Saturday, July 7, 2012

Who Cares About Syria?

Author's Note: The following is an excerpt from an upcoming article entitled Intervention in Syria: What Could Happen? in which the interests of several major countries are examined in relation to the ongoing crisis in Syria.




There are several major players in the Syrian crisis on both the regional and international scene, each with its own interests and objectives concerning Syria in the geo-political, military, and economic realms. While many of these actors are allied with one another, be it military pact or an alliance of convenience, it does not mean that their interests are the same and as such one must examine the interests of each actor on an individual level.

The United States

The United States has its concerns with Syria that are primarily linked to Iran and terrorist organizations. In April 2010, the US government acknowledged that Syria “continue[d] to support Hamas and Hezbollah” and had financial relations with Iran as Iranian companies “invested in concrete production, power generation, and urban transportation.” [1] At that time, such involvement with Iran was viewed as a problem for US interests due to their being the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. [2] The Syrian-Iranian alliance would potentially prove a problem for the US and Israel if a strike had occurred as it could have allowed the Iranians to wage an effective retaliation on Israel, thus harming America’s interests by damaging a main regional ally. Today, the unease concerning the Syria-Iran alliance remains.

As of the recent civil war in Syria, the US seems to be hoping for the ousting of the Assad regime, stating that rebels were found victorious in the civil war, “a more democratic Syria may seek to broaden its relationships with Western democracies and could choose to reduce its dependence on its current alliance with Iran.” [3] Yet, while the US may want a rebel victory, they are worried about infiltration of the Syrian opposition by terrorist groups, namely Al Qaeda.

The Americans have been worried about the Syrian opposition being infiltrated for quite some time, with US officials stating this year that “the violence and disorder paralyzing Syria appears to be creating opportunities for Al Qaeda operatives or other violent Islamist extremists to infiltrate the country and conduct or plan attacks” and that “Sunni extremists have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, which may be unaware of the infiltration.” [4] Yet, this infiltration of Sunni extremists becomes rather interesting when one acknowledges that the US knows Al Qaeda is in the Syrian opposition and that the US is supporting the opposition. Al Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian rebel groups was acknowledged in February by Director of Intelligence James R. Clapper when he said that “Members of al-Qaeda have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and likely executed recent bombings in the nation’s capital and largest city.” [5] Most recently, it was reported that the CIA was giving arms to the Syrian rebels. [6] Thus, not only is the US aiding to arm elements of Al Qaeda, but also the US and Al Qaeda are (however indirectly) working together to dismantle the Assad regime. What peculiar bedfellows this situation is making!

The final interest that the US has in the Syrian crisis is taking out a major Iranian ally. As was stated earlier, a Syrian-Iranian alliance deeply troubles the US and taking Syria out of the picture would aid America in its quest to isolate Iran on a regional level. If the Assad regime were to fall, it would “cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies.” [7] Furthermore, with the Assads gone, it would result in Iran having no Middle East ally and being fully isolated, which would make it easier to invade or attack, seeing as how regime change in Iran is not off the table either.


Israel

Regarding the Assad situation, Israel is in a rather unenviable situation of essentially having to choose between an enemy it does know or siding with an unknown group that may be even more hostile to Israel.

Israel may choose to deal with the Assad regime, but not due to any fondness for it. It should be acknowledged that “Syria fought Israel directly in October 1973 and via proxy in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. Since 2000, Syria has continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.” [8] Yet, while Israel is no fan of the current government, they do realize that “the Assad regime will not attempt to repossess the Golan Heights by military force and will meet with Israeli leaders to negotiate for peace, which occurred in 1991, 1995-1996, 1999-2001, and 2008.” [9] Thus, while Assad may not be the friendliest neighbor, they are better than the alternative.

In addition to this, if a new regime is established that has more popular support than the current government (last checked, Assad had the support of 55% of the population [10]), it would allow for the Syrian government to position its military resources to external threats, namely the Jewish state. Thus, from an Israeli security standpoint it is better for the Syrian government to be tied up in suppressing rebels rather than potentially threatening Israel.

