The Stakes For Syria

There is a reason why only the most skilled diplomats get things done. International norms and relations are never as black and white as they may seem on the surface. In today’s interdependent world, not even the color red is actually red, because if it were, the 101st Airborne Division wouldn’t be holed up in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, they would be screaming over the skies of Damascus with a mandate to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons on the capital’s eastern suburb of Ghouta, killing 1,429 – 426 of which were children – according to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s last count.

But because of competing interests in Syria, crossing President Obama’s red line of using chemical weapons has yet to produce any kind of intervention which would put an end to the violence which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. Instead, the White House is talking “limited response,” which it promises will neither endanger the regime nor shift the balance of power in Syria, let alone bring Assad to heel after two years of war and thumbing his nose at the international community. It is because Syria is the theater of an all out proxy war, which so far has drawn in regional players such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Gulf states, Europe and the the United Nations. Only by understanding their respective stakes in the civil war, and what they all stand to lose, does the decision making process in responding to the attacks seem less befuddling. Here is a recap of who has a stake in Syria, and why these interests have been bottlenecking the international system for the past two years.


The United States of America:

With no good options available to him, President Obama will try to make the least worst decision. Having already gone to war twice in the past decade for the sake of liberty and freedom, an exhausted electorate, and by extension an equally exhausted Congress, has limited the options on what the President can do in response to the slaughter in Syria. The use of chemical weapons only makes it more difficult for the President to find an appropriate response. While it may seem warranted that after such a blatant disregard for international norms, that the leader of the Free World is well within his right to issue the order to obliterate the Syrian army, making it impossible for a similar attack to happen again. The head of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, has stated quite publicly that while he has all confidence that the US could destroy the Syrian air force, he has recommended against even limited military involvement up to this point because the US could just as easily become embroiled in a third war in the Middle East. This is enough of a threat to US strategic interests to keep the F-22s in their hangars. It must also be noted that any American strike on Syria will not be publicly supported by any Arab government, despite the fact that they have been hoping for that very thing for over a year, and will give violent anti-Western Islamists yet another recruitment tool to call for jihad against the United States and its allies across the Middle East.

Then there is the moral problem to the argument. Some will point to Samantha Power’s appointment to the post of UN ambassador as an endorsement of interventionist policies by the White House. Power made her reputation as a journalist in the Balkans in the 90’s, citing the genocides there as a need for the world to step in and act in the face of evil. One of the things we are hearing most as Obama weighs his options, is that anything less than a forceful imposition of American values on Assad will result in the loss of American credibility around the world. But far too many people have latched onto the Bosnian analogy, and for the wrong reasons. There is no way that in Syria, the Americans will act as the buffer between the regime and the rebels. The rebels themselves are a grave cause for concern for the Americans, who just recently saw in Libya that the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they brought down do not replay well on CNN. The US will act out its national interests, and stop short of everything else. Libya, unlike Syria, held no geostrategic importance for the Americans.

Israel: “We are aware of the threats developing before out very eyes in the Middle East and we hear all of the threats being voiced toward the state of Israel, but we are not getting involved in the bloody conflict in Syria and other conflicts n the Middle East,” – Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon

Like the US, the best outcome for the Israelis is a weakened regime and not a deposed one. Israel does not want another Islamist government on it’s borders after the debacle in Egypt, which is quietly still being cleaned up by the Egyptian military in Sinai. Assad is the devil Jerusalem knows, and in the time in which he has held power, he knew how to work with the Israelis to keep the Golan quiet. But unlike their American allies, Israelis have to contend with the threat of sitting in range of scud missiles and biological weapons. One of the more preferred strategies in the region is to take aim at Israel when you are pressed up against the wall, in order to deflect away any unwanted attention. If Assad feels that he is about to be unseated, he could attack Israel as Saddam did during the Gulf War, in the hope of provoking an Israeli response and force any Arab or Turkish elements of a coalition against him to drop out. In two years of war, Israel has managed to stay on the sidelines, with a few exceptional cases where the line in the sand regarding the transference of weapons with the potential of tipping the balance of power had been crossed. Israel believes that Syria is a testing ground for Iran. While intervening on moral grounds would give Israel an opportunity to neutralize the chemical threat while at the same time kill thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Revolutionary Guards fighting inside Syria, the generals in the Kirya have come to the same conclusion as the generals in the Pentagon. There is no moral imperative to intervene which outweighs the strategic and national interests of both states.


