How the World Stacks Up on Syria
As the international community mulls how to respond to the crisis in Syria, it faces a complex and changing web of geopolitical alliances, heated rivalries and strategic interests. Here’s a closer look at the key international players.
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The U.S., European Union
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Iran, The BRICS, Lebanon
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Turkey, the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Israel
The United States
U.S.-Syria relations have been historically uneasy, reaching a low point in 2002 after U.S. officials added Syria to the “axis of evil.”
But after months of urging democratic reform, the U.S. “turned decisively” against President Bashar al-Assad in mid-June, shortly after angry crowds attacked the U.S. ambassador’s residence and the embassy in Damascus. In August, President Obama called for Assad to step down, following the release of a 22-page U.N. Human Rights Commission report [PDF] that suggested the crackdown may amount to “crimes against humanity.”
The U.S. helped push for a U.N. resolution condemning Syria — which ultimately failed when Russia and China vetoed it — and has imposed a series of trade and financial sanctions, the latest of which target the country’s oil and petroleum exports. But some warn the sanctions do more to hurt the Syrian people than they do the regime.
In October, relations deteriorated even further after the U.S. pulled its ambassador, Robert Ford, from the country, citing danger he faced for supporting protesters. Syria quickly responded by recalling its own ambassador in Washington.
Analysts warn the fall of the Syrian regime could have disastrous consequences for the U.S., primarily because it could destabilize the region. But regime change in Syria could weaken Iran and also potentially stop the flow of Iranian weapons smuggled through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Despite the condemnation and calls for Assad to step down, the Obama administration has said it does not plan to intervene militarily, and analysts agree a military intervention is not in the cards right now.
“They don’t want to get sucked into Syria” explains scholar Joshua Landis. “Syria would be much bigger than Libya. It’s a country of 23 million, it’s divided, it’s more like Iraq than Libya.”
France, Britain, Germany and Portugal, along with the U.S., fought hard to push a U.N. resolution condemning Syria through the Security Council. They presented a draft in June, but by October watered it down in a failed attempt to gain China and Russia’s support.
In August, following America’s lead, France, Britain and Germany released a joint statement that called on President Assad “to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”
The European Union has issued a number of sanctions against Syria, including a ban on the import of crude oil, and has frozen the assets of officials it says are involved in the crackdown. Because 25 percent of Syria’s trade is with EU countries — particularly oil exports to Italy and Germany — the sanctions could hit Syria hard.
Though the secular Arab state and the Persian Islamic Republic may seem strange bedfellows, their enduring alliance grew out of common interests — and enemies.
President Hafez al-Assad cultivated the relationship in 1979, after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that left Syria vulnerable. Both Syria and Iran had antagonistic relationships with neighboring Iraq, and they worked together to counter Iraqi influence in the region. But the benefits of their relationship continue today.
The alliance has provided both Syria and Iran with leverage in the Arab-Israeli arena. The two countries support a number of radical Palestinian groups, and Iran sends arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria.
In short, Iran has a great deal to lose if its most important ally falls, and reportedly offered billions of dollars in aid this summer to bolster the Syrian economy, saddled by U.S. and European sanctions.
But there are signs of distress even in this critical relationship. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized Syria’s violent crackdown, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in October, “Nobody has the right to kill others, neither the government nor its opponents.” Analysts say this could be Iran hedging its bets in case the regime falls.
The BRICS Countries
Russia and China’s vetos of the U.N. resolution condemning Syria were backed by abstentions from Brazil and India and South Africa. Together, these five nations make up what’s become known as the “BRICS,” countries with high-growth emerging economies that have become an increasingly powerful block on the Security Council opposing “interference.” The BRICS opposed the Syria resolution out of frustration that this year’s earlier U.N. resolution on Libya opened to door to military action by NATO.
Russia’s strategic ties with Syria date back to the Cold War, and the two countries have developed s considerable economic relationship.
Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier, with contracts worth at least $3 billion, according to the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, and it has been in talks to assist Syria in building a nuclear power plant. Syria allows Russia to have strategic Mediterranean port access from the city of Tartus, which could become a permanent base for Russia’s nuclear-armed warships by 2012.
“The Middle East is the one area of ingress where the Russians might still have some influence,” explains Syria scholar David Lesch. “Syria is one of the few countries left that maintains a good relationship and where they can have some influence in the diplomacy that might happen there in the future.”
In early October, shortly after the veto, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that President Assad should implement reforms he had promised or step down from his postion. “If the Syrian leadership is incapable of conducting such reforms, it will have to go, but this decision should be taken not in NATO or certain European countries,” he said, “it should be taken by the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership.”
China also has vested economic and strategic interests in maintaining relations with the Syrian government. Since President Bashar al-Assad came to power, the two countries have enjoyed closer bilateral ties and expanded trade, including Chinese military assistance to Syria.
China has repeatedly tried to engage Syria on the crackdown, sending its special Middle East envoy to visit the country at the end of October and calling for Syria to follow through on its reform pledges.
