by Varun Vira
Evolving policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere have tarnished advocacy for a “regional solution” in the US foreign policy context as essentially a byword to mask declining US commitment and action. In the context of the Syrian uprising, however, a regional collaborative effort is not only desirable, but also appropriate. Unilateral US leverage in Syria is limited and military options are correctly off the table. The conflict is inherently tied to broader regional issues including a regional contest to remake the balance of power. Therefore, multilateral action that pushes regional stakeholders to take on leading roles is not only sensible, but is perhaps the most viable option for an offensive strategy that can unseat the Assad regime.
For the US and its international partners, Syria matters. Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, virtually every country in the “Arab Spring” bar Egypt were or are in many ways strategic sideshows for the US, but events in Syria reverberate across the region. Syria is a pillar of stability or instability in the region, and continued violence, or worse, will greatly impact security in the Levant and across the Middle East. A fall of the Assad regime would have important strategic benefits for the US; in its efforts to contain Iran, to elevate its regional allies, and depending on the nature of a post-war Syria, enhance the security of Israel.
Yet, so far the uprising has gone from bad to worse. Thousands of Syrian protestors have already been killed in a brutal crackdown bereft of even the façade of restraint. Tanks, artillery, and now naval gunboats have been used in dense population centers, while security forces, including ground forces and snipers, have fired indiscriminately into crowds, attempting to strangle protests at birth. Power has now concentrated in the hands of regime security hardliners and the pressure on the regime to moderate its actions — if only for its own sake — have consistently fallen on deaf ears.
That protests continue daily is testament only to the bravery and perseverance of the Syrian protestors, but despite their best efforts, the opposition has failed to unite or reach critical mass. Key centers of gravity for the Syrian regime — the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, home to over 40 percent of the Syrian population, and the Syrian business community, a critical regime constituency — remain on the sidelines, still uncommitted to either side. Regime survival remains a distinct possibility, despite mounting international pressure, including from Arab neighbors and former partners such as Russia. Reconciliation and reform look increasingly unlikely, especially not in a way or on a scale that would satisfy the demands of the protestors.
As the death toll mounts, unilateral US options are few and growing scarcer. Military options are correctly not on the table. Syria is most certainly not Libya. The Syrian military machine is very significant and the military organization of the opposition non-existent, and even if this were not the case, there is absolutely no appetite, or even capacity, to countenance such action. Politically too, US leverage is limited. Decades of testy relations and a good portion of the last decade without US diplomatic representation have ensured a broad array of marked policy differences between Damascus and Washington, and a limited US ability to engage, influence or constrain the actions of key regime powerbrokers.
With that said, the US has policy options, some of which have not been fully employed. Ambassador Ford’s positive reception in Hama for example highlighted the reserves of US moral and “soft” power that can be harnessed with a strong American moral stance on Syria. In this sense, the advice of Elliott Abrams, a former Bush Administration official, is instructive urging that the Ambassador either be repeatedly deployed or recalled to signal a final break in US patience, and heightening the credibility of whole-scale international isolation for the regime. Personally, I suggest the onus be pushed upon Assad, and in the interim Ambassador Ford’s unique position be employed for as much gain as possible.
Other possible tools include the ratcheting up of sanctions. So far, unilateral US actions have sought to target regime assets and personalities, but more multilateral action utilizing in particular the EU can help pressure the regime. The EU27 collectively is Syria’s largest trade partner and a boycott of the limited Syrian oil exports (96 percent of which travel to Europe) could impact as much as a quarter of Syrian state revenues, according to some analysts. Sanctions should, however, remain targeted directly to the regime: blanket sanctions can create devastating humanitarian conditions that eventually force some form of military intervention, a highly undesirable outcome. Sanctions must also be recognized for the inherently long-term strategies that they are. One need only look over to Libya to see how a regime deprived of much of its international legitimacy, assets and liquidity while being subjected to direct Western military action, still clung onto power for significantly longer than anticipated.
Finally, the position of a superpower matters and the incremental approach of the Obama Administration has failed. In an age of overextension, taking up the rhetorical cudgel without an ability to influence events on the ground once more runs the risk of mismatching the reality of US capacity with projected expectations. As such, calling for Assad to step down, and following it with no clear strategy and conspicuous silence, is the surest bet to diminish US power and prestige in the region.