Just like the Americans, the situation regarding Iran is also at the front of the minds of the Israeli government, however it may not be for the reasons that one would assume. While governments and the media have been stating for years now that Iran is attempting to get nuclear weapons, in reality, Israeli (along with American and European) intelligence has acknowledged that “Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.” [11] (emphasis added) Thus, if Iran is “years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead,” much less building a nuclear weapon, this leads one to wonder what the real reason is that Israel is so worried about Iran possibly attaining nuclear weapons? The real reason is that Israel is worried about losing its nuclear monopoly in the region and security risks that come with it.
Israel's real fear -- losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East -- is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It's the fact that Iran doesn't even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back. [12] (emphasis added)

Thus, Israel does see Iran as a threat but much more to its regional military hegemony than rather a threat to its very existence.

Finally, Israel both the current Assad regime and Iran come into play with Israel’s final regional interest, Hezbollah. Israel is worried that they may gain non-conventional weapons if the Assad regime fell. Most likely, Israel is concerned about Hezbollah coming into chemical and biological weapons as they are already rehearsing drills for if such a situation were to occur. [13] Such an occurrence would empower the terrorist group and by extension its financier, Iran, as well as become a potential security concern. The Israeli government realizes that “The outcome of the internal conflict in Syria will have a decisive impact on Hizbullah's strength and behavior, as well as on the political and security situation in Lebanon generally, and on Israel's relationship with Lebanon,” [14] and this are keeping a close eye on the situation in Lebanon and how what occurs in Syria affects their northern neighbor.

Russia

Russia’s concerns about Syria stem from its military and commercial interests in Syria as well as its worries about the radical Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition and protecting its own borders.

Putin is pushing against military intervention due to the fact that the Kremlin think that “allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders—namely, in the North Caucasus.” [15] This possibility of intervention near Russia’s borders alarms the government as NATO has already been busy allying itself with many of the satellite states of the former Soviet Union in addition to the creation and implementation of the European missile shield. Russia may view such a possibility as an attempt to isolate and intimidate Russia.

Two other concerns of Russia are its commercial and military interests. In Syria, Russia maintains control of its naval base in Tartus, its only access to the Mediterranean Sea. However, If Russia were to lose this base, it would hurt doubly as not only would Russia lose Middle East projection power, but also access to much of the natural gas and oil that is in the Mediterranean [16] and the power that comes with controlling such resources. There are also commercial interests at stake as “Russia has long been Syria's primary military supplier and currently has about $4 billion worth of contracts for future arms deliveries to Damascus.” Having a client for military weaponry is important but beyond that, “Russian companies have made a number of investments in Syria. These projects are worth roughly $20 billion and include some from Russia's powerful energy sector, such as a natural gas production facility and pipeline.” [17] Thus, the loss of the Assad regime would not only hurt the defense sector, but would also harm the massive investments made in the Syrian energy sector.

Finally, Russia is deeply concerned with the extreme Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition. Russia backs Assad as they realize that “if the regime in Damascus falls, the whole ‘terrorist international’ that is now fighting against Bashar al-Assad will begin to fight elsewhere. It is quite possible that the fighting could spread to the Caucasus or Central Asia.” [18] Such a possibility worries the Kremlin as the rebels in the Chechnya region have many Islamic links, including having Al Qaeda fight alongside them. [19] In the mind of the Kremlin the Islamist threat is quite serious as it potentially threatens not only their rule but also the stability of the country.

Turkey

Turkey, a close neighbor of Syria, also has many vested interests in seeing the fall of the Assad regime. The Turks view the situation through the lens of their economic and foreign policy interests as well as their domestic interests in relation to the Kurdish situation.

