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