4. Regional and International Strategic Rivalries Reinforce the Stalemate
It’s no secret that the international community has never spoken with one voice about Syria — it was the fundamental division between Russia and China, on the one hand, and the Western powers on the other that put the kibosh on U.N. Security Council action on Syria, and eventually prompted the resignation of Special Envoy Kofi Annan, who warned that international discord over Syria’s immediate future — driven by preexisting strategic rivalries — sabotaged his efforts to forge a political solution to the conflict. And the best efforts of the Obama Administration to cajole or shame the Russians and Chinese into changing their positions proved fruitless. Syria has become a battleground of a new geopolitics, in which Beijing and Moscow are determined to block Western powers from toppling Middle East regimes outside of their strategic orbit — as well as a battleground of a longstanding regional geopolitics that has pitted Saudi Arabia against Iran in proxy conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan. So the Saudis fund and arm rebel forces, while the Iranians are reportedly even sending military personnel to help the Assad regime fight the war. Russia and China insist that a political solution can’t be premised on demanding that Assad first step down, and also that Iran’s participation is essential to any workable regional solution. Washington has strenuously opposed any role for Tehran in a Syrian solution.
With efforts to forge a common international approach in abeyance — and schemes such as the proposal by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy to create a quartet composed of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iran to seek a political solution unlikely to go beyond wishful thinking in the near term — international players appear increasingly in disarray. The strategy by the Western powers in conjunction with Turkey and Arab countries to boost the SNC as a credible alternative to Assad has failed, and there’s evident discord among the “Friends of Syria” states over issues such as whether to escalate the conflict through providing heavier arms to the rebels, imposing a partial or full “no-fly” zone which won’t have any U.N. authorization or to create a buffer zone inside Turkey for refugees, or rebels.
Iran has already signaled its own response by allegedly sending troops to help Assad in the fight, and it’s not clear whether Russia would stand aside or would, for example, take steps to boost the capacity of the regime to defend its airspace should Western powers move to intervene directly.
Nor is any change in the U.S. reluctance to embrace the many and complex risks of intervention likely to change before November’s presidential election.