On Syria, World Powers Hedge Their Bets


April 9, 2013

Two years after the conflict began, Syria has slipped into a brutal civil war that continues to get more deadly. Civilians caught up in the violence are still trying to understand why no one’s intervened to help them. But each nation has its own strategy for dealing with the conflict. Here’s where the major powers stand on Syria today.

The West

The E.U. has imposed a range of sanctions on Syria, including an arms embargo to prevent the regime from stocking up more weapons. But the embargo means European powers can’t arm the rebels, either. Britain and France have expressed interest in lifting the embargo to enable them to offer some military support, although France’s foreign minister has recently appeared to waver on the idea.

In February, E.U. nations agreed to extend Syrian sanctions for another three months and to alter the arms embargo to allow “non-lethal support and technical assistance” to the rebels.

The U.S. announced last month that it would loosen its sanctions on Syria to allow U.S. citizens to fund the Syrian rebels. It also made a major policy shift in late February, when Secretary of State John Kerry announced $60 million in “nonlethal” aid to the rebels in the form of food rations and medical supplies, the first direct support the U.S. has offered. The U.S. has already provided $384 million in humanitarian aid since the conflict began, but most of that aid was channeled through the United Nations.

The U.S. hasn’t yet officially agreed to provide the rebels with weapons, even as it has pushed the E.U. to do so. There are indications that the U.S. is already supporting them militarily: The CIA is training rebels in Jordan, and the U.S. has tacitly allowed weapons to move to the Free Syrian Army from Arab allies. President Barack Obama has also drawn a “red line” for Syria on the use of chemical weapons, saying their use by Assad regime could lead to U.S. military intervention.

Western nations have been reluctant to send weapons directly to the rebels because they’re still concerned about who these fighters actually are. If the rebels were to gain an advantage with new weapons and overthrow the regime, who would govern in President Bashar al-Assad’s place? Would it be the fighters who started the rebellion? The extremists who now fight to establish an Islamic state? Some element of Al Qaeda?

Syria’s Allies

Russia has stood by Syria since the beginning. President Vladimir Putin is wary of repeating what happened in Libya, when Russia allowed a no-fly zone that ultimately led to the downfall of the regime. So on Syria, Russia has defied any U.N. resolutions that might allow military intervention, insisting instead on negotiating a diplomatic resolution. Russia has supplied humanitarian aid for refugees and displaced Syrians and recently sent more than 200 tons of bank notes to bolster the economy, which is crippled by Western sanctions.

China joined with Russia in blocking three U.N. resolutions on Syria since the conflict began, and like Russia, it has continued to oppose any military intervention. In November 2012, China proposed a four-point peace plan to resolve the fighting, an unusual move for a country that typically prefers to stay out of major foreign-policy decisions because it doesn’t like to infringe on other nations’ sovereignty. But the plan offered few specifics. And six months later, there’s no sign the proposal has had any impact on the ground.

Iran and Syria have a longstanding alliance forged in a common goal to counter the strength of Iraqi and Israeli power in the region. Iran has been shipping weapons to the besieged regime at a rate that far outstrips what other nations have been providing to the rebels. One American official compared the frequent deliveries to a “milk run,” according to The New York Times. But even Iran may be losing confidence in the ability of the current regime to remain intact: It’s reportedly building up a trained, pro-regime militia to ensure it can maintain a connection to Syria even if Assad should fall.

The Neighbors

The Arab League has tried to use pressure and diplomacy to try to stop the bloodshed. It suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 and imposed economic sanctions. Arab League officials also tried to broker a solution in the early days of the fighting, but last year, Syria’s foreign minister announced that it “no longer wanted an Arab solution to the crisis.” At a March 2013 Arab League summit, Syrian opposition leaders sat in Assad’s place for the first time.

The Gulf states have pledged millions in humanitarian aid and encouraged the U.N. to intervene. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, a major Sunni power, began arming the rebels last year, sending weapons through Turkey and Jordan. Now, young Saudis are taking up arms with the rebels, encouraged by Saudi clerics to fight a “holy war” against Assad’s regime even as the Saudis have expressed concern that the conflict will spill over into the region.

Qatar has also been a strong backer of the rebels. It’s been supplying weapons, and recently opened an embassy for the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group that is widely recognized, at least internationally, as a main representative of the Syrian people.

Turkey has been a powerful backer of the rebels since the beginning of the uprising. It imposed a host of sanctions on the country in 2011 and hosts Syrian opposition leaders. Tensions between the two countries spiked after Syria shelled a Turkish border town last year. Turkey fired back, shelling Syrian military targets. Syria apologized, and implied the hit was accidental, but the relationship remained damaged.

Turkey has recently repaired its relationship with Israel, and the two tentative allies are now focused on containing Syria’s chemical weapons should the need arise.

Jordan began hosting training sessions for Syrian rebels in October, according to Western and Arab officials. The Syrian neighbor has also been coordinating arms shipments to the rebels. Jordan aims to establish a force that could protect its border with Syria when and if Assad’s regime falls, as well as act as a counter to religious extremists gaining influence among the rebel groups. It’s also absorbed more than 400,000 Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

Lebanon has taken in nearly as many Syrian refugees as Jordan. Already rife with sectarian tensions, Lebanon is slowly being dragged into the civil war next door, spurred on by internal groups: Hezbollah, a Shia militant group that backs al-Assad; and a Sunni faction known as the March 14 faction, that supports the rebels. New Prime Minister Tammam Salam has said he hopes to keep Lebanon out of the war and officially, Hezbollah does too. But that has not stopped the government from allowing  fuel convoys from private Lebanese companies from heading into Syria to shore up the regime’s supplies, or March 14 militants from bombing them.

Iraq has not intervened directly in Syria, but it has no interest in seeing the country ruled by Sunni rebels. Now that Iraq is governed by its Shia majority, it’s grown much closer to neighboring Iran. Iraq has been accused by the U.S. of allowing Iranian planes delivering contraband to the Syrian regime to fly through Iraqi airspace. And Iraqi Shia have been funneling money, weapons and even fighters to bolster al-Assad.

Meanwhile, members of Iraq’s Sunni minority — including some who formed the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency — have found common cause with the Sunni rebels battling the Assad regime.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

More Stories

18 Essential Documentaries on Afghanistan and the Taliban
One year after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan amid the U.S. withdrawal, watch these documentaries that reveal what life in the country is like now and that offer context on the nearly two-decade war that became America's longest.
August 15, 2022
What’s the Status of Healthcare for Women in Afghanistan Under the Taliban?
Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, many women and girls were already struggling to receive adequate healthcare. A year later, the situation has worsened, sources told FRONTLINE.
August 9, 2022
‘Say to the Whole World, They Don’t Let Us Talk’: Women Held for ‘Immoral Behavior’ at a Taliban Prison Speak Out
In the FRONTLINE documentary ‘Afghanistan Undercover,’ Ramita Navai reports the Taliban has jailed women for ‘immoral behavior’ and held them without trial. Watch an excerpt.
August 9, 2022
The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout
In February 2021, days-long blackouts in Texas left millions shivering in the dark. Hundreds died. How has the Texas grid changed since then? And how has it changed how people think?
August 4, 2022