The Syrian Crisis

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Moran Stern

M.A. International Relations, 2011. The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

The salvation of the Syrian people may not be achieved by initiatives of the West or international organizations, but from the efforts of other regional powers for whom the future of Syria is more critical. The recent decisions by the United States, the European Union, and Turkey to impose sanctions on Syria, to freeze the assets of the regime, and to demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down are insufficient to head off a tragedy. Indeed, the Syrian regime continues to violently repress its own people.

Unfortunately, most of the region’s states are preoccupied with their own domestic unrest, derived from their citizens’ revulsion over decades of political oppression, corruption and unemployment. Facing harsh criticism at home, most Arab leaders think twice before criticizing neighboring countries on similar grounds. Therefore, time may be on Assad’s side.

Moreover, the uncertainty regarding the future of post-Qaddafi Libya, the bleak economic situation in the United States and President Obama’s plans to reduce American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sensitive situation in Egypt, guarantee Assad additional days of grace. The last thing the world desires is anarchy in Syria. Better deal with the demon the world knows than the demon hidden in the shadows, for instance, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.  

But Syria is of major interest to other Middle Eastern powers, and its future has direct consequences for the stability and security of many of the regimes in the region. Syria plays an integral role in a broader battle over the future leadership of the whole region. The primary participants are the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, two regional powers with diametrically opposed religious affiliations and regional aspirations.

Despite internal disagreements among the Iranian political elite (namely, between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), the prolonged tenure of the current Syrian regime depends on an Iranian consensus. Besides the religious affinity, centered on common Shia roots, between the ruling Syrian Alawi minority and the Iranian clerical leadership, there are other reasons for Iran’s interest in the survival of the Assad regime.

First, with Syria on its side, Iran stretches its long arm hundreds of miles beyond Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula into the Levant. Second, an Iran-friendly Syria opens access for Iran to the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Strong ties with Syria allow Iran to gain a maritime route from the Gulf, via the Suez Canal, to the northern waters of the Mediterranean. This is safer and quicker than continental routes for transporting not only Iranian goods, but also arms.  Third, Syria shares a border with Iraq, the traditional enemy of Iran, with whom it fought a horrifying war for nearly a decade during the 1980s. Iran would prefer a Syrian regime that would cooperate with Tehran and exert pressure, when necessary, on the Iraqi government. Fourth, Syria also shares a long border with Turkey, Iran’s historical geopolitical competitor, which also seeks close ties with Assad (although for different reasons). Having Syria on its side would increase Iran’s influence in the area and limit Turkey. Lastly, through Syria, the Iranian regime can maintain its military, financial and logistical assistance to the radical Shia organization that it created in its own image, Hezbollah (also a protégé of the Syrian regime).

Hezbollah is an Iranian instrument for influencing the region’s stability, in general, and Israeli, U.S., and Lebanese policies, in particular. Therefore, as long as Assad holds power, Iran, despite its distance from the Middle East, will continue to be an influential regional factor. The Iranian regime could bargain with the West to get sanctions relaxed and pressure eased regarding its nuclear program. In light of all of this, it is not surprising to read of the participation of Hezbollah cadres with Iranian basij in the suppression of civil protests in Syria, and of the interception by Turkish authorities of a weapons shipment from Iran to Syria.  

Regarding the other main power in the area, the Saudi monarchs would prefer to see Assad’s regime collapse. Theologically, the Shiites are the bitter enemies of the Sunni Saudis, the guardians of the holy places of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, the Shiite minority suffers discrimination and political harassment by the authorities. Moreover, the socialist Baath party, which has ruled Syria since the 1963 coup, is the diametrical opposite of the Saudi monarchy.

As in the case of Iran’s interest in Syria, the main Saudi interest is strategic. Ending the Assad rule may trigger the break-up of the Iranian-Syrian axis, which dates back to the early 1980s. Fissures in this relationship would make communication between Tehran and Damascus difficult, isolate Iran and Hezbollah, limit Iran’s regional influence, and make Saudi Arabia the Muslim hegemon in the Middle East.

Six years ago, Saudi Arabia lost an important asset, making its regional aspirations more remote. In February 2005, a car bomb rocked Beirut, killing Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Rafic Hariri. The loss was a huge blow to Saudi interests in the Middle East. Prime Minister Hariri was a close ally of Saudi Arabia; he had made his fortune in the kingdom and raised his family there.  Most important, Hariri was a vocal opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and a political rival to Hezbollah. Things got worse for the Saudis in summer 2011, when the government of Saad Hariri, Rafic’s son and successor, collapsed in what seemed to be an initiative by Hezbollah’s parliament members. The prime minister is now Najib Mikati, a pro-Syrian politician. 

According to the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), four Hezbollah members are responsible for the Hariri assassination. Although the STL does not refer directly to the Iranian or Syrian regimes as involved in the crimes, it is hard to imagine that Hezbollah would implement an operation with such far-reaching consequences without the authorization of Tehran and Damascus.

Ironically, the chance for  regime change in Syria offers a rare opportunity for Saudi Arabia to restore its regional influence and to make up for what it lost with the death of Hariri. A new Syrian government would likely be both Sunni-dominated and pro-Saudi. But even if it were not, the Saudis would do their best to ensure that the new Syrian political elite would be uncooperative with Iran. 

And then there is the post-American Middle East. The grave economic situation in the United States, Obama’s pledges to cut the number of troops in the region, and the American goal of transferring Iraq to the Iraqis, make the odds of a reduced American presence in the region more favorable than ever. According to the Economist (August 2011), by December 2011,  “the last 45,000 are preparing to leave” Iraq.  One implication of a significant U.S. departure from the region is that American deterrence, which the Saudis have enjoyed for decades, might diminish. For Iran, on the other hand, a reduced American presence permits more strategic flexibility.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are doing the best they can to improve their respective positions for the day after an American readjustment in the Middle East. Iran seeks influence in all those unstable states where the United States has a massive presence  (Iraq and Afghanistan) and will take advantage of  Western inaction in Syria to support their ally Assad. With a more limited U.S. presence, Saudi Arabia will have to develop a more independent regional policy. Containing Iran by breaking up the Iranian-Syrian axis would be an excellent starting point. 

An escalation in the Syrian  unrest, whether it favors the regime or the protesters, might be followed by responses (even if unofficial) and actions (even if indirect) by the big rivals from the east. The fasting of Ramadan has not impaired the clarity of the Iranian or Saudi decision makers when it comes to Syria. The opposite is true. The holy month permitted time for an additional assessment of developments in Syria. The silence in Tehran and Riyadh is only temporary.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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