their freedom of action than their public rhetoric suggests. Even a short and limited intervention, as occurred in Libya, has highly unpredictable implications in a crucial strategic environment – far more complex, indeed, than that around Libya. Few statesmen will want to take responsibility for a military operation with such uncertain outcomes.

Their situation is made worse by the fact that some of the most active proponents of muscular intervention – Britain and France – lack the means by which to do this, owing to slashed defence budgets. It was notable that the best the two leaders could offer at their recent summit in Paris was food aid for Homs, although the means of delivery remain unclear. Despite intense Congressional and popular distaste for the Assad regime, American disinclination for further foreign adventures is even greater. Even in Tunis at the end of February, proposals for humanitarian aid were the sole real initiative that the “Friends of Syria” could agree on, although, privately, some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, hinted that they would supply arms to the Syrian resistance – a counsel of despair, given the chaos it would probably cause.

Pyrrhic victory

Compounding the moral calamity threatened by the unfolding situation in Syria, is a major political one. The disorderly collapse of Assad’s regime would be a disaster for the Middle East. A civil war in Syria would almost certainly spread to Lebanon and Iraq, projecting directly onto the polarising power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, drawing in a slew of other state and non-state actors indirectly, and destabilising the entire region for at least a generation.

Iran warships ‘dock in Syria’s Tartous port’

However, keeping the Assad regime unfettered and in place arguably makes civil war more likely, not less so. Since Hafez al-Assad’s rule, the sectarian nature of the regime was cloaked by its ambitions for a Greater Syria and the state of war with Israel, which allowed for massive military build-up. But making war on Syrians themselves has only accentuated Alawi dominance and forced political fragmentation along confessional lines. 

The irony, of course, is that a negotiated solution is the only viable way out of the current deadlock that avoids the regional consequences of violence, yet it is increasingly difficult to see either side, particularly the opposition-on-the-ground – for quite understandable reasons – being prepared to seriously consider such an option. Even worse, it may soon be only Russia or China that could preside over such a process, were it ever to come about, because they do have contacts with both sides.

Still, it does not seem likely that the Assad regime will crumble under the weight of its brutal excesses, in the short term at least. The referendum offers one way out of this impasse, but it will be impossible to conduct without a halt in the violence – both logistically, and because parts of the opposition will likely boycott it. Moreover, the promise of the referendum is premised entirely upon the current government acting as an honest broker, overseeing a process of political transition. This seems a tall order from a regime which, days before the planned referendum, is escalating, not ending, its siege of Homs.

In the face of a failed referendum, and if the Syrian regime is left unbridled by its more muscular global and regional friends or Russia and China abandon the negotiating option, Saudi Arabia seems likely to lead an Arab bloc (supported at least tacitly by Washington) in arming its opponents. While new arms will surely enable a besieged population to better defend itself, they may well also instigate the “earthquake” threatened by Assad in October 2011. The Assad regime is determined to triumph, even if only through a Pyrrhic victory which could, in turn, explode throughout the region.

Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford. Her work examines the moral justifications given for warfare, as well as jihadi ideology and strategy. Her latest book is Jihad and Just War in the War on Terror.

Follow her on Twitter: @aliabrahimi

George Joffe is a Research Fellow at the Centre and Visiting Professor of Geography at Kings College, London University. He specialises in the Middle East and North Africa and is currently engaged in a project studying connections between migrant communities and trans/national violence in Europe. He is also a lecturer on the Centre’s MPhil in International Relations.