The news media has been running wild lately over reports that the U.S. is "going to war" with Syria. The flurry began with Secretary of State John Kerry’s bold comments on Monday and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s subsequent comments that the U.S. was “ready to go” should President Barack Obama order military action. By “ready to go,” the administration is talking about providing air support to the Syrian rebels much as it did for the Libyan rebellion to oust Muammar Gaddafi two years earlier.
I still have my skepticism, though. If the U.S. were going to attack Syria in any way that would alter the balance of power in the Syrian civil war, it would not be telegraphing such strikes. But Obama’s red line on chemical weapons has trapped the administration; it does not want to militarily intervene, but it cannot sit idly by after having been so explicit about what would trigger military action (or the bluff of it anyway). What the administration is really trying to accomplish is convincing a war-weary American public that this will not be a protracted affair while giving Washington time to try to secure a broad coalition of support at the United Nations, NATO and/or with the Arab League.
But while isolationists (or non-interventionists) are panicking over a possible course of action that doesn’t involve boots on the ground, what I find ironic is that the U.S., along with several other actors across the globe, have already had a covert presence within Syria for the last two years – supplying everything from intelligence to weapons to both sides of the conflict. I think it’s important to remind everyone exactly which external actors are involved in this civil war as well as what their stake is in the conflict. This is not just a battle among Syrians. This is a battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran and the U.S., Turkey and Iran, Russia and the U.S., and others with each player pursuing very different interests.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a centuries-old ideological conflict, where fighters today are drawing their motivation from seventh century battles. Saudi support for the Syrian opposition is motivated by a decades-long desire to break the alliance between Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East.
Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring has been two-fold: Containing the unrest before it reaches Saudi territory, and ensuring that Iran does not benefit from any changes to the regional balance of power. In this context, the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 came as a golden opportunity for the Saudis to strike at Iran’s key Arab ally. While Saudi Arabia lacks the military capacity to intervene directly, it has been using its oil wealth to arm Syrian rebels and, in the event that Assad falls, ensure his regime is replaced by a Sunni-friendly government.
Turkey has been looking for a regional opportunity to showcase itself as a model and leader for the Islamic world for the last decade. The ironic part is prior to the current uprising, Turkey looked at Syria as a cornerstone in its plans to become a political, economic and “moral” leader in the Middle East. Now Turkey has committed itself, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab League actors, to bring about regime change in Damascus. It has allowed the Syrian opposition to set up headquarters in Istanbul, and it is arming and training the Sunni rebels.
In fact, Turkey has embraced an exclusively Sunni cause in Syria. Ankara is not only embroiled in a confrontation with the Alawite Syrian regime but is also in conflict with the Shi’ite regime in Iraq over Kurdish territories. In addition, the historic, geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Iran, the patron of Syria, has resumed after a brief interlude during which Turkey appeared to be “drifting eastward,” siding for a while with Iran and against its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. This rivalry now is being played out in Syria and Iraq.
Iran has few allies in the Arab world and its most important one is Syria. Their relationship dates back to the years after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. They needed to come together to fight their common rival, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. They also allied in order to check Israeli advances into Lebanon. Syria has consistently provided Iran with an element of strategic depth. It gives Iran access to the Mediterranean and a supply line to Iran’s Shia Muslim supporters in southern Lebanon – Hezbollah – next to the border with Israel.
Losing this support would be a major blow to Iran. So Iran has supported the Assad government (uninterrupted during the transition of Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hasan Rouhani) with weapons in the current conflict, and Iranians are fighting on Assad’s side.
Israel had maintained a complex and not always transparent relationship with the Syrian government. In spite of formal hostilities, the two shared common interests in Lebanon. Israel did not want to manage Lebanon after Israeli failures in the 1980s, but it still wanted Lebanon – and particularly Hezbollah – managed. Syria wanted to control Lebanon for political and economic reasons and did not want Israel interfering there. An implicit accommodation was thus achieved.
