During the first 25 years of its existence, until Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, the Syrian republic was a weak unstable state, an arena in which regional and international rivalries were played out. The first Assad reversed this state of affairs by turning Syria into a comparatively stable and powerful state, a player in regional and international politics.
This was part of the unwritten pact between the regime and Syria’s urban population. Stability, prestige and a leading role in Arab nationalist “resistance” (to the United States and Israel) made up for the regime’s authoritarianism and corruption, and the hegemony of the minority Alawite sect.
The outbreak of the revolt against the regime last March marked the end of this unwritten contract, and pushed Syria back to its pre-1970 state. It is once again an arena of regional and international rivalries, reflecting the changes that are transforming the region’s politics.
The Syrian revolt is, of course, primarily a struggle between the regime — now led by Assad’s son Bashar — and its domestic foes over the nature and character of the Syrian state. But it is equally significant as a war by proxy between Iran and its rivals.
In its quest for regional hegemony, Iran built a “resistance axis” comprised of itself, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria was a crucial member of this axis, affording Iran access to its Lebanese assets and to the Mediterranean. Bashar al-Assad’s fall would deal a mortal blow to this axis, and Iran is making a major investment in trying to shore up his beleaguered regime.
This is matched by two counterefforts. One is by Turkey. Until recently, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government had a close relationship with Syria as part of a policy sometimes call “neo-Ottomanism” and sometimes “zero conflict with neighbors.” But the rise of opposition to Assad’s regime, its persistence and its brutal suppression, have turned Turkey into an active foe.
Turkey is worried by the repercussions of instability and potential chaos in Syria for its own stability, particularly in the Kurdish context. It also feels uncomfortable with the role played by Iran so close to its southern border.
Turkey’s original policy of “zero conflicts” included an attempt to improve relations with Iran. But there could never be a comfortable relationship between a large Sunni state and a large Shiite state both vying for regional hegemony. With Iran seeking influence in Iraq and acting against Turkey’s policy and interests in Syria, an implicit rivalry is coming to the surface.
The other effort is Saudi Arabia’s. Several developments have combined to alter the kingdom’s role from a reluctant wielder of discreet influence to that of a manifest, more aggressive regional power: Egypt’s current weakness; American reticence; and the threats presented by the Arab Spring.
The Saudis intervened forcefully in Bahrain, are active in Yemen and are shoring up King Abdullah in Jordan.
But for several months they were passive with regard to Syria. Like other states in the region — and like the United States and Europe — they were unhappy with Bashar al-Assad, but essentially subscribed to a policy of “the devil we know.” Bad as Assad’s brutality was, it seemed preferable to the dangers of anarchy, possible fragmentation and an uncertain future, given the fact that the Syrian opposition is largely an unknown.
More recently, however, Saudi Arabia came to the conclusion that defeating Iran on the Syrian stage is the dominant consideration. This conclusion is shared by other Arab states, which explains the shift in the Arab League’s position and the extraordinary steps it has taken against the Assad regime.
It is also a prime example of how “soft power” can be used by countries, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that may not be a military match for Tehran.
The roles played by Turkey and the Arab League are also a byproduct of the modest role played by the United States.
In the Libyan crisis, President Obama sought to “lead from behind.” In the Syrian crisis, Washington does not lead at all. Yes, the American ambassador, Robert Ford, played a courageous role; the administration imposed some sanctions, and has used strong words to denounce Assad. But Washington does not have a coherent policy, and seems content to have regional powers in the driver’s seat in this crisis.
Israel is passive as well. In 2005, when George W. Bush wanted to topple Bashar al-Assad, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon cautioned against doing so, using the “devil we know” argument. Assad was Iran’s close ally and Lebanon’s oppressor, a patron of Hamas and an anti-American actor in Iraq, but the alternative to his rule, according to the conventional wisdom at the time, was the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is not Israel’s policy now. After the discovery of Assad’s secret cooperation with North Korea, and given the threats to its national security by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Israel came to the conclusion that there is more potential damage in Assad’s survival than in his departure.
Deeply preoccupied with the Iranian threat, Israel is of the opinion that extracting the Syrian brick from the Iranian wall could usher in a new phase in regional politics. Clearly both Hamas and Hezbollah are treading more softly now.
There is another dimension to this issue. Since 1973, Syria under both Assads fought Israel by proxy in the Lebanese and Palestinian arenas, but kept the Golan front quiet. This may change. Last May and June, Palestinian demonstrators were encouraged to approach the border fence at two sites in the Golan Heights and to try to break through it.
Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, recently warned, “if there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” and similar threats have been made by Syria’s foreign minister and by the leader of Hezbollah. The essence of these threats is that the regime does not intend to fall quietly, and should there be any external intervention, or should the final hour come, it might use its own and Hezbollah’s missiles against Israel and possibly other neighbors. Israel does not have a direct influence on the course of events in Syria, but it does have to take such threats seriously.
There seems to be no real prospect of external military intervention in Syria. But the policies of external actors will have a major impact on the position of the Syrian army and on the middle classes of Damascus and Aleppo that so far have been sitting on the fence.
The United States, France and other powers that traditionally played an important role in the Levant do not need to resort to military action. They have a full arsenal of diplomatic and economic assets that could tilt the current conflict in Syria, put an end to brutal suppression and bloodshed, and help the Arab Spring register another achievement.
By Itamar Rabinovich, who has served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington. His books include The View from Damascus.