How a Regional ‘Great Game’ Reinforces Syria’s Deadlock

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Syrian rebels take their position behind a wall as they fire their guns during a battle with the Syrian government forces, at Rastan area in Homs province, Syria, Jan. 31, 2012.

Syria  itself was the product of a “Great Game” among rival empires. The nation-state we know as Syria today was invented by France and Britain, which carved it out of the old Ottoman province of Syria (which back then included all of Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and much of Jordan) while sharing the victors’ spoils at the close of World War I.  Today,  the country’s fate may rest once again on the outcome of power games in distant capitals.

The U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked over a response to Syria’s escalating civil war. The death toll is rising steadily as the Assad regime relies on its security forces to brutally suppress challenges from protesters, and by an insurgency dominated by defectors from the armed forces. But an Arab League-sponsored resolution demanding that President Bashar al-Assad cede power to a national unity government pending new elections, is getting the proverbial “Nyet” from Moscow, supported by fellow veto-wielder Beijing.

(PHOTOS: Protests in Syria)

Western powers and Arab League representatives insist that the international community is obliged to stop the bloodletting, and that Assad’s continued rule has become untenable. Russia pushes back against the principle of the Security Council forcing regime-change, and maintains they’re blocking the resolution to avoid a repeat of the Libya scenario. There, the Security Council, with Chinese and Russian assent, had authorized a military mission to protect civilians, but Moscow and Beijing say NATO countries opportunistically used that resolution as a legal fig leaf for a regime-change intervention. The Obama administration may be trying hard to convince the Russians that no military intervention is envisaged or enabled by the resolution, but Moscow’s lesson from Libya appears to be that given an inch, the Western powers will take a yard.

Western powers are unlikely to be considering military intervention in Syria, of course, but the formal language of the U.N. debate doesn’t always reveal the strategic considerations of the various players, or, indeed, the terms of the conflict unfolding on the ground. The draft resolution demands an end to violence and human rights violations by the regime and also condemns opposition violence, demanding an end to hostilities and a political settlement. The situation on the ground, however, is following a different script, already taking the form of a civil war with an increasingly sectarian dimension. The opposition forces are unable to muster sufficient violence to break the power of the regime’s core security forces, but the regime, despite its military superiority, is unable to suppress a rebellion that has raged for the best part of a year now.

(PHOTOS: Bomb Blast in Damascus)

Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, offers this grim assessment of Syria’s immediate prospects:

As more Syrians come to believe that their collective efforts are in vain, that the world has forsaken them, and that the regime can only be fought with its own methods, the nature of the struggle could be transformed into something more fragmented, narrow-minded, and brutal. Those who have given up on everything but God will be easy recruits for the Islamists. The logistical needs of armed groups will offer opportunities for whoever is willing to sustain them. Communal rifts may further deepen. Violence predictably will serve as a vehicle for the advancement of the more thuggish components within each community. The creative, responsible, and forward-looking activists within the protest movement could soon feel overpowered — many already do…

Until now, the regime and a majority of its supporters, allies, critics, and foes appear to have been operating under the same assumption: that the deadly stalemate the crisis is locked in will endure a while longer, until the other side gives way. This could still be true, but within the current parameters, it is becoming increasingly improbable that the power structure will suddenly unravel, that it will succeed in regaining lost ground, or that its opponents will accommodate it in any way. If this impasse endures any longer, the struggle could quickly mutate into an open-ended civil war.

Sectarian civil war may be the terrain the regime has chosen, wittingly or unwittingly, by its response to the protest movement. It’s a terrain on which Assad gets to play Milosevic, seeking to extend his political longevity by styling himself the protector even of those who oppose him but are part of religious and ethnic minorities that feel threatened by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood element they believe is the dominant force in the rebellion.  This includes members of his own Allawite sect, as well as Christians and Kurds, and even possibly the urban Sunni elites. But even though the regime can count on backing from Russia and Iran and diplomatic support from Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon against the Gulf States within the Arab League, it’s in no position to resolve the crisis through repression, or through reforms that address the socio-economic grievances that spurred the rebellion.

The international players, though, don’t simply view Syria through the prism of its internal drama of repression and resistance as described in the language of the draft resolution. None of the major or emerging powers checks its own geopolitical baggage and strategic rivalries at the door when they enter U.N. headquarters.