Israel continued to view the Alawite regime in Syria as preferable to a radical Sunni regime (sort of a “go with the devil you know” strategy). In the context of the U.S. presence in Iraq, the threat to Israel came from radical Sunni Islamists; Israel’s interests lay with whoever opposed them. Today, with the U.S. out of Iraq and Iran a dominant influence there, the Israelis face a more complex choice. If the regime of President Bashar al-Assad survives (with or without Assad himself), Iran will maintain its sphere of influence from the Mediterranean to western Afghanistan. Accordingly, Israel has shifted its thinking from supporting the Assad regime to wanting it to depart so that a Sunni government hostile to Iran, but not dominated by radical Islamists, could hopefully emerge.
Russia is looking for another noisy Middle Eastern maelstrom to bog the U.S. down while it continues to reassert its presence and influence – with little Western interference – in the former Soviet Union. Moscow also has long-standing strategic and financial interests in Syria.
Syria hosts a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, and contracts for Russian weapons sales to Syria – those signed and those under discussion – total $5 billion. The fall of Gaddafi has also contributed to Putin’s support of Assad. The Kremlin lost about $4 billion worth of weapons contracts when the Libyan regime fell, and it wants to avoid a repeat in Syria. Beyond weaponry, Russian companies have invested $20 billion in Syria since 2009. If Assad loses power, these contracts would be forfeited. Summing up Russia’s interests in supporting yet another regime hostile to Western interests, to quote a line from The Godfather, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”
While China seems more than happy to let Russia and Iran take on the role as Assad’s main supporters, it is nonetheless far from neutral. Much like Russia, China’s interests in the Syrian conflict are purely practical. Kadri Jamil, Syrian deputy prime minister for the economy, boasted that China has joined Iran and Russia in delivering $500 million a month in oil and credit to Syria. The majority of Syria’s oil is in the largely rebel-held north and northeast of the country and the network of pipelines connecting the wells to the population centers are vulnerable to rebel attack. As a result, Syrian oil production has fallen by as much as 95% during the ongoing conflict, and the importance of Chinese aid should not be underestimated. Chinese financial and material support supplements Russian and Iranian aid and has allowed the Assad war machine to remain militarily effective.
Assad’s survival is also tied up in a Chinese geostrategic consideration of the energy-rich Middle East, whereby supporting Assad is seen as an effective block on Western power in the region. Moreover, the Chinese government is nervous of creating a precedent for intervention on human-rights grounds due to its own insecurities at home.
Europe had an obvious interest in Libya: It’s the North African country’s No. 1 oil consumer. European leaders were also vilifying Gaddafi for decades while simultaneously putting up with him, even as he provided sanctuary for countless terrorist organizations from the northern Irish IRA to the Palestinian PLO. By 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were the two leaders strongly pushing the most to initiate a NATO campaign to oust Gaddafi, with U.S. President Obama and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reluctantly following behind.
Cameron and France’s new President Francois Hollande both seemed ready to “punish Assad” over the alleged gas attacks the regime has been employing as of late, but now seem to be wavering or scaling back a bit in the wake of new UN reports claiming the chemical weapons may have been used by the rebels. German Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly won’t risk taking any action just weeks away from nationwide elections – precisely why she didn’t want to risk unpopularity during the Libyan intervention two years ago as well.
To put it bluntly, the U.S.’s strategic interest is to avoid becoming drawn further into another age-old sectarian vendetta that saps the U.S.’s ability to maintain its balance in the world. Still, as frequently happens, many in the U.S. and Europe are appalled at the horrors of the civil war, some of whom have called on the U.S. to "do something." The U.S. has been reluctant to heed these calls. While Washington has no love for the Assad regime, it does not have a direct interest in the outcome, since all possible outcomes are bad from its perspective. Moreover, the people who are most emphatic that something be done to stop the killings will be the first to condemn the U.S. when its starts killing people to stop the killings (surprise).
The Obama administration therefore adopted an extremely cautious strategy. It said that the U.S. would not get directly involved in Syria unless the Assad regime used chemical weapons. When Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed the issue would not come up. Unless Obama can get overwhelming, indisputable proof that Assad did not – and that isn’t going to happen – Obama will either have to act on the red line principle or be shown that he was bluffing. But there is no political support in the U.S. for intervention. That’s the hand the president has to play, so it’s hard to see how he avoids military action and retains credibility. It is also hard to see how he takes military action without a political revolt against him if it goes wrong, and it could.
But as you can see, we’re not the only ones involved in this global game of chess within Syria.