After Egypt, the country that can have the most significant implications for the region is Syria. The change of power in Syria will have a direct impact on the politics of Lebanon, Israel and the stagnant Middle East peace process. Furthermore, removal of Assad could complicate Iranian and Russian interests in the Middle East. This article examines how the regional and global powers are positioning themselves as Syria passes through the Arab Spring.
In 2009 reports from Syria were that despite the outer calm, people were afraid of their government, no one felt safe to speak out against them and secret police were on every corner. Concerned citizens spoke in whispers as they were afraid of planted microphones, and the feeling of brewing but tightly clamped discontent was everywhere.
Two years later and the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian population has let vent to their anger and dissatisfaction with the Assad regime and the regime has responded brutally.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt where regime change was affected relatively peacefully, Libya and now Syria are faced with decades-old regimes that are clinging to power. The key in many respects to understanding this is the position of the militaries in these countries. So long as the military remains on the side of the regime, it can be expected that a long, drawn out and most likely violent struggle will ensue, or else the people will give in. Libyan soldiers are now starting to defect and join the rebels, and this puts a tentative end in sight to the military action and NATO involvement there. There are rumors of division within the Syrian military, but as yet the military remains Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s tool.
The violence in Syria is reminiscent of the 1982 attack in Hama where thousands of civilians were killed by Assad’s father, then-President Hafez al-Assad. The heavy-handed retaliation against protestors will not be able to be carried out indefinitely by the military without causing division in the ranks. The majority of the armed forces are conscripts, who are mainly Sunni Muslim and will begin to question the killing of civilians. However, there is a core group of career soldiers who are Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, like President Assad. If a division becomes more apparent in the Syrian military it will almost certainly be down these lines, as the Alawites, who make up only 7 percent of the Syrian population have a lot to lose if Assad goes down.
Syria and Arab-Israeli Conflict
The situation in Syria has wider implications in the region, especially as it pertains to the shifting sands of the Middle Eastern balance of power and the Arab Israeli conflict.
The Syrian relationship with Lebanon and Iran via Hizbollah is very concerning for Israel, as Assad’s regime has managed to walk a line of supporting Hizbollah in Lebanon and supporting Iran while maintaining a chilly but peaceful relationship with Israel. The power vacuum that would emerge with Assad’s downfall would be of great concern to Israel, like it was in Egypt, as the future stance of the governing power is unknown. Iranian influence in Syria is especially worrying, particularly given the recent naval base deal signed between the two countries. Iranian presence in the Mediterranean is most undesirable for Israeli interests.
The future of the Arab Israeli conflict will also be affected by events in Syria, with the anti-Israel Hizbollah an Iranian and sometimes Syrian proxy on the Lebanon-Israel border. Hizbollah also has a presence in Syria and has acted as a safe haven for leaders of the organization. The great unknown for Israel is who will be for peace with the country and who will be for reviving the conflict when the dust settles and new regimes or revised versions of old regimes emerge. This puts Israel automatically even more on the defensive. The recent unified front presented by Hamas and Hizbollah will have ratcheted up security concerns in Israel to a new level, particularly as Syria had provided somewhat of a bulwark for Israel as part of its tight-rope walk between support and containment of Hizbollah.
US, Russia, China and Syria
The Syrian situation is also causing rifts further afield, with Russia and the US on opposite sides regarding a UN resolution against Syria. Russia has, like Iran, recently signed a deal with Syria for a naval port on the Syrian coast, which is considered as the three countries’ attempt to counter the presence of the US sixth fleet in the Mediterranean. The disagreement between the US and Russia also extends to the intervention in Libya. Both China and Russia are labeling the talk of sending in ground troops a violation of the UN resolution 1973 that saw the enforcing of a no-fly zone over Libya after the failure of Libyan authorities to act in accordance with the earlier resolution 1970.
Back in March the US deployed the USS Bataan amphibious assault ship on an unknown mission, and the ship is now stationed near Syria’s Mediterranean coastline with six war planes, 2,000 marines and 15attack helicopters. The ship appears to be in ready for a containment operation against Syria and possibly Iran and Hizbollah in the advent of intervention in the current Syrian turmoil. According to reports, Hizbollah has also mobilized its medium and long-range missiles from the north of Lebanon back toward the center of the country, out of range of Syria if any intervention does take place.
The question of intervention in Syria is now being raised by England and France as well as the US, however there is Russia and China to consider, who have expressed their opposition to sanctions on Syria. This split over action on Syria will likely see any resolution in the UN diluted or symbolic for the time being. Many are viewing the reluctance of China and Russia to act against Syria as a bid to protect their own interests in the country, as both, but Russia in particular have large and long-standing arms supply agreements with the Assad regime.
Turkey and Syria
Turkey’s relationship with Syria is also heading for rough seas. Turkey has taken in thousands of refugees across the Syrian-Turkish border near Aleppo, and has recently made public statements of disapproval against Assad’s heavy-handed actions. Turkey is Syria’s largest trading partner, so souring relationships could have devastating effects on the already battered Syrian economy. In his first address in nearly two month, Bashar al-Asad said on June 20 that the worst problem facing Syria was the collapse of the economy. Despite this comment infuriating anti-government protestors, it may have also handed Turkey a card to play in pressuring Assad to reform or step down, or at least curb the violent reprisals on protestors.
Looking ahead, the most pressing problem in the region will soon be that of a power vacuum. The Middle East has so long been characterized by regimes with strong figure heads and heavy hands that the removal of these figures, without the emergence of a clear replacement paves the way for neighbors, namely Iran and Turkey to advance their interests in the region. Since the Freedom Flotilla incident in May of 2010 Turkey’s role in the Middle East has been amplified. Iran has also been increasing efforts, with the first Iranian ambassador sent to Egypt in nearly 30 years. The historic tussles of Arabs, Persians, and Turks, including the Shiite Sunni divide, indicates that the game of proxies may only just be getting started.