While Moscow has long counted Syria a client state, arming it against Israel and giving it a strategic foothold in the Middle East as well as a Mediterranean port at Tartus, the Damascus regime (both under the current President Assad and under the father he succeeded) has occasionally been a U.S. partner, such as when Washington tacitly backed its intervention in Lebanon in 1976 in an attempt to halt that country’s civil war and put a lid on Palestinian militancy, or when it joined the U.S.-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, or in the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda.

(MORE: Assad Retains Backers Battling the Opposition)

Russia is backing Syria to the hilt, offering massive resupply of arms and ammunition, to reassert itself in the Middle East and challenge U.S. influence in the region. As Vladimir Putin seeks reelection as President, the country seems to  prefer  plans in which Assad eases up and opens a dialogue but remains in charge.

The U.S. may center its argument on issues of human rights and democratic freedoms, but it also sees ousting Assad as a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran’s regional influence. Syria has been Iran’s key Arab ally for decades and also serves as Tehran’s conduit for arming its Lebanese protegé , Hizballah. If Hizballah is critically weakened by Assad’s fall, that also dramatically effects Iran’s capability to project force in the region. (It has long been assumed that Hizballah rocket fire onto Israel’s cities would be part of Iran’s retaliation for an Israeli military strike.)

Iran, needless to say, remains solidly behind the Assad regime, although some have suggested it may have held secret talks with opposition elements. Still, it remains highly unlikely that any post-Assad configuration of power that involves opposition elements will maintain the incumbent’s alliance with Tehran. In challenging Assad, Saudi Arabia is also driven by a desire to weaken a key asset of its adversary in the three-decade old sectarian regional power game between the Shi’ite revolutionary clerics in Tehran and the authoritarian Sunni monarchy.

But the balance of power in the Middle East and beyond has shifted noticeably over the past decade, with new centers of influence emerging with a role to play in the Syrian drama, and multiple contests being played out. Syria’s northern neighbor, Turkey, has emerged as an economic powerhouse (now the 17th largest economy in the world) and is claiming a geopolitical role to match that economic dynamism. Under the AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan, first elected in 2002, it has staked out a role entirely independent of — sometimes at odds with, sometimes in sync with — that of Washington, opposing the invasion of Iraq, and U.S. policy on Israel and on Iran’s nuclear program, yet also competing with Tehran for regional influence, antagonizing it by stationing a NATO anti-missile system near the border between the two countries, and backing opposite sides in Iraq’s political showdown. But nowhere has the Iran-Turkey rivalry been more intense than in Syria, where Assad’s crackdown has enraged Erdogan, prompting Turkish officials to publicly weigh intervention and to host the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, composed of defectors from Assad’s forces. Concern over Syria’s ability to stoke domestic trouble for Turkey by supporting the insurgency of the Kurdish separatist PKK may be restraining Ankara from piling on to Assad. (Syria’s Kurds have for the most part stayed out of the rebellion.)

(MORE: A Look at the Syrian Strongman’s Family)

Among the more aggressive Arab challengers to Assad has been Qatar, which currently chairs the Arab League, and which has begun to punch above its bantam weight status in the course of the Arab Spring, not only through its soft power vehicle, Al-Jazeera television, but through its muscular involvement in the NATO-led military effort in Libya. Qatar’s agenda isn’t always clear — it has sought, for example, to play mediating roles between the U.S. and such adversaries as Iran, the Taliban and Hamas. But it also appears to be strongly backing Sunni Islamist groups in the Arab rebellion.

And then there’s China, who may be viewed by some as an arriviste on the Mideast strategic chessboard, but which wields some very powerful pieces by virtue of the fact that it’s on track to be the world’s largest economy within a decade. China, though, plays the game quite differently to those locked into the binary patterns of old: Its leaders recently visited Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf countries to expand commercial ties, against a backdrop of U.S. efforts to cajole it to stop importing Iranian oil and allow the Saudis to make up the difference. The Chinese appear happy to expand their purchases of Saudi oil, but they have shown no interest in cutting imports from Iran. Not only is Beijing developing ties on both sides of the region’s local “cold war”, but it was reported this week, also, that China may build a massive commercial rail link from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea — in Israel! China is also locked into a long-term strategic rivalry with the U.S. and has challenged its policies on Iran, first and foremost. On Syria, right now, it is reported to be voting with Russia, but for its own reasons.

The U.N. deadlock may well be broken in the coming days, but that would probably require some form of compromise language that fudges the issue of regime-change. Even then, however, the conflict on the ground —and the wider regional power struggles with which it resonates — show no signs of abating.

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