Syrian Spring Rolls Over
Assad’s Syria is under intense pressure with an apparent endgame in sight. However any of the emerging scenarios has disastrous consequences for the region unless all stakeholders claim to restore order after Assad’s departure.
This doesn’t appear to be happening. The military of the regime, though weakened by the defections, is holding out while the siege of Damascus and Aleppo has ominous portends for the regime. It is extremely difficult to fathom the internal dynamics of the changes that may be in offing. With active role being played by Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and US on either sides of the fence, the geopolitical game transcends the Shia – Sunni divide into a battle between the West and the rest to influence the Arab world.
Iran is the main US and Saudi Arabia worry on account of its designs to extend its reach from Lebanon (with Hezbollah support) to West Afghanistan. However, an Iran, weakened by sanctions is not the same force that it was. Even Iraq, watching Iran’s deteriorating influence, may move away from Iranian influence. Russia and China, weary of a surge of US in the region, with resultant impact on them, are backing Iran. They would have preferred a US military commitment in Syria to further erode its strength but the US did not oblige. Russia sensing an imminent fall of Assad has pulled back on their military support while China is only providing political support.
These games between the West and Russia – China combine are stretching the geopolitical contours and shaping events in Syria. It now appears that the internal dynamics of Syria resemble those of Iraq after the US invasion – out of control of either party but nonetheless greatly influenced by their machinations.
Turkey is also playing a crucial role as any outcome in Syria would have concomitant impact on it. Given its oil based economic interests in Iraq, it would give up Iran any day of the week. As per stratfor, “just as the Iranians are in retreat, the Turks have an interest in, if not supplanting them, certainly supplementing them… Turkey’s strategy is moving from avoiding all confrontations to avoiding major military commitments while pursuing its political interests. In the end, that means that Turkey will begin moving into a position of balancing Iran for its own interests in Iraq”. This creates a local balance of power equation which frees US and marginalizes China and Russia in the region while establishing a policy victory for the US – that of political and economic intervention rather than force.
However, it also signifies American acceptability of “Islamist Ascendancy” as a direct fall out of the Arab Spring. Marc Lynch, author of “The Arab Uprising”, opines that this trend is gaining ground in the region.
Then there is the al Qaeda perspective. Nawaf Al-Fares, the highest-ranking Syrian diplomat defector and former ambassador to Iraq, accuses the Assad regime of collaborating with al Qaeda. Lynch opines that the prospect of a new jihad in Syria could become a new Iraq for these groups, reigniting jihadist fervor and building a new generation of fighters.
The post Assad scenario is intriguing. Like most Arab Spring case studies the transition to an Islamist government may be a bloody and long drawn out process. Unlike Iraq, US is loath to putting boots on the ground to deliver the new Syrian governance model – especially so in an election year. Thomas Friedman argues that the opposite of the Assad dictatorship could be the breakup of Syria — as the Alawites retreat to their coastal redoubt — and a permanent civil war….It would be wonderful to see the tyrannical Assad- Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis replaced by a democratizing Syria, not a chaotic Syria.
India wishes to be on the right side of the history when and if the Islamist takeover and a possible civil war pans out in Syria. Its support of Article VII of UN Charter to put an end to the violence against Russian and Chinese stand appears to have been made more out of pragmatism than principles. Kanwal Sibbal articulates that India’s vast energy, trade, manpower and remittance linkages with the Gulf countries contrast with limited economic ties with Syria, placing a premium on pragmatism in defining its position. While these may be short-term pragmatic interests in the region, in the long run India would end up replacing secular governments with Islamist governments with a salafist bent – something which someday is bound to impact a country with 150 million muslims.
India’s vote in favour of the west also antagonizes Russia. In the choice between the West and the rest, India has chosen pragmatism over principles. China and Russia are noticing these repeated Indian efforts to protect its short-term economic goals and efforts to shore up support for the UNSC with concern. By siding with the West we have opened up another vista in playing balancing games between US and SCO.
Even Iran would not be amused.