Ghaidaa Hetou, guest author
“al-Asad’s Syria,” a slogan adorning countless government and private buildings in Syria for over forty years, is symbolic of the political transformation this country is currently experiencing. For ten consecutive months, Syria's citizens have braved capture, humiliation, and torture in order to speak and be heard. The process of disentangling Syria from the private fiefdom that al-Asad dynasty has created must proceed down a long and winding road.
The political awakening that has engulfed the Arab world took on a peculiar meaning in this famously stable country. This particular uprising is a testament to the possibility of change in the most unlikely of places, and to the uncertainty shrouding the political unknown which presents a security risk of the highest order.
The Syrian regime has shown that it is not capable of containing the growing protests with means other than increasing military and security operations, which is an inherently self-defeating tactic. In turn, the protests have not reached the critical mass seen in Tunisia or Egypt, nor have anti-regime armed groups been able to establish a military stronghold in any of Syria’s main cities that would then allow for a regime change, resembling what occurred in Libya. The Syrian situation is similar to that of Yemen, with the uprising taking a long, slow and winding path, often violent, yet tempered by proposals for resolving the conflict offered by neighboring and friendly countries.
The Syrian unrest started in March of last year when demonstrations broke out in Dar’a, a town to the south of Damascus, which subsequently spread to other towns. Over time, the protests have become increasingly marred by violence involving armed groups and army defectors. The military and security operations, and sieges that have befallen a number of Syrian cities, such as Dar’a, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dayr al-Zor, and Banias, have fueled a type of uprising that is unrelentingly, with the level of demands being raised whenever the regime proposes a new set of reforms. Christians and Kurds have been reluctant, up until recently, to join the demonstrations. Bashar al-Asad used to enjoy wide and genuine popularity due to his anti-imperialist foreign policy, but this support quickly eroded due to over 6,000 casualties since the beginning of the protests.
As of now, both government and the opposition are experiencing an exaggerated sense of unease in entering direct negotiations that would facilitate a transition of political power. Declaring an end of the Arab League’s failed observatory mission in Syria, which was designed to bring an end to government violence, paved the way for enforcement of the Arab League’s proposal to end the Syrian crisis to be transferred to the UN Security Council. However, Russia and China vetoed the western backed Arab plan, and Russia proceeded to negotiate a transition of power in Syria directly with the al-Asad regime.
What do these developments this mean for Syria’s traditional allies: Iran, Russia and Hezbollah? What are the strategic options available to Syria’s neighboring countries? How will the United States integrate a post-Asad Syria into its overall policy in the Middle East? When and for what political price will al-Asad’s allies give up on his regime?
A Strategic Hub in Perpetual Transition
Geopolitically speaking, Syria is a strategic hub for the following reasons: Syria is Turkey’s open door into the Arab Middle East, Lebanon’s economic lifeline, Iraq’s security and trading partner, China’s hope of reviving a modern Silk Road, Iran’s ally, Israel’s border guard since 1974, and provides Russia’s its only port in the Mediterranean. Syria is, along with Iran, a regional counter weight to pro-western Arab countries, primarily the Gulf States.
The Syrian uprising is evolving along a slow and painful path precisely because of the high stakes involved in its outcome. All regional and international parties at least agree that the transition in Syria needs to be peaceful, and occur without foreign military intervention. Syria’s political awakening is crucial precisely because it carries profound implications for the entire Middle East. For neighboring and regional countries: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to countries that have interest in maintaining or re-establishing their strategic depth in the Middle East such as Turkey, Russia and China, the final outcome of the Syrian crisis will have profound consequences for their internal politics and foreign policy.
Most importantly, the political awakening in Syria has important implications for America’s standing in the Middle East. Can the United States regain some of its standing in the region, especially after the military withdrawal from Iraq, by supporting a peaceful political transition in Syria? We will offer some answers to the questions posed by analyzing the implications of a post-Asad Syria on some of the stakeholders.
Since the success of the Islamic revolution in ousting Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Iran established close ties with Syria. The close ties were not based on ideological preferences, given the Islamic nature of the Iranian government and the secular nature of the Syrian government. Rather, the close ties were the product of the system at the time: the threat to Syria posed by Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime in Iraq, Egypt’s peace deal with Israel, and Iran’s isolation in the Arab world. This bilateral relation evolved to become a strategic pact, with multiple security, military, educational and trade agreements to boost. Iran’s current ties to Syria are not of the disposable type.
What kind of assurances does Iran need to withdraw its support of the al-Asad regime? Iran faces its own domestic struggles, not to speak of its controversial nuclear program. Another external concern is Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf States and Lebanon, given that Iraq is now largely in Iran’s sphere of influence.
To complicate matters (or simplify them), the Arab Gulf States dare not threaten Iran at this time. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are contending with political challenges in their respective countries as their populations increasingly question the political status quo. Any military pressure on Iran will result in exacerbating the delicate internal political conditions in the GCC countries.
What might lead Iran to change its Syria policy? First, assurances with regards to reasonable nuclear inspections and resumption of nuclear talks, with Turkish and Brazilian consultation. Second, a gradual rapprochement with the GCC countries. Third, assurances that the Syrian opposition will not threaten Iran’s strategic access to the Mediterranean. Fourth, reinforcing the idea that the oil pipeline stretching from Iran to Syria, through Iraq, should be viewed as supporting Syrian national interests, rather than viewing it as a project in ideological terms. Finally, as a key power broker in Lebanese politics, Hizballah needs to remain an integral part of the Lebanon’s political, social, and economic structure. Because Hezbollah receives support from Iran, a post-Asad Syria will need to deal with this reality by accommodating Hizballah’s concerns in its relations with Lebanon, Israel and Iran.
