The Syria Game of Thrones: Turkey vs. Iran vs. the Saudis in Battle to Shape a Rebellion’s Outcome

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Syrian refugees watch a Syrian opposition television station in their tent at camp run by the Turkish Red Crescent near the border with Syria in Boynuyogun, Turkey, Oct. 28, 2011. More than 19,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey since a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests hit northern Syria in June. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times / Redux)

The Arab League called Wednesday for “urgent measures”  to protect Syrian civilians in the face of violent repression by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But lest anyone take that as an echo of the  call that legitimized the NATO-led military operation in Libya, the League’s statement also rejected  “all foreign intervention” in Syria. Still, signs are growing that Syria’s escalating power struggle is more likely to be be settled  by outside forces than by the Syrians themselves.

Through more than nine months of escalating repression that has killed as many as 3,500 people, the regime has not been able to suppress the uprising. Weekly protests continue; the scale of regime assaults on the city of Homs suggests it remains an opposition stronghold; and a dramatic series of overnight attacks Wednesday by soldiers who’ve crossed over to the insurgent Free Syrian Army — including a brazen guerrilla assault on a Syrian intelligence base on the edge of Damascus — suggested that civil war is already a reality.

But if the regime is unable to crush the uprising, the opposition still appears to lack the power to topple the regime. The core of Assad’s military remains intact, and willing to carry out the regime’s plan to shoot its way out of the crisis. In the major cities, much of the Sunni urban middle class has remained on the sidelines, while Assad maintains a substantial support base primarily among Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities, many of whom accept the regime’s portrayal of the opposition as a sectarian Sunni lynch mob. 

To the extent that Assad’s repression has pushed the opposition towards an increasingly militarized response, that actually reinforces the regime’s narrative that Syria is in the throes of a sectarian civil war, with Assad casting himself as the protector of Allawites and Christians. On that basis, the regime also appears to have divided the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — countries with significant Shi’ite populations, and in the case of Iraq, substantial Iranian influence — having declined  to back the original Arab League suspension of Syria. Also, many key leaders of Christian communities in other Arab countries appear to have come out in support of Assad.

Assad can also count on solid backing from Russia, for whom Assad’s Syria is a key geostrategic asset because it provides the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean port, and also from Iran, for which Syria has been the key Arab ally.

But other regional players are raising their pressure on Damascus. The Arab League, with Turkey in attendance, on Wednesday gave Syria three (more) days to act on a deal it claimed  to have accepted two weeks ago — but ignored  on the ground — to halt repression,  withdraw its army from restive towns, and accept Arab monitors. The League suspended Syria’s membership, and  sanctions should Damascus fail to comply. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported that last-minute diplomacy by Russia and Iran averted harsher and more immediate measures by the League.

Turkey had a more menacing message ahead of the summit, with officials warning that Syria would “pay a heavy price” for continue killing of its “oppressed people”, and threatening to cut off electrical supplies following an attack on its embassy in Damascus by a pro-Assad mob. Officials in Ankara have begun to speak openly about creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria where it could protect refugees from the crackdown without having to admit them to Turkish territory. That, of course, would mean sending Turkish troops into Syria, and might presage a territorial breakup of Syria into rebel- and regime-controlled areas. But Turkey is waiting for international authorization to take such a step. “It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own,” said an adviser to President Abdullah Gul.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once counted Assad as a personal friend, is now sending a message that the Syrian leader can’t be trusted. “No one any longer expects [Assad’s regime] to meet the expectations of the people and of the international community,” he said Tuesday. “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

By virtue of its large, well-armed and -organized military (the second largest in NATO), its long border with Syria, its extensive trade relations with Syria and its popularity among Arab peoples who have cast off their dictators, Turkey may have more leverage than all others with skin in the game.