Syria as a Component of US-Iranian Strategic Competition
Regional competition is the external reality that guides events inside Syria, and impacts the viability of the Assad regime. In this sense, Iran is the gorilla in the room, the only country that has unreservedly stood by the Assad regime, no matter its tactics or brutality. This is hardly surprising. Syria is crucial for Iranian grand strategy, for without its support, both rhetorical and material, Iran would truly stand alone in the region. The “axis of resistance” as the anti-US regional bloc is often referred to, has been hyped considerably over the years, but Iran and Syria retain a broad array of common interests, many of significant value to Tehran. As a result, Iran has found itself in the unenviable position of having to back Assad wholly, without hedging for his potential collapse, a position ripe for exploitation.
In the Iranian calculus, Syria is essential. It is the last major Arab power to maintain its hostility towards Israel, even as other Arabs have moved towards some form of normalized relations. The continued Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights has ensured that tensions between Damascus and Tel Aviv remain high, and any shift in this relationship is perceived by Iran as strengthening Israel at its expense. Syria also connects Iran to Hezbollah, not only because of strong historical Syrian influence in Lebanon, but also in that Syria offers a major transit route for Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah, a route that has no obvious alternative. Hezbollah remains one of Iran’s most potent tools of deterrence, implicitly offering it the ability (or at least perceived ability) to open another front on Israel’s direct periphery in the event of a strike on its nuclear facilities.
On the other hand, the Assad regime has not always been ideal for Tehran’s clerical elite. The regime’s Alawiite flavor is not quite of the ideological purity that many orthodox Shiites would prefer, and during the bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, then Hafez al-Assad was one of the only Arab leaders to back Iraq against Iran. More recently, Assad’s flirtation with the West and attempted peace negotiations with Israel did not go unnoticed in Tehran.
However, the Iranian-Syrian nexus, despite opportunity, was never really tested and today, Iran has mobilized in support of the Assad regime. Iranian leaders have embraced Assad’s political rhetoric, painting the uprising as a function of external aggression, and by some accounts have deployed military personnel to assist in the crackdown. Iran has its own honed skills at beating down large-scale opposition protests in the face of concerted international fury, and indeed its experiences with the Green Movement is likely a source of inspiration to Syrian regime elites who might otherwise despair at the endurance of their opposition. Externally too, Iran has utilized its leverage, recently nudging Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki of Iraq, who is beholden to Iranian support, to make a tentative call of support for Assad.
It is hardly surprising then that a prominent and poignant Syrian opposition chant has been, “No Iran, no Hezbollah, we want Muslim rulers who fear Allah.” However, as some analysts have noted, it is not guaranteed that Iran will always stand by Assad. Tehran maneuvers first and foremost for its own interest and will not back a sure loser, There is also likely unease at the brutality of Assad’s crackdown. In terms of deaths, the Syrian crackdown has vastly eclipsed Iran’s, worrying Iranian security planners who fully understand the mobilizing power of regime-created martyrs. Yet, so far, Iran remains firmly in Assad’s corner and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
However, Iran has few alternatives. A Syria without Assad is perceived as strengthening archenemy Israel, and Iranian prospects for engagement with the opposition are bleak. Assad’s fall is likely to result in a drastic decline in Iranian influence in Syria: a major net loss for Iranian grand strategy.
Remaking the Regional Balance of Power
The US is not alone in its desire for regime change. The actions of the Syrian regime have forced regional countries, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and even Russia to publicly voice their displeasure and threaten heightened action. Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular are vital to the long-term viability of the Assad regime, and both have an interest in rolling back Iranian influence. Harnessing their leverage in collective action could be devastating for the Syrian regime.
Trade figures from 2010 reinforce this. Iran may be the most visible benefactor for Syria, but Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Syria’s third and fifth largest trade partners respectively, collectively accounting for 15.6% of Syria’s total trade in 2010, in contrast with Iran’s mere 2.6%. As a result, action by these two countries could be vital in pushing the Syrian business community off the fence by directly threatening their economic interests and heightening the benefits of political change. This is, however, easier said than done. Saudi Arabia, with its immense government-controlled wealth, has always been more willing to trade money for strategic gain, but Turkey, with its modern mercantilist outlook and democratic structure, is less able to make such concessions.
Nonetheless, the Turks are tremendously important, even if their historical experiences inform a cautious approach. Sharing a 510-mile border with Syria, and a history of hostile relations, Turkey is tremendously concerned about the potential for instability and violence along its southern flank. The Iraqi campaigns, both the Gulf War and the 2003 intervention emphasized the potential for cross-border events to devastate large portions of southern Turkey, a result the Turks are understandably anxious to avoid.
