By Dr Subhash Kapila
“The transformation of the Syrian crisis into a geopolitical contest between regional and global powers — especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Russia — raises the stakes. By the same token it blocks alternative paths for conflict resolution and increases the risks of sectarian violence” — Yezid Sayigh. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, USA.
Syria’s domestic political crisis which erupted sometime in August 2011 stands transformed today into a wider crisis transcending Syria’s borders. Syria today finds itself in the vortex of global and regional powerplay and which carries overtones of a prolonged conflict as the geopolitical and geostrategic stakes are high for all parties involved.
Syria by itself may not have drawn much attention from global and regional powers on its domestic political crisis. Brutal suppression is a phenomenon of all Middle East regimes and Syria cannot be an exception. Syria becomes exceptional and draws strategic attention of the United States and its Middle East allies because Syria enjoys a strategic relationship with Iran and Russia
The dual veto exercised by Russia and China in the UN Security Council to block a resolution calling for the stepping down of Syrian President Bashar Assad is a strong pointer towards the return of the Cold War templates to the Middle East.
The strategic line-up in the Middle East today comprises the United States, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and the oil rich Gulf Region monarchies. On the other side the strategic line-up comprises Iran and Syria allied to Russia and China. Iraq can also be said to be drawn towards Syria and Iran with the US troops having withdrawn from Iraq In fact what the United States, Israel and Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia are fears and concerns on the possible emergence of a “Shia Crescent” comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and most likely Lebanon too.
Democracy and human rights have never been a core issue for the United States in the Middle East, for had it been so then the United States would not have been permissive on its own Arab allies led by Saudi Arabia.
The core issue in 2012 in the Middle East for the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other nations allied to the United States, is upset in the strategic balance accruing from the US military withdrawal from Iraq and the new US strategic formulation of a strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific.
But for Syria, the regional strategic isolation of ran would have been complete as sought by the United States and Israel and the regional powers contending Iran for strategic pre-eminence like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
This Paper intends to analyse the main theme in a bit more detail under the following heads:
- Syria’s Geostrategic and Geopolitical Significance
- Syria in the Strategic Power play of the United States, Russia and China
- Syria’s Centrality in the Middle East Regional Power play
Syria’s Geostrategic and Geopolitical Significance
Syria’s geostrategic significance lies in the fact that other than Israel, Syria is the other notable Middle East nation located on the East Mediterranean Sea. This imparts substantial strategic advantages in Middle East nations to the Mediterranean Sea.
Geographically, Syria shares land borders with major Middle East nations like Turkey (822 km) in the North and Iraq (605 km) in the South and West. Syria also shares borders with Israel (76 km), Jordan (375 km) and Lebanon (375 km). Syria’s strategic postures and its political dynamics therefore have an impact on the countries mentioned.
Coupled with the above attributes, Syria is no strategic pushover as it has half a million soldiers in arms, a sizeable Air Force and a missiles arsenal. It also has a good air defence network. Its inventories are all of Russian origin.
Geopolitically, Syria all along has been a key Arab nation player along with Egypt and Iraq. Even today, Syria exercises considerable political and military influence in Lebanon and amongst Palestinian Arabs.
Syria in the Strategic Power play of the United States, Russia and China
The United States historically and largely has had Syria in its strategic crosshairs as an adversarial entity earlier during the Cold War period and currently too, except for a brief interlude when Syria formed part of the UN Coalition in Gulf War I.
United States has always been strategically opposed to Syria’s close strategic and political relationship with Russia. More importantly, Syria’s unremitting hostility towards Israel, its military occupation of Lebanon for quite some time and Syria’s strategic nexus with Iran currently, all constitute adversarial and hostile postures in US perceptions.
Stated earlier in this Paper, it is strategically galling for the United States that Iran’s strategic isolation by the United Sates remains incomplete with Syria’s strategic nexus with Iran.
Russia has traditionally made sizeable strategic investments in Syria as a leading Arab nation which figures adversarial in United States in strategic calculus. That makes Syria a valuable strategic asset for Russia. In the naval dimension, Syria provides footholds in the form of access to its naval bases for the Russian Navy to facilitate Russian presence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia demonstrated its strategic commitment to Syria recently when Russian Navy combat ships deployed at Syrian naval bases to signal that Russia would not tolerate any external military intervention against Syria from any quarter.
