Bashar Al-Assad: How Syria's Civil War Threatens to Destabilize the Entire Middle East


The Syrian civil war is an exception among the 2011 Arab revolutions. It stands out by its extreme violence but also its regional and international dimensions. Since the beginning of May 2013, violence is spilling over the neighboring countries leading to intensified diplomatic activity in order to prevent region from sliding into chaos.

I will explore the aspect of the contagion of the Syrian conflict to the rest of the region and then assess the positions and interests of the main actors in the perspective of the Geneva II conference this June.

Violence spills over the region and intensification of diplomatic activity

Early May, Israel conducted air strikes against Damascus. Then two car bombs exploded in the Turkish town of Reyhanli in the Hatay province near the Syrian border, causing the death of 51 people. It is worth noting that the population of the Hatay province (about 1.5 million) is one-third Arab, among which a sizable share is Alawite (the same community as Bashar Al-Assad's). Last week, partisans of Bashar al-Assad and opponents to his regime clashed in the Lebanese city of Tripoli exacting a death toll of 30 people. A few days later, at a rally in the Beqaa Valley, Hezbollah's leader Hasan Nasrallah declared an all-out war against the Syrian rebels. The very next day, rockets fell on a Shi'ite suburb in Beirut, leading to four injured.

The international community is increasingly mobilized to come up with an action plan that would contain the Syrian conflict. This goal contrasts sharply with earlier intentions expressed by the United States and the European Union (EU) to help topple al-Assad's regime. The assessment error made by the West was to believe that Assad was a "ripe fruit" that would fall as swiftly as Gadhafi did. More than two years of combat and some 80,000 casualties later, the international community realized that neither al-Assad's troops nor the rebels have the military capability to make a meaningful difference on the ground.

The international anti-al-Assad front is eroding and no longer wants to simply topple to current government. This is visible by simply looking at the countries' voting pattern in the UN General Assembly regarding resolutions on Syria. The Qatari-drafted resolution GA/11372 of May 2013 condemning violence in Syria was adopted by 107 countries, with 12 countries being against it and 59 abstaining from voting. This outcome contrasts sharply with the votes on the two previous UN General Assembly resolutions: GA/11266 of August 2012 and GA/11331 (annex XV) of December 2012 respectively demanding the end of violence and human rights abuse received 133 to 135 votes in favor, 12 votes against it and 31 to 36 abstaining.

This cautious approach to the Syrian conflict will likely be the tone of the Geneva II conference this coming June. The conference will address ways of containing violence and preserving the region's stability. This tells us two things.

First, the American and Russian initiative to hold such a conference underlines the general understanding that the way to a resolution of the Syrian conflict is neither political nor military, but diplomatic. Consequently, the result of the conference should, if successful, be a multilateral agreement. Second, toppling down Assad's regime is no longer an objective. Indeed, it will be important during this conference to ensure that the Syrian power structure remains in place, with or without Bashar Al-Assad, so as to prevent its dissolution into militias, terrorism, and more confessional clashes in Syria and neighboring Lebanon. In this respect, one can imagine that the negotiating parties would seek to duplicate the Yemenite scenario where Bashar Al-Assad would be deposited and replaced by a less controversial leader, but who would maintain the structure of the state apparatus. In the case of Yemen, the Gulf Cooperation (GCC) sponsored the agreement on the resignation of President Saleh and his immunity.

However, for the success of the Geneva II conference, it is important to explore the interests and positions of the different parties and see how they could possibly converge.

The United States: slow disengagement from the Middle East

The United States has just withdrawn from Iraq and is supposed to leave Afghanistan by 2014. It does not wish to be pulled back into intervening in yet another Middle-Eastern multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. But in the name of the responsibility to act as well as its own interests in the region (security of oil supply and that of Israel), the U.S. still needs local relays in the region. That is the role of Turkey and Israel. Unfortunately for the U.S., the relationships between Ankara and Jerusalem have considerably deteriorated since the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and which led to the killing of nine Turkish nationals. Israel agreed to pay compensations to the victims' families, but we are still far from the warmth of 1996 when the two countries signed an agreement for military cooperation.

Therefore, it is the international law that outlines the actions and intentions of Washington. This is consistent with the fact that for the U.S., the only ground for military intervention is the use of chemical weapon by al-Assad (the famous red line). There are two reasons for setting this red line. First, the U.S. did not expect al-Assad to cross the line since it would mean military intervention. Yet, Washington could still appear assertive while avoiding the possibility of intervention. Second, the U.S. is less worried about the use of chemical weapons than the risk of them falling to non-state actors, who are by nature unpredictable. As despicable as al-Assad's regime may be, it has a far more reliable chain of command than the terrorists do. This is another strong argument for maintaining the Syrian state apparatus. There have, nevertheless, recently been several accounts of the use of chemical weapons against the rebels but evidence of massive deaths due to their use has yet to be produced. 

