The dilemma for Syria’s neighbours

Alia Brahimi and George Joffe write: [T]he growing chorus of international condemnation against Assad is counteracted by anxieties, in western and Arab capitals alike, over what a post-Assad Syria would look like. Additionally, in the worsening conflict in Syria, great power politics are mapping dangerously onto regional power struggles, which are in turn underpinned by sectarian ones. What, then, does this unstable dynamic mean for those states surrounding Syria that are directly affected by its domestic repression?

Those most immediately affected are, perhaps, its allies – Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and curiously, Iraq. At one level, these alliances are sectarian in nature since they bring together Shia in Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Iraq, with the admittedly heterodox, but Shia Alawi regime in Damascus. In reality, however, the sinews of the alliances reflect shared political and diplomatic objectives, especially for Iran. Syria and Iran were first united by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) through their shared detestation of the Saddam Hussain regime.

Hezbollah, as an Iranian client and a Syrian dependant, was an automatic partner, even though it has lost popular support in Lebanon and the wider Sunni Middle East because of its continued support for Syria over the past year. That, in turn, incidentally, has sparked pro- and anti-Syrian clashes along the two countries’ common border recently. The Lebanese government, however, is desperate to keep out of the conflict inside Syria itself for, should the conflict spill over, the threat of renewed civil war would loom terrifyingly large.

Iraqi diplomatic support reflects the influence of Iran inside Iraq, particularly over the Shia majority, as well as ties between the Iraqi premier and Syria where he spent much of his exile as al-Dawa’s representative in the 1980s and 1990s. It does not yet appear to have included material support to the Assad regime as well. One adverse consequence of this is that elements amongst the Iraqi Sunni population, some of them extremist and linked to al-Qaeda which has openly endorsed the opposition to the Assad regime, now actively support the Syrian opposition.

The real key, of course, is the Syrian-Iranian alliance – the core of the Jordanian King Abdullah’s “Shia arc of extremism”. The importance of this alliance between states is crucial to Iran’s project of challenge to moderate Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Gulf.

Certainly, that power struggle has recently intensified, owing to the military departure of the US from Iraq and the shifting political and ideological sands of the Arab Spring. The “new regional cold war”, as Rami Khoury labels it, aligns in both politics and perceptions with a broader and more historical Sunni/Shia tension. In the words of one Saudi official, “Iran is a direct and imminent threat not only to the [Saudi] kingdom, but to Sunnis across the region.” [Continue reading…]

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