Turkey has viewed Syria quite some time as a stepping stone on its way to “become a political, economic and self-described ‘moral’ leader in the Middle East.” Economically, the Syrian crisis concerns Turkey, who has made major economic gains because of trade between the two nations. The Turkish government is concerned about
creating an environment that is conducive to the flowering of Turkish trade and the expansion of the Turkish economy. In that sense, one of Ankara’s main interests vis-à-vis Syria is to use the country as an outlet for Turkish exporters, particularly from the highly entrepreneurial regions bordering Syria, such as Gaziantep and Hatay. The statistics from the last few years demonstrate the success of this policy: Turkish exports to Syria skyrocketed from $266 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion in 2010. (emphasis added) [20]

On a regional scale, there is a battle between Iran and Turkey over influence in Syria. Turkey and Iran are both attempting to influence the Syrian regime for their own purposes. To Turkey, Syria would be “the proving ground for Turkey’s moderating effects on its neighbors and the place to showcase Turkey’s role as a kind of regional reform whisperer. Ties to Syria were seen as the cornerstone of a new regional order, one based on more open borders and the free flow of goods and people.” [21] Turkey needs to keep Syria in its sphere of influence if it is to establish a new regional order in which Turkey is the leader.

The Kurdish question also plays into Turkey’s concern about the situation in Syria. The Turkish leadership looks forward to the fall of the Assad regime as it would allow for “Kurdish rights [to] be recognised within ‘the unity of the Syrian state.’ Thus, Syria's Kurds would be prevented from gaining any form of autonomy, the PKK's branch in Syria - the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - would be undermined, and Turkey's own Kurdish separatist movement would not be further inflamed.” [22] Keeping the Kurds in line and pacification them is quite important to the Turkish government as the Kurds have demands that range from recognition of cultural rights to the creation of a Kurdish state that includes majority Kurd areas in Turkey. Thus, Turkey must attempt to play all sides in order to ensure that it comes out on top.

Iran

Iran is a steadfast ally of Assad and a longtime ally of Syria. Yet even close allies have their own reasons for supporting the current regime. While economic and military interests play a role, a unique factor in this relationship is that the leadership of both regimes are of the Shite sect of Islam in a region that is filled with those of the Sunni sect.

Just like Russia, Iran has major economic ties to Syria as can be seen by the fact that Syria gives Iran a place to invest money and a trading partner. “Iran has high-profile assets like auto factories, a cement plant, and an oil refinery in Syria, all of which rely on the stability of the Assad regime. Leaders in the two nations also share theological ties, as Shiite Muslims, and a mutual distaste for the West.” [23] This economic alliance is made all the more important with the international trade sanctions that have afflicted Iran’s economy for years.

Iran is also concerned about its aid to Hezbollah as such a blow would affect Iran itself. Syria has allowed Iran to “transform Hezbollah into a force that the Israeli military cannot defeat.” If the Assad government falls, Iran will find itself without a way to back Hezbollah and result in a “[decrease in] Iran's ability to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear facilities.” [24] Thus, Iran needs Syria as part of a larger strategy to deter Israeli aggression.

China

While far away in Asia, the Chinese government has extremely large investments in Syria and is backing the Assad government as a way to ensure the needed stability- and cash flow- continues unabated.

China has made major investments into Syria. In 2007 it was reported that the real figure of Chinese exports to Syria is around  $1.2 billion and that Syrian officials predicted it would double by 2011 [25], meaning that the Chinese government has about $2.4 billion in investments that are currently at stake.

In addition to that, the majority of China’s imports from Syria are oil and crude oil imports. Oil is something that China greatly needs if it is to continue fueling its massive economic growth and growing military power. While the US has the governments of most of the major oil producing nations under its influence, China has been looking outward, from Africa to Middle Eastern enemies of the West, in order to attain natural resources. While it may not seem like it, China, without a doubt, wants to ensure that its investments as well as the transfer of oil are protected whether regime change occurs or not.




