A Crisis Which Defined Iran’s New Regional Standing
Iran Review -(FRIDAY, MARCH 29, 2013)
Syria Paying the Price for Changing Political Equations in the Region
Mohammad Reza Bahrami
Central Asia Analyst
The ongoing crisis in Syria is entering its third year at a time that it has reached a more sensitive stage and gained more importance in regional equations. The reasons for the increased importance of this crisis are willingness of [the United States President Barack] Obama’s new team during recent weeks to make public the US administration’s support for the Syria opposition as well as the insistence of France, and to some degree the UK, on sending arms to the Syria opposition in defiance of a recent decision taken by the European Union not to do so. What follows is recapitulation of the situation on the ground in the Arab country at the end of two years of political and social turmoil.
1. Due to strong loyalty of the Syrian army, the Baath Party, security forces, some minorities and, of course, certain foreign supporters, the [incumbent Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad’s government is still resisting [against the opposition] with no sign of its short-term collapse visible anywhere on the horizon. Establishment of popular forces to rein in the crisis and support the government has been a good step taken to prevent early fatigue of the Syria army in a civil war which is usually accompanied with reduced motivation of the armed forces to go on.
2. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) a total of one million Syrian nationals have already fled to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Egypt and other adjacent regions. About four million of Syrian citizens have been also displaced internally. In addition, close to 70,000 people have died and drastic destruction has been done to economic infrastructure of the country, its historical heritage, and residential areas as a result of the ongoing unrest. On the other hand, the position and role of Syria in Arab and international organizations has been faced with serious challenges as well.
3. The nature of the ongoing war and crisis in Syria shows that it is neither aimed at bringing democracy to the Arab country, nor bears any sign which would make it resemble a true revolution. In fact, Syria is paying the price for the establishment of a new order in the region and the crisis in the country is a major determinant of that new order.
4. Two major risks are conceivable in case the existing situation continues in Syria which can also have adverse effects on other regional countries: spread of sectarianism and the possible risk of the disintegration of Syria. The possible disintegration of Syria will cause serious concern in Turkey due to the current situation of the Kurdish minority in Syria and its links to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Of course, other regional countries with a Kurdish population will be also concerned, but this issue will be more important to the Turkish government due to the type of the existing interaction between Ankara and the PKK.
5. The crisis in Syria and policies adopted by countries opposed to Bashar Al-Assad’s government have once again led to convergence of various extremist groups as well as different branches of Al-Qaeda in a single geographical spot which is close to the Mediterranean and also to certain parts of Europe. As a result, anti-Assad parties have not only provided such groups with a good opportunity to draft and organize new forces from within Syria as well as other countries, but also supplied them with direct and indirect support thus, practically bringing them and their ideology to life again. At the same time, this line of extremist thinking has been posing the most serious challenge to NATO and the United States during the past 11 years of war in Afghanistan. Even France also raided the North African country of Mali quite recently under the pretext of fighting such extremist groups. It seems that the Western countries have gradually forgotten the historical developments in Afghanistan during the 1980s and subsequent events which culminated in the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. It would be totally unrealistic to imagine that such extremist groups can be brought under any kind of control. This is a rebirth for the extremism, whose impact on other geographical regions should be anticipated. It should be noted that this current will finally assert its true nature through direct confrontation with the West.
6. Even assuming that France and the UK will get directly involved in providing military support for the Syria opposition, there would be still no clear outlook for the possible collapse of the country’s government. The existing balance cannot be apparently changed easily as it is also regulated by foreign parties. It should be accepted that despite their determination to do so, political players inside Syria are not actually playing a powerful role.
7. The crisis in Syria has been marked by two important developments. Firstly, Iran, for the first time during past centuries, found its rightful place at the heart of the Middle East. The Islamic Republic came up with a new definition of its regional capabilities during Syria crisis and proved those capabilities by absorbing suitable allies and defending them. Regardless of the means used by Iran to achieve that goal, the result has been establishment of the Islamic Republic as a major and influential political power in the region. Iran’s support for the existing Syria government can be considered an important stage in the Islamic Republic’s use of its capabilities to achieve regional goals. Even when the foreign ministers of the Arab League protest to Iran’s meddling in Bahrain and Yemen (though their allegation are pure lies), they are in fact owning up to Iran’s regional capabilities, which naturally increases the value of interacting with Iran in the eyes of other political players. The second development was the true resistance shown by Russia against the implementation of scenarios written by the West and its regional allies for Syria. The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the second country in the world, after the United States, to deploy forces to other countries to defend its interests. This took place in 1968 and during the political developments in the former Czechoslovakia, known as the Prague Spring, during which the Soviet Union dispatched military units to suppress an uprising while announcing that it would not hesitate to do the same wherever and whenever the interests of Communism were in danger. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had put the new Russia in different conditions. Now, after the lapse of more than two decades, it is the first time that Russia is defining its interests outside the circumference of the so-called ‘near abroad’ region, not on the basis of ideology, but in line with its geopolitical interests, and seems to be determined to defend those interests. This is a new development with regard to Russia which can be considered a sign of that country’s willingness to upgrade its role from a solely regional power to a global power under the current circumstances that the world is going through an international transition period. Of course, it is also noteworthy that due to various reasons, both Iran and Russia actually have no other choice, but to go on with this policy.
8. Although some countries, including China, are more than willing to see the United States directly involved and engaged in the crisis in Syria and even across the entire region, and are possibly even ready to help maintain that engagement, the United States, on the other hand, does not seem to be seriously willing to get engaged in Syria. All the available evidence points to the fact that the United States is bent on switching its focus from the Middle East to the East Asia and the Pacific region (though this does not necessarily mean that the United States will totally end its presence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East). Meanwhile, even direct involvement of the United States in Syria can by no means guarantee termination of the Syria crisis over the short run, especially in view of the goals pursued by other parties to that crisis.
9. Despite enormous support from the West and its regional allies, and immense pressure on the Syrian government, the coalition of the Syria opposition has not been able to achieve consensus either on military or political issues yet. This situation may have its roots in the unoriginality of the struggle against the Syrian government, pursuit of different goals by different opposition groups, and the fact that the foreign-backed fighters are not Syrian locals. This means that if a suitable mechanism is not worked out for Syria to go through the ongoing crisis, there would be a long way to go before a powerful central government and the subsequent stability is established in this country again.
10. The crisis in Syria has become very complicated and it seems unlikely that the military confrontation in the Arab country will have any winner. This crisis is rooted in the changing situation in the Middle East and is part of the ongoing changes in the region which may be affected by the final result of this crisis. Consensus among foreign players and redefinition of the role of various political players in this region can be useful and while shortening the duration of the crisis, prevent it from spilling over into adjacent countries.