Prior to 2004, Turkey turned a blind eye to the Arab world, until signing a free trade agreement with Syria. Among the tensions between the two countries prior to 2004 were Kurdish freedom fighters who maintained guerilla bases in northern Syria, water resources given the construction of the Anatolia project which dammed the Euphrates River, and the annexation of the Hatay region in 1939. The strained relationship between the two countries began to ease when Syria expelled Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1998, and signed the Adana agreement in 1999 in which Syria agreed to refrain from harboring Kurdish fighters. Syrian-Turkish relations have improved tremendously in the last ten years, to the extent that Turkey invested considerable political capital in the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Asad. At the beginning of the 2011 uprising, it tried to mediate and encourage the regime to implement significant democratic reforms, early and swiftly, advice that was not heeded.
What are Turkey’s main interests in a post-Asad Syria? First, Turkey was able to make a seamless transition from support for the al-Asad regime to becoming a supporter of the Syrian opposition as evident by its early hosting of opposition conferences in Turkey. In addition, Turkey was able to establish good working relations with Mohammad Tyfour the head of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which provides a cue to Turkey’s sympathies towards the predominantly Sunni uprising in Syria.
Second, Turkey is certain to resume its economic interests in post-Asad Syria, an option that was not available to Turkey in post-Qaddafi Libya. Turkey’s inconsistent diplomacy towards the Libyan uprising jeopardized its economic and financial interests in Libya. The lesson learned by Turkey will not to be repeated in the Syrian case. Third, Turkey maintains a strategic relationship with Iran. Hence both countries have an interest in reestablishing stability in Syria. The Syrian unrest has necessitated and deepened Turkey’s bilateral relations with Iran, which is part of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmad Davoud Oglo’s Strategic Depth policy in the Middle East.
Fourth, looking to the east, current developments in the international system will naturally lead Turkey to extend its diplomacy, military and trade relations beyond Iran to China. Finally, it is imperative for Turkey to diversify its relations with the countries of the Middle East. To be identified as a Gulf State ally is not in Turkey’s best interest, especially given the current political awakening in the Middle East. The logical conclusion of this consideration will be for Turkey to align itself with post-authoritarian governments while preserving its economic interests with all the regions’ states.
Russia’s relations with Syria, which is also known as “Russia’s Israel,” are a product of the Cold War as much as a product of ideological cohesion. This relationship is fundamentally built on military, training and security considerations sense. Russia’s treaty for its naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean, which president Putin renewed in 2008, is another reminder of the importance of Russian-Syrian relations. The Syrian opposition, in this sense, has not struck the right tone during its negotiations with the Russians during the past few months, which explains in large measure Russia’s reluctance to support regime change in Syria.
What are Russia’s interests post-Asad Syria? First and foremost, both Russia and Iran seek a continuity of Syria’s foreign policy in the post-Asad era that will insure Russia’s and Iran’s strategic objectives.Second, due to Russia’s mediation role in the Syrian crisis, it faces the dilemma of having to deal with a Syrian opposition that represents the antithesis of Ba’thist ideology, making it naturally sympathetic to pro-western interests. For Russia, the Syrian crisis is a race against time to preserve its foothold in Syria while institutionalizing a post-Asad government which fits its ideological desiderata.
Third, during the post-Asad era, Russia will need Syria much more than Syria needing Russia. This is probably the most difficult hurdle, in addition to the tremendous amount of good will Russia needs to show to a post-Asad government in order to overcome the negative effect of Russia’s recent veto in the UN Security Council of the Arab League proposal for a transfer of power in Syria. Nevertheless, preserving good relations with Russia in the post-Asad era will be in Syria’s national interests. In terms of Syria’s foreign policy to the East, it will not be able to ignore Russia.
China is becoming an increasingly powerful player in the Middle East. The political awakening in the Middle East has presented unprecedented opportunities for China. The economic clout which China is capable of exercising through support of development projects in the Middle East is without parallel. Still calculating its interests in the Middle East, China is still reticent to assume a leading role in political initiatives in the region.
China joined Russia in vetoing the UN resolution against Syria, but it quietly faded into the background, leaving Russia to absorb the international outrage that followed the Security Council vote. Not surprisingly, China supports a peaceful transition in Syria, but is adamantly opposed to foreign military intervention in Syria, a position supported by Russia and many Arab countries.
In bringing the Syrian crisis to an end, Iran, Turkey, Russia and China converge in their support for non-military intervention and a peaceful transition of political power. All four countries face the task of repairing their image as past supporters of nit only the al-Asad regime but authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. The potential for establishing amicable relations with a post-Asad government, as well as engendering the good will of the Syrian opposition, will be increased if they make more of a concerted effort to devise a plan that would facilitate a political transition in Syria.
A peaceful transition of power in Syria would preserve the quiet border between Israel and Syria. It would also undercut the increasing calls for a Jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Asad’s “infidel government,” a development that might get out of control and spill over into neighboring Jordon, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon if the crisis continues and violence escalates. The United States has an interest in supporting a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis in a matter that would preserve its good standing with the Syrian people. How the US will balance its own interests with those of all the parties concerned remains a daunting task.
Ghaidaa Hetou is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org