Anger and frustration in Ankara is evident as their “zero problems” policy and seven years of carefully cultivated “special relationship” with Damascus falls apart. Engagement already appears to have been for naught. It has given the Turks little influence to mediate a resolution to the crisis, and already the economic impact on Turkey has been significant. Trade volumes are believed to have dropped by 30-40 percent already, and Turkish investments in Syria — among the largest of any country — have been severely imperiled. This burden has been compounded by the thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting.
Politically too, Turkey with its own regional ambitions, cannot easily stand apart. Inaction in the face of regime violence is deeply damaging to Turkish moral power in the region, opening it to criticism both domestically and regionally, while undermining its ability to project itself as a regional hegemon for the future. As a result, Turkish rhetoric has steadily intensified with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently bluntly ordering the Syrian authorities to stop the crackdown “immediately and unconditionally,” warning that otherwise, “there will be nothing more to discuss about the steps that will be taken.”
With Iran involved, Saudi Arabia was guaranteed to be close behind. King Abdullah, in a call unusual for its severity, has personally denounced Assad’s crackdown, demanding that Assad “stop the killing machine,” following it with a withdrawal of the Saudi Ambassador to Syria. This is again unsurprising. The repression of a Sunni majority by a Shiite minority never sat well with the Saudis, and neither did Syria’s close links to Hezbollah, but as the crisis has continued, Assad’s transgressions against Saudi sensibilities have further mounted. His forces have shelled mosques including the Othman Bin Affan mosque in Deir ez-Zor, and have refused to respect the sanctity of Ramadan to stop or de-escalate the violence, a major affront to the Saudi legitimacy as keepers of the Holy Cities.
The Saudis care little for democracy and no doubt still fear that over time the winds of the Arab Spring could threaten their own monarchy, but they care even less for Iran. The Saudis have been among the most visible promoters of the “Shiite Crescent” theory stressing Iranian expansionist desires, and by the accounts of some Wikileaks cables, have also been some of the strongest advocates for Western strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. As a result, during the “Arab Spring,” while largely quiet on US attempts to support democratization in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, they moved quickly to stamp out any Shia “advance” as in Bahrain. And despite worry on chaos in a post-Assad Syria, the opportunity to draw Syria out of Iranian orbit is too core to Saudi grand strategy to be easily passed over.
Blindly supporting the Saudis, however, is dangerous. They can play a role in exerting economic and diplomatic pressure, and building Sunni support, but Saudi motivations are ultimately sectarian, which is highly dangerous in the Syrian context. Syria may be a Sunni state ruled for decades by a narrow Alawiite minority, but until the present uprising it was also one of the region’s most secular states, despite straddling a dangerous ethno-factional map. Today, inflamed in no small part by the Syrian regime itself, sectarianism is more vivid than ever before in Syria, greatly raising the risks of sectarian conflict, and even civil war along sectarian lines.
Historically, and especially after defections during the uprising, the Assad regime trusts only its Alawiite cadres. The feared shahiba are Alawiite as are the most dedicated Army and security units engaging the opposition, and the regime has moved to arm Alawiite tribes to augment available manpower. With such policies in place, every day of conflict heightens the risk of sectarian war and further divides the country along confessional lines. A Saudi attempt to overtly leverage these divides towards the aim of sectarian war is a dangerous game that the US should play no part of.
Despite the blistering criticism that the Obama Administration has endured for its policy towards Syria, the truth is that the US has merely acknowledged its limited understanding of the Syrian human terrain and its limited ability to influence change in Syria or manage a transition of power. As a result, it has increasingly gravitated towards a regional solution as voiced by Secretary Clinton herself recently. Advocating for “smart power,” her intuition is correct, but real progress requires much more than rhetorical flourishes.
Varun Vira worked with the Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) where he is the co-author with Dr. Anthony Cordesman of a book on stability in Pakistan. He has also written and participated in studies on the war in Afghanistan, the Libyan intervention, Middle Eastern and Gulf security issues, and U.S. strategic competition with Iran. He has also written for other publications, including articles for the online journal of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly, the Diplomat, and the Diplomatic Courier. He is pursuing an M.A. in international relations at George Washington University. He received a B.A. in economic and international relations from Syracuse University.