With Tunisia and Egypt holding democratic elections as their transitions move forward, Syria continues its descent into violence. In a video Q&A, Paul Salem says that even with Syrian demonstrations spreading and additional sanctions from the Arab League, Turkey, and Europe, the Assad regime shows no sign of backing down. He explains that what happens in Syria will have a huge impact on the rest of the region, and if the government were to fall, it would be the biggest strategic blow to Iran since the Iran-Iraq war.
- What is happening in Syria?
- Is this the start of a civil war in Syria?
- How strong is the Syrian economy?
- How should the United States and European Union respond?
- What more can be done by the Arab League?
- What roles do Iran, Turkey, and other regional powers play in Syria’s situation?
- What impact does the conflict in Syria have on the rest of the region?
The crisis in Syria has reached a critical point. The persistent and powerful uprising is nine months old and dispersed throughout much of the country, into many rural and suburban areas, and in some of the smaller cities as well. It has produced a Syrian National Council, which is largely from outside Syria, and there is also a coordination committee inside Syria. Most of the uprising is peaceful but some groups are becoming armed. There’s also the emergence of the Free Syrian Army, which is a group of former army officers using arms in the rebellion.
The regime has stood firm against this uprising and has been very tough and very brutal in the way it has dealt with protesters. But unlike regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, it has not had major defections or major cracks yet. So it’s a strong and tough uprising and a strong and tough regime at the same time. In a sense, there is a bit of a balance of power.
But time is moving against the regime because with the passage of time, the economy—which is already in very desperate straits—is under ever further pressure. Syria’s environment, regionally and internationally, has also become increasingly hostile. Syria had many more friends before this started but it has lost most of them. So the regime, although it is still tough and fighting hard and it still has friends in Iran, Iraq, and in Hezbollah in Lebanon, seems to be on a downward gradient.
I would describe the situation not as a civil war but as a fight between a regime and many parts of its own population. Even the peaceful protesters have been met with violence. Of course there are some elements of the uprising that are becoming armed—those too are being met with violence.
If, however, the regime collapses and Syria divides into rival communities—perhaps on a sectarian basis, similar to what happened in Iraq and in Lebanon—then we could have a civil war. While there is some risk of that, the regime is exaggerating that risk or looking to escalate such a risk because it is the alternative to a civil war.
If the state completely collapses—as it did in a sense in Iraq and in Lebanon—there might be a brief period of civil war and sectarian or other forms of violence. But unlike Iraq and Lebanon, there isn’t a balance of power among communities in Syria to have a drawn out civil war. If it comes to that, the Arab Sunni majority in Syria is so overwhelming—70 percent and it’s in all the big cities—that Syria, in a sense, cannot have a civil war. At the end of the day, there is a clear majority, and if it comes to that then that voice will be dominant.
So there’s a risk of a violent transition and a difficult transitional period, but I don’t think descent into long-term civil war is possible in Syria.
Traditionally, the bargain from the regime was that it would provide stability, security, prosperity, and growth, but not democracy. Now this is breaking down because the Syrian economy is in very dire straits.
The Syrian economy was not doing terribly well before the uprising started and it has really begun to tank since the protests began. Tourism, previously a very large sector, has completely stopped. Foreign direct investment, which had been picking up quite healthily, is down to single digits compared to what it was. Trade is down 60 to 70 percent and the prospects of an economic pick-up are very dim because this crisis looks to be long term.
Many people from the middle and business class in Syria—particularly in the big cities and towns that had benefited from some economic growth in recent years—are now in a tight bind. They’re not enthusiastic about a complete uprising, which they fear could bring a period of chaos and further economic loss.
But the old bargain is not working anymore because there is no economic prosperity. The economy is not fully isolated—of course there are sanctions from the West and there’s a drop in many sectors—but is still a rather open regionally. It is certainly open to trade with Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf countries. But the economy is in very difficult circumstances.
The economy is not going to collapse tomorrow, but looking several months down the road, the uprising is a very heavy burden for the economy, population, and government to carry.
The U.S. and EU roles have been calibrated and correct so far. They were slow to get off the mark initially—in the first few months of the uprising in Syria, many countries were reluctant to speak out against the regime because they feared chaos or they feared the alternative to the regime.
But by August, the West reached the correct position to support immediate cessation of the brutal crackdown and the immediate implementation of reforms, or for the regime or the president to step aside if those were not delivered immediately. This was and remains the correct position but more needs to be done moving forward.
If the regime continues its brutal crackdown without dramatic changes, the issue of sanctions might be revisited. Working with the Arab League, countries within the region, and with the Syrian opposition, the West should examine measures that could further protect civilians from the crackdown of the regime and help encourage or force positive political change in Syria.
The Arab League, which had in a sense been dormant for decades, has been very active in Syria, as it was in the Libyan crisis. That is partly the result of the changes in Egypt, which is now a legitimate symbol in the Arab world. It’s also a result of the activism of Gulf states, particularly Qatar, which is playing a very vigorous diplomatic role, both through Al-Jazeera and through diplomatic channels and the Arab League.
