Syria’s history and geography has determined to a large degree its alliances. As a former colony subjected to French imperialism, and a country lacking rich energy resources of its Middle East neighbors, Syria always needed to use whatever diplomatic leverage it had at its disposal to retain as much of its national sovereignty as possible. The question has always been what political system best expresses its national interests and retains its national sovereignty. The situation today is that the US and EU are interested in using Syria as a satellite to counterbalance Iran and gain immense foothold in the Middle East. This explains the reason for the Western-backed uprising that started in spring 2011 and it continues with more than 16,000 casualties, countless refugees, and a broader geopolitical instability that stretches from Turkey and Iran to Lebanon and Israel.
One the one side, there is Iran that has a stake in Syrian stability under Bashar al-Assad, with Russia and China having a long-term close relationship with Damascus. While it is clear that Russia makes billions of dollars in supplying Syria with weapons, the real goal of Moscow, along with Iran and China, is to prevent the US and EU from upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East by gaining a foothold in Syria. The question of what is in the best interests of the Syrian people is not one that either East or West are considering. No matter the inane US and EU rhetoric about freedom and democracy for Syria, something that Western institutions often deny to their own citizens, let alone remain silent about when it comes to allies like Saudi Arabia, the interest in Syria is geopolitical.
Geopolitical leverage is the only thing that Syria has and the current regime under Assad uses that leverage to retain the support of China, Russia and Iran. From 1958 to 1961, Nasser attempted a united Arab states project, but failed as nationalism was a dynamic force precluding alliances even among nations that had common interests and common enemies. Given that Syria was vulnerable after it broke with Nasser’s Egypt, given that its neighbors were pro-West, it needed allies to counterbalance its enemies, while retaining the country’s unity by satisfying the disparate socioeconomic groups. Syria’s alliance with the USSR during the Cold War made geopolitical sense, given the alliances of Syria’s neighbors, and given the ideology and political program of the ruling Ba’athist party that was closer to Socialism (heavily statist) than it was to Western-style market capitalism.
That Syria has been one-party state, essentially a dynasty catering to narrow interests at home and abroad is not something that the ruling party can deny, any more than it can hide from its record of favoring certain tribal, sectarian and ethnic groups over others. This is not to say that pro-West Arab regimes manage sectarian, tribal, and ethnic divisions any better than the Assad regime currently under fire from a mass popular uprising. That Syria has enjoyed China’s and Russia’s backing at the UN, which the US has tried to use to topple the Assad regime, is troubling to relations between East and West. China and Russia seem to dig in their heels on this issue, and will not permit another Western-backed uprising to overthrow a regime they support and see as key to the regional balance of power and stability.
When the US and EU condemned Syria for shooting down a Turkish plane that violated Syria’s air space in June 2012, neither Ankara nor Beijing were willing to permit NATO to use the staged incident as a pretext for operations to support Syrian rebels. Turkey has a long-standing record of violating the airspace of neighboring nations. The government in Tehran has sent stern warnings that it will not permit Turkey and NATO to undermine the national sovereignty of Iran. That Turkey wants to become the great power of the Middle East is not a secret, any more than it is a secret that it will do just about anything to undermine its Arab neighbors to secure that preeminent role. As long as there is convergence of US-EU foreign policy goals, Ankara will be permitted to go all out in undermining its former close ally Syria.
It is true that the Assad regime is a dictatorship and it must assume responsibility for failing to find a solution to the civil war of the past 16 months.
Editor’s Note: This statement is not true. The Syrian government launched a reform process that brought together both supporters and opponents of the government, culminating in the adoption of the new Constitution after it was approved in a popular referendum. The conflict would be over if the U.S. and its GCC allies stopped funding armed terrorist groups that have no interest in reforms, only overthrowing the Syrian government.
It is just as true that Western nations have had a very large role in Syria’s political opposition, aiding with weapons, money, intelligence, and massive propaganda – all for the good of democracy and freedom, they claim. Russia is correct to blame the US and its partners for supplying weapons to Syria, just as it is correct to worry about Syria lapsing into some type of an Islamic regime that would be hostile to Russia, which has had its own problems with Islamic rebels. Vladimir Putin wants greater not lesser influence in the Middle East, and Moscow seems determined to carry the contest of wills with Washington as far as it can, short of an open conflict.
The larger question is how far should the reach of the NATO powers extend, and to what extent should the West be permitted to destabilize the Middle East in order to exert hegemonic influence, assuming that would be possible under radical Islamic regimes in the future. Is Syria worth an all-out war between the US and EU on one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other? Such a scenario is unthinkable and not realistic to contemplate. But where do Russia and China draw the line on Western encroachment in Muslim countries? Besides, what have the US and its partners really achieved that is to the benefit of the occupied nations or the region by military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Scenarios of a broader regional Middle East war are as numerous as there are analysts, especially those interested in promoting an agenda such as a stronger Israel, stronger US defense sector, war as a stimulus to the contracting economy, etc. War may not be in the cards before the US presidential election in November 2012, and by then Assad may have fallen. But it does not matter either way, because Islamic regimes will flourish out of the ashes of Middle East revolutions, especially now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt. Is a clash of civilizations inevitable and could such a clash lead to future smaller wars or Western-backed uprisings, or can the West live with Islamic regimes not so different in their approach to the West than Iran?