But Ankara is using its leverage cautiously. The truth is that Syria buys very little electricity from Turkey, and until now, Turkey hasn’t halted most of the $2.5 billion a year in trade between the two countries. Perhaps the most dramatic Turkish shot across Assad’s bows has been Ankara’s hosting, not only of the opposition Syrian National Council, but also of the leadership of the insurgent Free Syrian Army. But at the same time, it has imposed limits on FSA activities on its soil.   “Turkey has never offered us even one bullet and has even completely banned operations on the border, or on the road to the border,” the FSA’s Turkey-based commander Ryad al-Asa’ad  told the BBC. “On the other hand, we are from inside Syria, we work inside Syria and the weapons are from Syria.”

Turkey’s increasingly apocalyptic language nonetheless leaves open the possibility that Assad might turn back from the abyss — clearly Ankara’s preferred option.

To the extent that the positions of outside players determine Syria’s outcome, it becomes yet another  theater of an increasingly complex regional power game.  The Arab monarchies have been rallied by the Saudis to mount an aggressive counter-revolutionary campaign, sensing U.S. paralysis in the face of the region-wide democratic rebellion. Riyadh has viewed events in the region through the prism of their (anti-Shi’ite) sectarian outlook and strategic rivalry with Iran, orchestrating the repression of the democratic protest movement in Shi’ite-majority Bahrain. But Assad is an Iranian ally, his regime dominated by the crypto-Shi’ite Allawite sect lording it over the Sunni majority. So the Arab counter-revolutionaries find themselves moving to the side of Syria’s Sunni revolutionaries, although a Muslim Brotherhood victory there wouldn’t necessarily be Riyadh’s optimal outcome.

The U.S. and other Western powers have long loathed the Assad regime over its interventions in Lebanon, its support for Hamas and enabling of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But they have also worked with it — Syria fought alongside the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and Syrian intelligence played an important role in hunting al-Qaeda after 9/11. They also fear that the regime’s collapse  could have a potentially catastrophic impact on neighboring countries whose own sectarian power balances connect with Syria’s own. That’s why Western powers have remained cautious, preferring to see Assad undertake reforms than be overthrown. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford  has repeatedly warned the opposition to refrain from taking up arms, which he says would play into the regime’s hands — and that NATO would not ride to the rescue.

But the U.S. no longer calls the shots in the region, even among those traditionally in its camp. The Saudis are doing their own thing, Qatar is flexing muscles nobody knew it had, and then there’s Turkey, whose break with the U.S. on Iran and on Israel had many hawks in Washington proclaiming that Ankara had gone over to the dark side of their binary Mideast equation. But nothing is that simple: While Turkey has challenged U.S. policies it deems destructive and dysfunctional — from the invasion of Iraq to its efforts to isolate Iran — and has confronted Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, all of those positions reflect  majority public sentiment throughout the Middle East. But America and Israel’s loss was not Iran’s gain: In the same week Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, it also agreed to house a NATO radar system deployed to counter Iran’s missile threat. And Iran was horrified to see the ascendant Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia embrace the moderate, secular Turkish example as their political model rather than Iran’s theocratic extremism. Syria was the last straw, however, with Tehran making it clear it deemed action against Assad a “red line”.  But horrified by the repression in Syria and outraged by promises broken by Assad, Turkey simply ignored Tehran’s objections and began piling on pressure.

Despite their common interest in tackling Assad, many of those Arab regimes don’t  like the idea of Turkish influence spreading much more than they like the idea of Iranian influence spreading — except that in this instance, Iran concurs! Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu this week rejected domestic criticism that Turkey’s pressure on Assad was “subcontracting” for the U.S. Turkey’s foreign policy was based on principle, he said. Sometimes “it might be in harmony with the United States; sometimes with Iran, sometimes with Russia, sometimes with the EU.” Turkey would not be deterred from a position simply because it was in accord with Washington’s — but as it has demonstrated over the past three years, nor will it abide by U.S. positions with which it differs.

Turkey has been more successful than most other international players in making the transition from being on cordial terms with Arab autocrats to acting in support of those trying to overthrow them. And with the Islamists emerging as the dominant political force in the emerging Arab democracies, Turkey’s example has further boosted its soft-power influence.  But should Syria maintain its current course, it could become a hard-power challenge to Turkey, and others, obliging them to adopt an end-game that could resolve the crisis without setting the region ablaze. At least on that score, they’re all in agreement.