Vultures over a Wounded Syria?
BEIRUT -- The sudden heightened rhetoric on events in Syria by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Arab League is unlikely to change how events in Syria unfold, but it marks an important shift in Syria’s and other states’ place and role in the wider Middle East. The most significant of trends is probably the more aggressive or assertive role of regional actors, as international players find that they have very limited means of influencing Syrian government actions. This is linked to the slow transformation of Syria from a leading actor that often defined key political realities around the region, into a more passive player whose domestic troubles have suddenly clipped its regional wings. The third big change is Syria’s sudden vulnerability at home, causing other regional powers to start working more diligently either to protect their interests or to make sure they are well positioned to take advantage of any changes to come inside Syria.
All of this has happened in just over four months, though it is in fact the delayed and inevitable consequence of four decades of autocratic rule whereby the Assad extended family, security services and business interests badly gutted and corrupted the country’s governance institutions. The hollowness and weaknesses of the ruling edifice was exposed once a domestic challenge erupted. Syria’s ruling establishment remains strong and broadly unified for now, though, but its end is certain if it uses no other means than military force to respond to the populist national uprising that challenges it.
Three major regional players -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran -- are now actively working in different ways to secure their national strategic interests by trying to influence events inside Syria. Israel presumably also is keeping an eye on things there, but its capacity to intervene is much smaller for now. This extraordinary spectacle of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran focusing on Syria is not yet a bevy of vultures hovering over the wounded Syrian body -- but it is the first step towards that. They all see trends inside the country that signal change, and for different reasons they want to influence that change to suit their preferences.
Iran wants to keep the Syrian system in place, because this (with links to Hizbullah in Lebanon) represents the one and only foreign policy achievement of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. This is presumably precisely why Saudi Arabia and the GCC, who fear more Iranian influence in the Arab world, have spoken out against Syrian government policy and asked President Bashar Assad to pursue political reforms -- however lacking in credibility or sincerity such a message is from Gulf monarchies.
Saudi Arabia has been leading the official Arab bulwark to hold back the wave of populist democratization that is the core of the street revolts rolling through the Arab world. It must calculate that it has more to lose from continued Iranian influence in the Arab region than it has to lose from Arab democratic reforms; so it works diplomatically (and presumably behind the scenes by assisting some of the Islamist anti-Assad forces) to weaken both Syria and Iran’s regional conduit via Damascus. Last summer, Saudi Arabia was working closely with Syria on several issues, including stabilizing conditions inside Lebanon. Today, Saudi Arabia seems to have decided to pressure the Damascus regime, if not also to actively change it. Arab politics, like politics everywhere, is a fickle and tempestuous beast.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria is the most intriguing, because Turkey has several direct economic, security, humanitarian and diplomatic interests in its bilateral ties, and has proved willing in the past to throw its weight around the region, including militarily, to secure its national interests. Turkey’s economic and political development in the past several decades has been one of the few success stories in the Middle East, and now it is being tested on its diplomatic prowess. It says it has not ruled out joining the Western, and now increasingly Arab, trend towards imposing greater sanctions on Syria as a means to influence it to use political rather than military tools to respond to its domestic challenges. The trouble with everyone’s approach is that Syria, like Iran, has proved to be stubbornly resistant to external diplomatic or economic pressures ever since the United States unilaterally initiated sanctions almost a decade ago.
For now, the most interesting and historically important aspect of the situation in Syria is less about the behavior of the top-heavy, security-based Assad regime -- a very predictable and endangered global species -- and more about the continued awakening of regional powers who now intervene in Syrian affairs more openly, as major global powers watch the people and regimes of the Middle East (still two different phenomena in most countries) re-take control of their destinies. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global