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The Syrian puzzle 1 mai 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) 01 May 2011, Sunday

Ömer Taspinar

The strategic map of the Middle East is continuing to change at a dizzying pace. The recent crackdown in Syria and the emerging vulnerability of Damascus is now raising questions about the future of the Syrian-Iranian alliance.

The Tehran-Damascus axis is one of the most important features of the Middle Eastern balance of power. It is also somewhat of an unnatural alliance between a Shiite theocracy and a secular Sunni-majority state. To be sure, historically Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a source of common concern for Syria and Iran. Yet, the American invasion and the emergence of Iraq as Shiite state drastically changed the picture on that front. Shiite-dominated Iraq is now a natural partner of Iran. Not surprisingly, Baghdad now has serious problems with Syria. In some part, this is due to Syria’s support for radical Sunni groups within Iraq.

There is also the complicating factor of Ankara’s friendship with Syria. Syria’s improved ties with Turkey over the last 10 years has presented a challenge for Iran’s national and regional interests. One can only imagine that Iran was very nervous during 2007 and 2008 when Ankara was successfully mediating between Syria and Israel. Had Turkey managed to deliver a peace treaty on the Syrian-Israeli front, the strategic map of the Middle East would have been much different today. After all, resistance toward Israel together with their common support of Hamas and Hezbollah is what makes the Syrian-Iranian axis so durable. As this complex picture makes clear, Syria is at the heart of a multidimensional Middle Eastern puzzle. The direction events will take in that country will play a key role in reconfiguring the balance of power in the region.

Another country that we did not mention in this big picture is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is extremely nervous about the Arab Spring. The kingdom is trying to buy support in the eyes of its own people by distributing more money to the people. As the ultimate status quo power, the last thing Riyadh wants to see in the region is revolutionary change and the toppling of authoritarian regimes. This is why Saudi Arabia panicked when the Mubarak regime in Egypt quickly unraveled. Perhaps more troubling for the kingdom was the way Washington acted. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia, Washington did not show loyalty to its ally and quickly abandoned Hosni Mubarak. This came as a wake-up call and has caused a major tension in relations between Washington and Riyadh. One should analyze the Saudi decision to send military assistance to Bahrain in that light.

Now, the situation in Syria creates a very complicated dilemma for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is clearly against the Iranian-Syrian axis. Iran is, after all, at the heart of the rising “Shiite crescent” that makes Sunni Saudi Arabia so nervous. Let’s not forget that there is Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia and their homeland is the eastern province of the kingdom, close to the oil production centers. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the fault line of the Sunni-Shiite polarization in the Middle East. All proxy battles between Sunni and Shiite forces in the region, from Lebanon to Iraq and Bahrain involve Saudi and Iranian meddling behind the scenes. Similarly, the Alawite nature of the Syrian regime is also source of concern for Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, under normal circumstances Saudi Arabia would be happy to see the disintegration of the Assad regime in Syria. However, these are not normal times in the Arab world. The Arab Spring has made Saudi Arabia so nervous about its own future that the kingdom is now reluctant to see yet another “people’s revolution” giving momentum to revolutionary change in the Middle East. This is why Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power is important for Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, this situation puts Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same camp. Naturally, Iran, too, is very much against regime change in Syria. Tehran appears ready to support Damascus at all costs. If you add pro-stability Turkey to the picture and Washington’s nervousness about an “Islamist” Syria potentially emerging in post-Assad Syria, a great paradox becomes visible: everyone in the region wants Syria to be stable. The net result is that Assad has multiple options. The key for the anti-Iranian camp will be to steer Assad in its own direction. One should not be surprised if Saudi Arabia offers the Assad regime great financial incentives in return for turning its back on Iran.

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