The Great Game- Syria Redux

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Reporting from GPR’s Moroccan bureau, Andrew Jarnigan files an effortless and intelligent analysis of Syria in the Middle Eastern context. 

By: Andrew Jarnigan

Hopes for a smooth and bloodless conclusion to the Arab Spring have long since been buried in the streets and alleys of Syria, where deaths from the civil war have topped 100,000 and more than 1.8 million refugees have fled the violence. Analysis of Syria’s internal power dynamics is no easy feat; even the American government, with its massive intelligence apparatus, doesn’t really know what to do. Complicating (and likely hindering) Syria’s long road to better governance are the many and widely varied foreign interests that want a share in shaping the future of the Middle East. Earlier this month, the Syrian National Coalition elected as its president Ahmad Jarba, widely seen as “the Saudis’ man,” over Mustafa Sabbagh, who received backing from Qatar.

Just as factions are becoming more apparent in the political wing, divisions within the militant opposition are turning violent. Just last week, a senior official in the Free Syrian Army was killed by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, though the groups share the aim of defeating Bashar al-Assad. Foreign actors have left their mark on Syria’s inner workings, and it is essential to recognize both the power and the aims of the various countries working to mold Syria in their image. And let’s not forget that we’ve been here before.



Iran has a major stake in keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, as Syria remains Iran’s strongest ally in the region. Precisely because Iran is becoming increasingly isolated from the West and from its Sunni neighbors in the Gulf, its relationship with Syria has become more strategically important. Since arms embargoes have been enforced, Iran’s role in supporting Assad has become even more critical as a lifeline for the embattled government. The fall of Assad’s regime would be devastating to Iran: any new Syrian government would be dominated by Sunnis (74% of Syrians) and unlikely to align itself with Iran’s contrarian foreign policy.


Despite the best efforts of the United States, the governments of Iran and Iraq have warmed to each other significantly since Saddam’s ouster. Of import to the Syrian conflict is Iraq’s willingness to permit almost-daily Iranian overflights headed for Syria. Iran claims the planes contain only humanitarian aid, but that explanation is widely seen as a façade for shipping arms and fighters to Syria’s battlegrounds. Furthermore, the Iraq/Syria border is a popular frontier for incoming rebel fighters, although the Iraqi government has moved troops to the area to try to prevent a spillover of violence from rebel groups that also seek to overthrow the Shiite-led government of Iraq.


 Saudi Arabia

The Muslim Brotherhood was given a safe haven in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s after they were purged from Egypt and other countries by nationalist forces. The Brotherhood also assisted the US and Saudi Arabia in funneling arms and fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, in recent years, the relationship has frayed: some Saudis see the Brotherhood’s Islamism as a threat to their branch of Wahhabism and religious authority, and the Brotherhood has sharply criticized the country’s cooperation with American military campaigns. Because of this, Saudi Arabia has avoided aiding groups ideologically close to the Brotherhood – the country doesn’t “want any ties to anything called Muslim Brothers,” in the words of a member of one of Syria’s rebel military councils. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia’s main objective is still the overthrow of the Assad regime, but their aid is being given to groups that profess secular, Wahhabi, or non-Brotherhood Salafi ideals.



In contrast to its neighbor, Qatar retains a strong relationship with Muslim Brotherhood organizations across the Middle East. It bet correctly that the group would be a major force in regional politics after the Arab Spring, and has followed up its rhetorical support with financial backing: when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, Qatar gave Egypt an aid package totaling $8 billion. The country has similarly been aggressive in its funding and supplying of Syrian rebels, reportedly spending over $3 billion in the past two years (including a $50,000 per year refugee package for defectors). Qatar’s policy of arming Islamists seems more pragmatic than idealistic: in doing so, the small state hopes to reap rewards of future influence in the region.


 United States

America’s primary interest in the Middle East is weakening Iran, a goal which is furthered by the perpetuation of the civil war. Syria (Iran’s major regional ally) is currently deprived of any ability to function in foreign affairs, Iran has drawn itself into a protracted proxy war it cannot afford, and Hizbullah in Lebanon (Iran’s other ally) are suffering losses as its fighters travel across the border to fight the Assad regime. Ultimately, though, a prolonged conflict will only create hardened insurgents capable, and often willing, to stir up violence in their home countries when they return. The EU is taking steps to prevent its citizens from going to Syria to preempt this possibility, but many Middle Eastern countries have let their residents travel freely to the battlefield. The end result of fighters returning home to countries across the Middle East can only bode ill for American interests, and regional stability.



Putin’s unyielding support for the Assad regime is baffling at first, and seems reminiscent of Cold War-era intransigence. However, Moscow has several strategic reasons for wanting to keep Assad in power. First and foremost, Russia does not want to see a failed state that could prove a breeding ground for jihadists (though, obviously, this is already happening). Russia has had its share of experiences with radical Islam: in the 1980s – Afghanistan, the 1990s – Chechnya, and just last year in the Russian republic of Tartarstan. Russia is also home to 16 million Muslims – the most in Europe – and is constantly on alert for insurgency in its restive frontiers. Additionally, Russia has traditionally been hesitant to create precedent for regime-changing intervention, especially when it comes from the West. Russia’s policy on Syria is reminiscent of America’s stance on Egypt’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak: stand by your man as long as you can.



There is no “solution” to Syria. Bashar al-Assad is still well-supported by Iran, Hizbullah, Russia, and many of Syria’s religious minorities who fear a darker fate under rebel rule. The rebels are unlikely to run out of funds, willpower, or fighters, as all three seem to be in steady supply from the Gulf. Today, there is no international will to initiate the full-scale military intervention required to stabilize the country. Instead, the bloodshed is likely to continue as 1.8 million Syrians eke out an existence in refugee camps while the new great game is played out in their former backyards.



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