The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

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The International Relations of the Middle East after the Arab Spring

A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.

Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East

By Christopher Phillips

In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.

The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.

Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar

Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.

The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.

Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel

The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.

Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.

Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.

Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.

The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?

Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.

The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.

Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.