China far removed from Syria geographically and without any power projection capabilities is not in a position like Russia to provide demonstrated military support. China however with its global political and economic clout still otherwise provides countervailing power especially in the Middle East in cooperation and in tandem with Russia. This was visible with the dual veto exercised by Russia and China in the UN Security Council recently to forestall regime change in Syria.
Therefore in terms of global power play Syria is not a strategic orphan as it is strategically backed by Russia and China. The United States, Israel and Turkey would have to factor-in the support from Russia and China that strategically accrues to Syria before any action against the Syrian President.
Syria’s Centrality in Middle East Regional Power play
Avoiding labouring on the history of the Middle East since 1948 which has been an unending saga of hostility between the Arab World and Israel what needs to be stated is that in2012 a new strategic confrontation has emerged where Iran has erupted as the core strategic concern not only for the United States and Israel but also for the monarchical Arab regimes led by Saudi Arabia.
Also to be noted is that is that in terms of intra-regional power play in the Middle East, three contenders for regional strategic pre-eminence have appeared in the form of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Amongst these three contenders, Turkey and Iran can be counted as real contenders as Saudi Arabia except for its financial clout has no attributes of power in terms of population base and military manpower.
Oddly, Turkey till recently had good relations with Iran and to a lesser extent with Syria, but serious fissures have now surfaced.
A word also needs to be stated about the other distinctive divide between the three contending Middle East regional powers. Iran is non-Arab and the most powerful Shia nation in the world. Turkey is non-Arab but Sunni Islamic which till the advent of the present regime was avowedly secular. Saudi Arabia is an Arab nation dominated by rigid Islamist Wahabis. Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern provinces are predominantly Shia populated as the rest of the Gulf monarchies.
In this sort of matrix, how does Syria acquire a centrality in the Middle East? That is the question that currently needs to be addressed.
Syria is not a contender for regional power status in the Middle East. Yet it provides strategic ballast to whichever side it tilts to in relation to the regional contenders for power status. Syria has tilted strategically towards Iran and therefore acquires a centrality in Middle East power play.
Syria’s tilt towards Iran provides Iran with the following strategic advantages (1) Syria provides to Iran a crucial strategic pressure point against Israel (2) Syria’s appreciable influence in Lebanon coupled with Iranian hold over the Hezbollah armed militia in Lebanon makes the Iranian threat against Israel that much more potent (3) Syria provides access to Iran to the East Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey’s aspirations to emerge as as a regional political and economic power in the Middle East can get stymied in case Turkey continues to persist in its present policy inclinations of hosting the Syrian Free Army fighting the Syrian regime. Syria provides good commercial access for Turkey to the Arab heartland.
Saudi Arabia is as it is ill-placed to contend with Iran for regional power status on its own or with its other Arab allies in tow. With a major Arab nation like Syria siding with a non-Arab nation like Iran and that too a Shia nation, is a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia’s leadership credentials resting on its Arab and Sunni credentials.
In terms of the Arab street, what measures is the Islamic unity against their fundamental confrontation against Israel. Iran and Syria have displayed good credentials in this regard as opposed to the other regional power contenders like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Syria’s centrality is therefore not confined to the Arab World only but extends to the Middle East. Syria’s dynamics in this direction will not change until Israel is willing to return to Syria the strategic Golan Heights which Israel captured in the last war.
Syria is undoubtedly caught in the vortex of global and regional power play as never before with shifting sands of the Middle East. This power play is likely to get more intense and complex with Iran moving inexorably towards nuclear weapons arsenal. This seems a natural consequence to the US exit from Iraq, US strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and what follows in its wake.
Would Syria jettison its existing strategic nexus relationship with Iran? Rather unlikely .Would Syria give up its long standing strategic relationship with Russia? Again unlikely, as the United States strategic calculus of according centrality to Israel in the Middle East and to Saudi Arabia in the Arab World ceases. Again this is unlikely by present indicators.
The United States and the West with their fixation to isolate Iran by delinking Syria from Iran through a regime change would be walking into a strategic quagmire. Syria is not another Libya where a military walkover is possible.
More importantly, the most serious unintended consequence of a US-Israel-Turkey engineered regime change in Syria would be giving a foothold to the Al Qaeda which has called also for a regime change in Syria. Surely, the United States would not desire that.
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