The Arab League position vis-à-vis Syria is partly built on the precedent of Libya and the issue of protecting civilians. It also definitely reflects regional tensions over Iran’s influence in the Arab world—Syria has a long-standing ally in Iran. And it reflects sectarian tensions between Sunni states and non-Sunni states, whether they are Shiite- or Alawi-dominated, as in Syria. So there is a lot of politics also involved in what’s going on in Syria.
The Arab League has taken the correct position so far, regardless of its motivation. They’ve stood up for human rights in Syria, they’ve tried to stop the killing and create a negotiated settlement, and they are trying to send a delegation to protect civilians. I think they’ve put the Arab League in place to call for further action, possibly from the UN Security Council and others, if things get even worse in Syria.
So the Arab League is once again a very important player in the Arab world. I think that’s a good thing. The Gulf Cooperation Council is a big institutional player as well.
Syria, in the past and again today, is kind of a battleground of influence in the Middle East. Iran has the greatest interest in the country. Iran has had an alliance with Syria since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Through Syria, Iran has gained influence not only in Syria but also in Lebanon, where it has built-up Hezbollah. And through its presence in Syria and Lebanon, Iran was also able to reach out to Hamas in the Palestinian territories and through Hezbollah and through Syria, be on the border with Israel, and be a player in the Arab-Israeli conflict and potentially the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The fall of the regime in Syria would be the biggest strategic blow to Iran since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and would probably mark the end of the heyday of Iranian influence, which began with the U.S. removal of Iran’s enemies—the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. This was a great boon to Iran’s ability to project its power, both in the Middle East and in Asia. But a loss of Syria would be a great reversal. Iran would lose influence in Syria and Lebanon and over Israel and Palestine.
Turkey has a great interest in Syria. While not as strategic or as large as Iran’s interest by any means, Turkey had built very good relations with Syria, partly as a way to extend its influence in the Arab world, and also as an economic gateway to the Arab east. The relationship provides a land route to the Gulf countries and markets in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. It also provides the potential of land gas and oil transport from Iraq and the Gulf areas to the Eastern Mediterranean, which Turkey is very interested in.
Turkey is also interested in having influence in the post-Arab Spring Arab world. Turkey is already democratic and is led by a party that has strong Islamic roots. That could be the case eventually in Egypt, it is already more or less the case in Tunisia, and it could be in a post-Assad Syria. So Turkey’s ruling AKP party sees that, through these transformations, it could also have influence with the sort of Islamic-leaning governments that could come to power. This could be a boon for Turkish political influence and for its economic interests.
Saudi Arabia has a significant interest as well, because it’s continuously trying to counterbalance Iranian influence. And the Gulf countries are also very concerned and interested in what ends up happening in Syria. They are now effectively backing the opposition and are rather hostile to the regime. Regime change in Syria would be certainly welcomed by most of the Gulf countries.
The conflict in Syria could have two levels of impact. One level is if the regime changes and if the new regime has different foreign relations than the current one. If the new regime drops its deep alliance with Iran in favor of close relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and Europe it would end thirty years of Syrian-Iranian alliance. That would dramatically reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East over Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel.
A change in regime in Syria would also directly impact Hezbollah’s strategic environment. Hezbollah has built itself up as a major strategic force with a strategic cover and bridge provided by Syria. If that bridge is removed, Hezbollah would be in a much more vulnerable and difficult strategic situation. Effectively, it might not be able to resupply at the levels it could previously if it were in a war or were attacked.
Now, that situation might ignite a war between Israel and Hezbollah at some later date or it might open the possibility for renewed peace talks between Syria and Israel. A new regime in Damascus would certainly want to get the Golan Heights back through negotiation, and at the same time might want to reduce Hezbollah’s influence. So one could imagine a peace track that would deal with Hezbollah or one could fear the risk of war on that track as well.
A change of regime in Syria would further reduce Hamas’ links through Syria with Iran, and put Hamas, which has already moved closer to Egypt, further on that track. And it would cause Iran to retrench and possibly double down on Iraq.
With a possible change of regime in Syria and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, we could be looking at a power shift in the Middle East, with the potential for Syria to eventually drift closer to the Gulf, and Turkey and Iran exploiting the American withdrawal by further trying to build influence inside Iraq.
Otherwise, an extended and violent transition inside Syria would have sectarian conflict risks—fighting between Sunni and Alawi groups—and might trigger fighting between Sunni and Shiite groups within Lebanon, or make things worse in Iraq. Attacks on the Christian community in Syria, which many in Syria fear in a period of lawlessness, might have a huge impact on the Christian community there, just as the Christian community in Iraq was also impacted by lawlessness in Iraq.
So certainly there are a lot of opportunities in Syria. The country deserves to finally have a well-governed, democratic, well-ordered society—but this is a very tough and powerful regime and the transition might be quite difficult.