Russia: an indispensable negotiator

Russia, along with China, vetoed the last two UN Security Council resolutions SC/10714 of July 2012 and SC/2012/77 of February 2012 that respectively threatened sanctions against Syria and demanded that all parties stop all violence. It seems that Moscow is determined to make the United States and the EU pay for their loose interpretation of the March 2011 UN resolution (SC10200) on the no-fly zone in Libya that eventually led to bombings against Gadhafi's troops.

Russia has interests in Syria but they do not seem to be crucial for Moscow.

Russia is Syria's main provider of weapons and the value of arms transfer increased by 415% between 2009 and 2012.

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Besides, Russia has a naval base in Tartus in Syria. The existence of this base reflects Russia's eternal obsession over having access to the warm seas. Overall, the regime in Damascus constitutes Russia's only presence in the Middle East and it is important that it maintains it. But all these interests are far outweighed by the fact that Russia wants more than anything to be part of the solution in the region. After the Libyan episode, Moscow is determined to challenge Washington on the Syrian question and act as a key player. This is the opportunity for Russia's comeback to the international arena.

Iran: Syria's unconditional patron?

Damascus enjoys full support from Iran. The strong and stable ties between the two countries have been going on for more than 30 years and seem to go beyond mere confessional affinity. Syria has long been Iran's only Arab ally, thus enabling Tehran to be an actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through its support of Hamas and Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Syria also represents for Iran an essential outpost for its indirect confrontation against the GCC. Conversely, the GCC's wish to oust Bashar al-Assad is an opportunity to weaken Tehran's power projection in the Gulf.

However, Iran might no longer be that interested in the fate of Bashar al-Assad, who has become geopolitically and morally unacceptable. Just like the U.S., Tehran could as well be interested in a post-al-Assad transitory government where it could co-opt military officials and technocrats to rule the country and maintain the regime structure. This is where the United States' and Iran's interests could intersect. What remains to be seen is whether Tehran is ready to let go of al-Assad since there is the risk that the future Syrian transitory government could be less pro-Iran especially if elections were to be held. There is another problem in this plan: Turkey is more interested in a more radical regime change than Iran is. Consequently, decisions on the future key players of Syria's post-Al-Assad government will have to include Turkey as well.

Turkey: partnership with Iran

After Turkey and Syria came to the brink of war in the 1990s because of the Kurdish question (Syria was sheltering Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Worker's Party), the two countries enjoyed a decade of economic and diplomatic rapprochement. The ties with Syria were part of Ankara's "zero-problem policy" with the neighbors. As for Syria, Turkey helped it avoid an altogether international isolation. Yet, since the outbreak of the civil war, Ankara decided to side with its traditional NATO allies by supporting the rebels and went as far as sheltering leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey is directly affected by the Syrian civil war on both the political and diplomatic levels, which led to its support of the opposition forces. On the political level, the country is now having a refugee problem as hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey. Besides, the civil war is reviving the regional re-shaping of the Kurdish population and, finally, the attack in Hatay province shows how the Syrian war could excite domestic sectarian violence. On the diplomatic level, Turkey's repudiation of al-Assad is related to the way Ankara views itself. Erdogan's Islamist party considers Turkey to be a political model for economic success and democratic stability in the Arab world. Suporting al-Assad's crackdown against its own population when all Arab countries condemned it is inconsistent with Turkey's projected image. 

With regards to the relationships between Turkey and Iran, the Syrian war increased the rifts between Ankara and Tehran. Turkey's "zero-problem policy" with its neighbors led to some degree of good relations with Iran. Yet they will have to negotiate the after-al-Assad government together.

The Gulf Cooperation Council: Pro-Iranian regime over regional chaos

The Syrian war is a historical opportunity for the GCC to contain the spread of the Iranian influence in the region. It was expected that Saudi Arabia and Qatar would provide strong political, financial, and diplomatic support to the rebels, although the two countries are also challengers as they each champion competing rebels. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is pro-Salafist while Qatar is pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, the GCC is not seeking chaos in the region but wants to avoid at all costs the crumbling of another Arab state. This fear might even outweigh the advantage of toppling the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus.

Israel: the dilemma

 Just like the GCC countries, Israel is seeking the downfall of al-Assad's regime to undermine the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Yet, it also fears the consequences of the collapse of the regime in Damascus. al-Assad might be an enemy, but he is an enemy they know. After all, Bashar al-Assad guaranteed Israel some security on the Golan front. As a result, Israel fears that the ousting of al-Assad might give way to a Sunni government with affinities either with the Muslim Brotherhood or with Salafists. Besides, it also fears that in the absence of a power structure in Syria, weapons could circulate and fall between the hands of terrorists that could target it. On the other hand, maintaining the power structure in Syria, regardless of the fate of Bashar al-Assad, could strengthen the position of Iran, especially in Lebanon.