Not Losing Face in Syria

by Shireen T. Hunter

After four years of war, with more than 200,000 dead and several million displaced and refugees, there’s no end in sight to the Syrian crisis. On the contrary, the risks have increased that the West’s differences with Russia over Ukraine and some other issues—and Moscow’s greater involvement in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government—will cause the Syrian conflict to acquire global dimensions far beyond the Middle East. Some observers have hinted (and some have more than hinted) that a new Cold War might be in the offing, with the reemergence of Cold War-era type regional groupings. In one scenario, a group consisting of Iran, Syria, Russia, and Hezbollah might coalesce, with Iraq sitting on the fence, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States would remain aligned with the West.

Meanwhile, it is a common notion that the most formidable obstacle to beginning a process to end Syria’s ongoing conflict and to bring about a new political setup in the country is the fate of its President Bashar al-Assad. Yet those Western countries that have in the past several years insisted that Assad must go before anything could be done to end the crisis were, until the outbreak of the conflict, willing to deal with him, notwithstanding the repressive nature of his regime. And Assad’s regime was not much worse than some of the West’s regional allies.

The same has been true of those regional powers that also have been insisting on Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace. For example, shortly before the start of the Syrian conflict, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was trying to bring about an agreement between Assad and Israel, so he would be crowned as the regional peacemaker. When Assad did not comply, the excessively prickly Erdogan became seriously miffed. Also dreaming of becoming the new caliph, Erdogan turned against Assad when the protests in Syria turned violent. The Turkish leader started to help Syrian militias and insisted that any solution required Assad’s prior departure.

The same has been true of Saudi Arabia. In 2009, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah visited Damascus and the following year Assad visited Riyadh. But the Saudis turned against Assad when he would not cut his ties with Iran. Even recently, there have been reports that the Saudis might drop their opposition to Assad if he parts ways with Iran. So far, however, Iran and Assad have continued their relationship.

The Stakes for Iran and Iraq

Of all the regional actors involved in Syria, Iran has the greatest strategic stake in Assad’s survival. From the very beginning of the crisis, a main motive for the US and some others for getting rid of Assad was to increase pressure on Iran. For those inclined toward a war with Iran over its nuclear program, Assad’s ouster could make a military attack on Iran easier to carry out. The possibility of a war with Iran has now greatly diminished, thanks to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded in July. However, in view of the animosity of significant parts of the American political establishment to the agreement and the impending change in administrations in 16 months’ time, such an option could very well be considered again. An official as senior as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has said that the agreement would enable the US to gather information about Iranian targets, which could be useful in case of a military attack. Such comments are not exactly reassuring to the Iranians.

Iraq, a country already being battered by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), would also be affected by regime change in Syria. Such a change will increase pressure on Iraq’s Shias and could strain Iran’s relations with Iraq. Given its geography and history, Iran has a big stake in Iraq, and this is another reason for its wanting Assad to survive. Then there is the Lebanese angle. With Assad gone, Iran’s connection with Lebanon would become much more difficult. Already faced with hostile governments on the southern side of the Persian Gulf, Iran would become even more isolated in the Middle East.

By contrast, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia oppose Assad in large part because of their regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia, in particular, sees Assad’s survival as a victory for Iran and therefore unacceptable. In the zero-sum game that Saudi Arabia has been playing with Iran, according to which Riyadh believes that Tehran has no right to be involved in Arab affairs, Assad’s remaining in power would mean loss of face and prestige. This would send the message that, despite its wealth and powerful Western allies, Saudi Arabia is not capable of dictating the fate of regional politics and leaders. The same is also partly true of Turkey, or to be exact Erdogan, since many Turkish politicians and a good part of the population are critical of the country’s Syria policy. They hold this policy responsible for many of Turkey’s current problems.

For the Western powers, which drew red lines and demanded Assad’s departure, the issue has also become more about proving who is going to decide the fate of both regional and global politics and thus the nature of the international system and the relative weight of various actors within it.

Russia and China

Russia, too, considers the question to be largely about the character of the international system and Russia’s role within it. True, Russia is worried about IS and its growing impact on the North Caucasus. But despite the views of some pundits, Russia has been facing the problem of Middle East- and South Asia-generated extremism since the 1990s. The IS threat is not that much different from those of previous groups. Russia is essentially making a stand in Syria in order to indicate that there would be costs in its being ignored in world affairs. Rightly or wrongly, for more than two decades Russia has felt humiliated by the West’s treatment. It has also come to believe that a so-called unipolar world is damaging to its interests and that it should do what it can to disrupt such a system.

China also agrees with this vision, but it has been too clever to take the initiative, letting Russia take all the blame.

What has received the least attention has been the question of what shape a Syria without Assad would take and whether whatever emerges would be better than Assad’s regime. How could the West and its allies put in a place a government that would both be able to stabilize Syria, make peace with Israel without demanding back the Golan Heights, and help advance the West’s regional policies? No one has provided a convincing answer.

Now, however, the game in Syria has acquired international dimensions with the potential to poison further the atmosphere of relations between Russia and the West, with ramifications far beyond Syria. This argues for all international and regional actors to put aside their excessive concern with loss of face and begin to address the real issues involved, possibly in the context of a truly international conference under UN auspices. The fact is that no single power or even two powers can run the world any longer. What is needed is greater willingness to act according to international law and to make arrangements that address the real concerns of both international powers and regional actors.

Clearly, Assad cannot expect to rule Syria forever, and at some point he must relinquish the presidency. However, making his departure a precondition for trying to end the conflict does not make sense. The longer the conflict goes on the more difficult it will be to close Syria’s rifts. This means that even if Assad leaves, Syria will remain unstable for a long time to come.

Photo of Bashar al-Assad courtesy of PAN Photo via Flickr

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. I deeply regretted the eruption of the revolt in Syria, fearing it would lead to chaos. Working with Russia to dampen the civil war would be a good thing.

  2. Only France’s Hollande is holding on the ‘mantra’ that Bashar al Assad must go before the political transition in Syria. Even Merkel has changed her mind.
    The Saudi contracts for billions of dollars of french weapons is on Hollande’s desk and Iran has been snubbing the french business men who flocked to Teheran to beg for deals.
    Hollande has a choice. Please Saudi Arabia, or court Iran?
    He is choosing to please the Saudis in return for an immediate billion dollars ‘sale’ to Egypt of war careers that he refused to sell to Russia and much more deals on weapons .France is so squeezed for money to boost its ailing economy that it is again betting on the wrong horse.
    Remember Qaddafi’s gorgeous invitation to Paris to buy more weapons?

  3. Excellent analysis, Shireen. You have identified the big unanswered question (what happens after Bashar?) and also the looming danger (of a new conflict of alliances in the ME). Our folks should have thought about this earlier. Russia is, let’s remember, supporting the internationally recognized government of Syria. The fact that Hillary and Obama foolishly declared that “Bashar has to go” did not change that fact. Let’s hope that Russia’s actions will catalyze joint action against the enemy of all: ISIS. Too many double games being played. And, as usual, the Kurds are taking it from the Turks.

  4. You wrote ” However, making his departure a precondition for trying to end the conflict does not make sense. ” In 2014, he won the elections, fair and square according to observers from more than 30 countries. Not only does it not make sense, it would be illegal.

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