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Conflict in Syria: Regional Players’ Motives and Limits 19 septembre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Stratfor (USA)

September 19, 2012

Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have varying interests and abilities in ending the war in Syria.


An Egyptian initiative to manage Syria’s post-al Assad transition launched Sept. 17 with a high-level meeting in Cairo. Foreign ministers from Egypt, Turkey and Iran held talks on a possible exit for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and, more important, what will come after him. Saudi Arabia, also part of the contact group, did not send an envoy and did not provide any explanation for its absence.

The four powers probably will not be able to reach a substantive deal on the Syrian transition. But the contact group provides a convenient prism through which to view the various motives and constraints of the four regional powers: Shiite Iran and Sunni actors Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


Iran is facing a geopolitical setback in Syria with the loss of its close ally, the al Assad regime. It could be a while before the Alawite regime collapses; indeed, recent statements out of Tehran confirm suspicions that Iran has been sending Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to bolster Syrian forces. But critical pillars of the regime are weakening, and Damascus is essentially fighting a war of attrition against a fractured and disorganized but determined rebel force.

Tehran wants to salvage as much of the Alawite power as it can. It has tools at its disposal, including the threat of a post-transition Alawite-led insurgency similar to the post-Saddam Hussein insurgency in neighboring Iraq. None of Syria’s neighbors, the regional players or the foreign powers with an interest in Syria — including the United States — wants to see an insurgency develop. They would like to see some continuity of the state apparatus and security forces, which would require a power-sharing agreement and thus an opportunity for Iran.

At the same time, Syria is only one piece — albeit critical — in a larger chess game between Iran and the United States. Washington, along with local powers Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, wants to see Iranian influence in the Levant reduced, but it also wants to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and any threat to the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Egypt’s contact group provides access to something that Iran has so far been denied: a seat at the table. Egypt’s re-entry into regional geopolitics and its overtures to Iran are an opportunity for the Iranians, since Cairo is showing that the historic leader of the Arab world is willing to work with them and mediate with the rest of the Sunni states. The Egyptian contact group puts Syria’s closest ally, Iran, at the table with the Syrian rebels’ key backers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Iran is not yet ready to commit to any substantive discussions. The first request Tehran made, even before the talks started, was for Iraq and Venezuela to be added to the group. The request, a nonstarter, likely contributed to Riyadh’s decision not to send an envoy to the contact group meeting, although Riyadh sent its deputy foreign minister to Cairo last week for the preparatory meeting. Tehran wants to demonstrate that it is not desperate and does not need the group, but it sent Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to the meeting. Tehran needs some access to transition talks and so far, Egypt’s group is the only discussion to which Iran is invited.

Turkey’s Role

Turkey also sent an envoy to Cairo, though Ankara’s position will be reduced, rather than strengthened, by the Egyptian intervention. Turkey has taken the most risk in supporting the rebels. Turkey’s position is similar to Iraq’s or Lebanon’s. Ankara faces real consequences that threaten its own domestic security and stability — in Turkey’s case, the threat comes from the Kurdish separatist movements in Turkey, Iraq and northern Syria.

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supplied weapons and financial support and the United States has deployed a few CIA operatives and offered intelligence and guidance, Turkey has housed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and provided sanctuary, arms, logistical support and likely training for Syrian rebels. Ankara has risked upsetting its delicate relations with Iran, a rival power but also a key supplier of energy.

Turkey has been the main contact point, along with Saudi Arabia, for the United States and has worked to bolster the cohesiveness and capabilities of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council. Ankara also has built strong ties with the Free Syrian Army leadership.

If Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had not chosen to attend the Sept. 17 meeting in Cairo, the contact group would have effectively collapsed, becoming nothing more than a bilateral talk between Egypt and Iran. That Turkey showed up is an important indicator of the pressure it is under. It needs to maintain, at the very least, a working relationship with Iran, especially as domestic political pressure over Turkey’s role in Syria and the surge in Kurdistan Workers’ Party attacks grows and Ankara blames Tehran for supporting the Kurdish militants. Turkey also does not want to alienate Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, especially with Syria and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — the country’s largest and most organized Sunni group — still in play.

Egypt Reasserts its Power

The reasons for Egypt’s sudden interest in supporting the transition in Syria are many. First, the contact group is a small but important step in Egypt’s efforts to resume its regional role . Cairo hopes to position itself as a mediator between the mostly Sunni Arab world and Shiite Iran. This will help Egypt counterbalance the constraints placed on it by the overwhelming influence of Saudi Arabia.

Inserting itself in the Syrian transition talks also creates an opportunity for Egypt to build some influence in post-al Assad Syria. Cairo has already hosted meetings of opposition leaders, though various rebel factions walked out and the talks have nearly collapsed. Not since the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 has Egypt had an opportunity to directly shape the government in Damascus. But now, Morsi likely wants to work with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has retained much of its legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s majority Sunni population.

Syria has long been a battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia and will remain so for some time. But in the longer term, Tehran and Riyadh’s roles will be reduced although they will maintain stakes in Damascus.

The competition in Syria will shift to one between Egypt and Turkey as they both vie to support their particular faction of the Sunni leadership. However, any Egyptian influence will be limited in the short term as Cairo focuses much of its energy on domestic issues.

The Saudi-Iranian Divide

Saudi Arabia’s objectives in Syria are focused on Iran. Riyadh sees the Syrian uprising as a historic opportunity to reverse Iranian gains in the region . Fearful of an Iranian crescent stretching from the Zagros Mountains to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean along its northern border, Saudi has long encouraged — either directly or indirectly — Sunni insurgents in northern Iraq. It has also backed the rebels in Syria, reportedly providing weapons and funding and likely encouraging jihadists to fight alongside rebel forces.

Foreign Salafist fighters are still only a small, though growing, percentage of rebel forces. Even if they convert large segments of the Syrian Sunni population, it would take years before they would be able to challenge the entrenched Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh understands that a Salafist-led government is not likely to emerge in Damascus in the medium term and has cooperated with Ankara, largely bolstering Turkey’s bid to manage the transition.

Saudi Arabia can manage relations with Egypt, which is financially constrained, and with Turkey, which is not yet ready to assert itself aggressively in the region. What Riyadh wants are ways to curb Iranian influence in the longer term, and for Riyadh that means limiting Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.

Any Saudi engagement with Iran over Syria will be limited, since Riyadh and Tehran’s geopolitical positions are at odds. Riyadh did participate in the working group a week prior to the foreign ministerial meeting and, according to Davutoglu, will be attending future talks. Saudi Arabia and Iran have already both signed a willingness to negotiate, with Riyadh inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the emergency Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca in mid-August and Iran hosting Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the king’s son and likely successor to ailing Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

But like Iran, Saudi Arabia is far from committed and will be waiting to see some serious signs of commitment from Iran. If any regional effort to resolve the Syrian conflict and manage a transition is to take place, the key will be what happens between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Full attendance from all four players at the next meeting, scheduled to be held in New York City during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting, or any bilateral talks between Riyadh and Tehran will be important indicators of progress in the negotiations. A lack of attendance will mean not only the death of Egypt’s initiative but also the failure of Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach any accommodation.


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