The neighbors and close allies have had shaky relations since Syria was accused of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from the country, but has been working to re-establish itself as the pre-eminent external power in Lebanon, building up support and influence among key Lebanese leadership, including members of Hezbollah.
Since the uprising began, thousands of refugees have fled Syria for Lebanon, including some members of the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army. Reports that Syria is planting land mines along parts of the border and that Syria has abducted dissidents from Lebanon suggest that it is ramping up its efforts to prevent Lebanon from becoming a safe haven from which the opposition can organize.
Hedging Their Bets
Perhaps more than any other country, Turkey has been playing both sides of the fence when it comes to Syria.
Despite a troubled history, Turkey has been one of Syria’s closer allies since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003. But after the uprising broke out, Turkish officials, in numerous visits to Damascus, have sought to persuade President Assad to end the crackdown and to enact sweeping reform. As the rebellion intensified and the government’s violence continued, Turkey began waging a campaign to undermine the Syrian regime.
The strongest evidence of Turkey’s shift is its hosting of the Free Syrian Army, which claims 10,000 Army defectors, and which Turkey reportedly allows “to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.”
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition force mirrored after the Libyan opposition’s National Transitional Council, is headquartered in Turkey, and some observers say the group is increasingly influenced by the Turkish government. Turkey claims it is temporarily hosting Syrian opposition on “humanitarian grounds” and that it has not provided the groups weapons or military support. Turkey has also announced that will impose economic sanctions on Syria, though that has yet to happen.
Analysts say Turkey’s dual efforts at engagement and supporting the opposition are an attempt hedge its bets on the outcome.
“Whoever ends up on top in Syria, whether it is Assad or any assortment of opposition groups that comes to power,” says Lesch, “Turkey will have a continuing a relationship with either party.”
As thousands of Syrian refugees and army defectors continue to flee across the border, some have looked to Turkey to set up a demilitarized zone to support the opposition more strongly. But Landis says Turkey does not want to go down that road. “It’s not ready to do it yet,” he says, “because it doesn’t want to go to war against a regime that’s still quite strong and might remain strong.”
Behind Turkey’s hesitancy to take on Syria more vociferously may be a fear of retribution. Turkey has long accused Syria of backing Kurdish rebels fighting a separatist war against Turkey, and further antagonizing the regime could potentially escalate that conflict.
The Arab League
Last week, Syria accepted an Arab League-sponsored peace plan calling for the government to withdraw its security forces from the streets, release all political detainees, open the country to the media and international monitors and engage in a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.
But according to the U.N., Syrian security forces have killed more than 60 civilians since signing the agreement; opposition figures in Homs told New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid that the number is much higher — at least 111 people in that city alone.
Analysts say Syria’s quick rebuff of the plan is a significant blow to the credibility of the league, which has called an emergency meeting scheduled for this weekend. The meeting could potentially be a turning point, but some are skeptical about the league’s potential to take decisive action.
“The Arab League is notoriously incompetent at doing anything; they’re always divided,” says Landis. “I don’t think they are in a position to take a concerted step.”
Within the Arab League, those opposed to any pressure on Syria are Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Mauritania and Lebanon, while Qatar leads the opposition to the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar have recalled their ambassadors from Syria.
Analysts suggest that until there is a viable united opposition, many nations in the league will continue to hedge their bets and delay taking decisive action.
Saudi Arabia is in a difficult strategic position: The fall of Syria’s Iranian-allied regime could be beneficial to Saudi Arabia, but it could also destabilize the region.
Relations between the two countries have historically been tense, but they reached a low point in 2005 after Saudi Arabia accused Syria of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
In August, Saudi Arabia pulled its ambassador from the country, citing the government’s “unacceptable” violent crackdown: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands before its historic responsibility toward her brothers, demanding the stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed, and the use of reason before it is too late,” said King Abdullah in an address.
For Israel, the Syria question comes down to a debate over whether “the devil we know” is better or worse than “devil we don’t.”
Though Israel and Syria are formally at war, a cease-fire in the Golan Heights has allowed the two countries to maintain relations. But because Syria allows Iranian arms to make their way to Hezbollah through its borders, Israel sees potential opportunity in the fall of the Assad regime.
“In Syria we see the possible overthrow of a very vicious regime under Bashar al-Assad and we saw that as an opportunity to perhaps break the dangerous alliance between Syria and Iran to lessen the stranglehold that the Syrians have had on Lebanon,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said in September. “We are certainly not urging anybody to go slow on Syria. We don’t prefer the devil we know to one we don’t know. Bashar al-Assad is more devil than anybody can handle. We’d like to see him go.”
But the debate gets complicated: If Assad survives and is weakened, Syria could potentially be more susceptible to Saudi influence, particularly on any negotiations between the two countries over the Golan Heights, says Lesch. Alternatively, a weakened Assad may not retain the influence he has over groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which could be detrimental.
Still, officials in Israel have remained relatively quiet about the developments out of Syria while they figure out which outcome would benefit its strategic interests.