Endnotes

1: Jeremy M. Sharp, Syria: Background and U.S. Relations, Congressional Research Service http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/142735.pdf (April 26, 2010)

2: Ian Black, “Israel primed to attack a nuclear Iran,” Guardian [UK], November 28, 2010 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/28/israel-primed-attack-nuclear-iran)

3: Jeremy M. Sharp, Syria: Issues for the 112th Congress and Background on U.S. Sanctions, Congressional Research Service http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/RL33487_20110428.pdf (April 28, 2011)

4: Christopher M. Blanchard, Jeremy M. Sharp, Syria: Unrest and U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33487.pdf (May 24, 2012)

5: Greg Miller, “Al-Qaeda infiltrating Syrian opposition, U.S. officials say,” Washington Post, February 16, 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/al-qaeda-infiltrating-syrian-opposition-us-officials-say/2012/02/16/gIQA9LDJIR_story.html)

6: Eric Schmitt, “C.I.A. Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition,” New York Times, June 21, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/middleeast/cia-said-to-aid-in-steering-arms-to-syrian-rebels.html?pagewanted=all)

7: Efraim Halevy, “Iran’s Achilles’ Heel,” New York Times, February 7, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/opinion/to-weaken-iran-start-with-syria.html?_r=1)

8: Giorgio Cafiero, “Syria: America versus Israel,” Asia Times, June 6, 2012 (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/NF06Ak01.html)

9: Asia Times, June 6, 2012

10: Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you'd never know from western media,” Guardian [UK], January 17, 2012 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/17/syrians-support-assad-western-propaganda)

11: Mark Hosenball, Tabassum Zakaria, “Special Report: Intel shows Iran nuclear threat not imminent,” Reuters, March 23, 2012 (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/23/us-iran-usa-nuclear-idUSBRE82M0G020120323)

12: James P. Rubin, “The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria,” Foreign Policy, June 4, 2012 (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/06/04/the_real_reason_to_intervene_in_syria?page=full)

13: Yaakov Katz, “IDF tests siren for rogue non-conventional missiles,” Jerusalem Post, July 3, 2012 (http://www.jpost.com/Defense/Article.aspx?id=276081)

14: Jadaliyya, The Israeli Position Towards Events In Syria, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4336/the-israeli-position-toward-events-in-syria (February 11, 2012)

15: Dmitri Trenin, “Syria: A Russian Perspective,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 28, 2012 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/28/syria-russian-perspective/ccln)

16: F. William Engdahl, “New Mediterranean oil and gas bonanza,” Russia Today, February 26, 2012 (http://www.rt.com/news/reserves-offshore-middle-east-engdahl-855/)

17: James O’Toole, “Billions at stake as Russia backs Syria,” CNN Money, February 10, 2012 (http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/09/news/international/russia_syria/index.htm)

18: Alexey Pilko, “The Syrian crisis and Russia's interests,” The Voice of Russia, June 22, 2012 (http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_06_22/78965189/)

19: Scott Peterson, “Al Qaeda among the Chechens,” Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 2004 (http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0907/p01s02-woeu.html)

20: Yigal Schlefier, “From Endearment to Estrangement: Turkey’s Interests and Concerns in Syria,” United States Institute of Peace, October 25, 2011 (http://www.usip.org/files/resources/PB%20109.pdf)

21: United States Institute of Peace, October 25, 2011

22: Maria Fantanpple, “Turkey eyes Syrian crisis through lens of Kurdish stability,” The National, March 23, 2012 (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/turkey-eyes-syrian-crisis-through-lens-of-kurdish-stability)

23: Jessica Rettig, “Iran Has Much to Lose if Syria's Assad Falls,” US News, September 2, 2011 (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2011/09/02/iran-has-much-to-lose-if-syrias-assad-falls)

24: Asia Times, June 6, 2012

25: Executive, Syria - China - trade partners, http://www.executive-magazine.com/getarticle.php?article=9819 (September 2007)

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