As the Atlantic’s Jefferey Goldberg noted a few months back, the mask was finally ripped of Hassan Nasrallah’s face when the Lebanese terror organization stopped killing Zionists and started killing Arabs, when they sent some 2000 fighters to take back the strategic town of Qusayir from the rebels. The fiction that Hezbollah had been amassing weapons for the sole purpose of liberating lands from the occupying Israelis has been smashed, and along with it, the organizations reputation as the sole protector of Arab interests popular on the Arab street. The war has dramatically reduced the Shi’ite group’s standing at home, where the Sunni March 14 bloc led by former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri is beginning to catch up to Hezbollah. Whereas a few years ago Hezbollah boasted undisputed dominance in Beirut, last month saw car bombs tearing through the heart of group’s stronghold in Dahiyeh, in Southern Beirut killing 25, which once would have seemed impossible.

If Assad falls, the terror organization’s direct connection to it’s patrons in Iran falls along with him, as Syria has long been a transit point for weapons coming in from Tehran. An enfeebled Hezbollah, without proper supply lines, would be vulnerable to the kind of knock out punch Israel has been hoping to deliver since the 33 day debacle back in 2006. As a Shi’ite terror group, Hezbollah may publicly endorse martyrdom, but they will continue to fight for Assad in order to stay alive.

Iran: “…we believe that, any understanding or progress toward dealing with a controversial issue may help create a better ambiance, thus impacting the approach toward other pending issues.” – Iran’s UN ambassador Mohammad Khazaee

Nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 are set to resume this month. In the past, the Iranians have tried to link the talks to exacting concessions from the West for political purposes. If a strike on Syria happens, will the US be forced to act before the Iranians condition their cooperation to the West leaving Assad’s offensive capabilities intact? Historically, Iran has found crafty ways to stall negotiations when they feel that they will be negotiating from a position of weakness. A cagey Iran is a dangerous Iran. If they feel that they have limited chips to bargain with, Khameini could ratchet up the rhetoric or provoke Israel, which is after all in the midst of peace talks with the Palestinians which could result in the IDF’s withdrawal to the “Auschwitz borders.” If the situation in Syria unfolds in such a way where Netanyahu is convinced that only he can be counted on to keep Israelis safe, with the maximum amount of territory available to him, Iran could have some success in derailing the talks.

Iran has various interests in play in Syria. They too, can ill-afford to lose Assad who serves as the bridge between the Mullahs and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Losing one, or both, would be a crippling blow in Iran’s ability to exercise its influence and spread Khomeini’s revolution.

The targeting of Hezbollah forces or Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders operating in Syria, would reduce Iranian capability for retaliation against Israel or American bases in the Gulf. If Iranian commanders turned up among the dead in Syria, it would raise uncomfortable questions for Tehran. With the IRGC in charge, how much did Iran know about, or direct the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population, and should Iran go unpunished?

Saudi Arabia:

The Saudis were livid when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was offered up on the alter of expediency. Mubarak had long been a Saudi partner in keeping Mohammed Morsi and his detested Muslim Brothers down. Since the coup which removed Morsi from power, Saudi Arabia has supported the new government controlled by the military, unconditionally. The house of Saud is not only at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, but with with Iran and it’s allies, and will declare anyone with an AK-47 not given to them by spy chief Prince Bandar, an enemy combatant. As David Ignatius pointed out in the Washington Post this week, the Saudis are more than willing to pay for a win in Syria, as they have done elsewhere many times before. Saudi Arabia bankrolled the PLO in Lebanon in the 70’s, Sadaam Hussein in his war against their mutual rival Iran in the 80’s, and then turned around and backed America against Sadaam after his invasion of Kuwait. They armed the Mujahadeen against the Godless Soviets, the Hariris and anyone else willing to take on Hezbollah in Lebanon, and are quietly willing to leave their airspace unprotected just long enough for Israeli jets to fly over and hit their targets in Iran.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia is pushing back hard against the significant gains the Islamists and Shia groups have made since joining the rebel ranks. The Saudis are also competing with their rival Qatar for influence in Syria. The term Independent Qatari policy has quickly begun to trend. While the Americans and the Saudis have been diligent on who they are sending arms to, the Qatari’s have doled out over $3 billion and sophisticated weaponry to the opposition without safeguarding against their merchandise falling into the hands of the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front for example. Qatar is willing to bypass the Syrian Military Council and give money and guns directly to anyone who will help them get a leg up on the US and Saudi Arabia for post-war influence in Syria. A new Emir has also come to power in Doha, and how he fares in Syria will largely define him as a player on the international stage moving forward. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out on the newly minted Al-Jazeera America.


