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Syria and its Neighbours 25 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (UK) Vol. 54, No.2, April-May 2012

Emile Hokayem *

Syria’s strategic stability is in jeopardy, but there is nothing inevitable about the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Much will depend on whether and how its neighbours intervene.

Syria’s neighbours have grown used to the resilience and surprising longevity of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Bashar owes much to the attainment by his father Hafez al-Assad of three strategic goals: consolidating internal authority, turning Syria’s difficult geography (bordered by powerful or volatile states) into a source of regional relevance and turning its limited qualities of power into an appearance of strength. Today, with internal unrest and incipient civil war, this strategic stability is in jeopardy; the country is exposed to external predatory ambitions, sectarian-fuelled intervention and attempts to change its strategic orientation.

The reactions of Syria’s neighbours, to be sure, vary considerably. Iran, Syria’s brother-in-arms, is already mobilising resources to prevent Assad’s fall. Shia-dominated Iraq, too, has thrown its lot with Assad, for fear he could be replaced by an antagonistic Sunni regime. A deeply divided Lebanon attempts to sidestep difficult decisions, but in this case events may overwhelm its fragile politics. Jordan, dependent on its Gulf patrons but vulnerable to Syrian mischief, is treading a difficult line.

For the Gulf states and Turkey, who have explicitly called for Assad’s departure, his gradual weakening offers a long-term opportunity, but one fraught with dangers to their own stability and interests. Surprised by the growing strength of the popular and armed challenge to the Damascus regime, aware of their own limitations and of the difficulties of navigating Syria’s new dynamics, and wary of the costs of an uncertain proxy war, they had, as of early March 2012, proved reluctant to take decisive action. Indeed, despite official Syrian allegations of a vast conspiracy, there was no evidence of massive state resources dedicated to Assad’s downfall.

Yet, as international diplomatic efforts stall, Assad’s few but committed allies come to his rescue and pressure from Syrian and foreign Arab public opinion increases, many of Syria’s neighbours will feel driven to intervene to advance their own interests and pre-empt others. Whether such intervention is overt or covert, and alone or in concert with others will matter greatly for Syria’s future.

Brothers in arms

Iran, more than any other country, stands to lose from regime change in Syria. The two governments are locked in a strategic, force-multiplying alliance that has resisted differences in outlook and the repeated courting of Western and Arab states. But Burhan Ghalioun, head of the main Syrian opposition group, has said that ‘the current relationship between Syria and Iran is abnormal. There will be no special relationship with Iran. Breaking the exceptional relationship means breaking the strategic military alliance.’ The prospect of a strategically and politically hostile government in Damascus alarms Iranian leaders, who moreover see the uprising against Assad as part of a broad, sustained campaign to weaken both. Tehran has thus extended political and material support for the Assad regime, including helping Syria organise repression, circumvent sanctions, monitor Internet traffic, shore up its currency and economy, acquire weaponry and mobilise their common allies. […]

* Emile Hokayem is Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS–Middle East.

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