While the Russians may have a “good degree of confidence” that the rebels were the ones behind the chemical attack, the Russians are usually left standing alone against the case for foreign interventions. An ex-KGB operative, Vladimir Putin is a cold and calculating leader. His attitude is a holdover from forty years ago, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided to dump the Russians in favor of the Americans at the height of the Cold War. Assad is Moscow’s most important ally in the Middle East. He provides the Russians with their only access to the Mediterranean through their naval base in Tartous on Syria’s western coast. Assad is also Moscow’s biggest importer of arms. Putin does not want Syria to become a NATO or American turkeyshoot, where the West’s vast technological superiority over his Russian made air defense systems would be on display for the whole world to see. If the West smashes the Syrian military with the same ease it did the Iraqis, the Kremlin might find it exponentially more difficult to peddle their weapons systems in the future. With the G20 meeting taking place in St. Petersburg next week, it will be interesting to see what kind of communique the world’s leaders issue on Syria, and how much of the text will be watered down by Russia.

The British and the French, the most vocal of the EU members, are acting more out of a combination of humanity, and a desire for influence. While Prime Minister David Cameron stunningly lost a vote to secure his parliament’s approval to join the American assault, French President Francois Hollande, who does not need to report before a legislature, seems poised to flex his muscles when the moment comes. As we have seen in Libya, France is willing to use it’s firepower in exchange for a seat at the table once the dust settles. Syria was also once a French protectorate.

Turkey perhaps has the most to lose. NATO partners Germany and the Netherlands have deployed patriot missile systems, able to intercept ballistic missiles, on the Turkish-Syrian border in case Assad turned his guns west. While only a few years ago Prime Minister Erdogan had pursued a zero-problem policy with his neighbors, and allowed Syrian-Turkish relations to soar to new highs, even mediating peace talks between Assad and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Erdogan has since been calling for Assad’s removal since the conflict turned violent two years ago. Erdogan has provided shelter for the Syrian Opposition, and allowed them to set up command centers along the border, even going as far as providing logistical support to the rebels. On occasion, Assad has directed the shelling of opposition positions across the Turkish border. Syria, like Turkey, has a Kurdish segment of the population seeking independence, and Assad could support Kurdish rebels against Turkey to in order to settle the score with Erdogan. The Kurdish issue is the most divisive issue in Turkey today.


It was reported that the 4th Armored Division, an elite unit headed by Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, was behind the chemical attack in Ghouta. The unit is made up of career soldiers, 80% of which are Alawite. The Alawi are a murky sub-sect of Shia Islam with few defenders in the Muslim world, most of which consider them to be heretical. Most of the focus on Assad and his regime is dedicated to the carnage they have inflicted, and what they stand for is often overlooked. It is important to remember that the Syrian regime is the last Ba’athist regime left. It stands nationalism, and perhaps more importantly, secularism. Since Bashar’s father took power in 1970, the Assad’s have brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, along with any Islamist opposition threatening its claim to power. Syria is a predominantly Sunni country, ruled by a Shi’ite minority of wealthy elites. If Assad and his camp were to lose, it would not only mean a fall from power for him and his clique, but sectarian score settling as well, which would look much like the bloodshed in the streets today. Despite the most dramatic and horrific escalation of violence to date, it seems all but certain that Syria is doomed to host the battle between all of these competing interests for the foreseeable future.

About the Author
Yaniv Salama-Scheer is a Canadian-born journalist who has reported on the Middle East from Israel and the region for The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel