The Arab Spring has not had a major impact on regional or international balance of power so far, but this could change if there is a regime change in Syria. A dangerous and unpredictable chain reaction may set the region ablaze. The repercussions throughout the world are impossible to predict. Inciting escalation is Syria is like playing with fire.
Some say the situation’s is unfolding in the direction of a Greater Middle East. To great extent it’s the development of the events described in the famous Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East by Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy. The only thing there is no way to say definitely what the Greater Middle East will be like and who’s interests it’s going to meet. As well as nobody can say whether the events will have positive or negative influence globally. There is something new emerging but something being a far cry from what the major part of US think tanks ever predicted. Talking about Syria we see an extremely complex political regional power game leading the Middle East into uncharted territory. The positions of outside players to great extent determine Syria’s outcome.
Here is a cursory look at the prospects and possibilities of the situation unfolding.
Violence in Syria is on the rise. Even if civil war is not imminent, the uprising is nonetheless transforming into a low-scale insurgency with clear sectarian tilt.
Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions have failed so far to bring about any change. For instance the threat of Arab League sanctions carries little weight for Syria which has past experience of being estranged from other Arab countries. In the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Syria stood alone among the Arab countries sided with Iran against Arab Iraq. Its major trading partner is the European Union.
Western military intervention is really a remote possibility. Syria has not committed the grave mistake Colonel Gaddafi did, it’s air defense capability is up to par, an air attack against Syria is a risk of high losses, something extremely inconvenient for NATO at the moment. So the only option available for the West is to continue to ratchet up economic and political pressure, including the possible formation of “safe havens” within Syrian territory.
An international contact group established in Paris to coordinate Syria policy has come out with an idea of creating safe zones within Syrian territory. The idea has Turkish and Arab support. It is envisaged to establish two zones – one under Turkish supervision in the North and the other under Jordanian supervision in the South. Becoming a reality it could mark a turning point in the way the situation unfolds with the opposition forces gaining control over territory under international protection. Something like Benghazi in Libya becoming a safe haven for everyone opposing the Gaddafi government and a beachhead for military operations. No doubt the Syrian leadership sees the threat clearly and would go to any length to resist such turn of events.
The opposition’ organization is starting to take shape. During the initial period of the uprising, the majority of the demonstrators were civilians across the country – there was no coherent, organized opposition. Now we have the Free Syrian Army appealing to soldiers to defect with some effect. The defectors from the Syrian army not only have access to weapons, they have inside knowledge of the country’s armed forces. Outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is the leading opposition group. Most see the SNC as basically a Muslim Brotherhood branch. The Turks are already providing a moral and political support to it. However, the Syria’s renewal of material supplies and giving safe haven to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a serious deterrent. The Syrians can allow the PKK to launch cross border raids into southern Turkey.
What is the opposition?
Armed opposition forces are increasingly active. The Free Syrian Army is expanding its operations, attacking loyalist forces. The violence is becoming more sectarian, especially in places like Homs and Hama that have borne the brunt of regime repression. Intended originally to provide protection from army’ violence, the formation of armed units prompted use of force on their part making Syrian minorities wonder what’s in store for them in case the Assad regime collapsed.
Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is a group of mostly Sunni conscripts and low and mid-rank officers who fled to Turkey. This group set up a beachhead for operations in southern Turkey and has announced the creation of what it calls a temporary military council to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Taking into consideration the Syrian armed forces command is dominated by the Alawite minority, it will be very difficult for lower ranking Sunni members to wage a successful coup. Besides they need a sanctuary to organize and sustain an armed resistance. It’s yet to be seen if the refugee camps in southwestern Turkey, where the Free Syrian Army leadership is located, could be extended into a staging ground for Syria’s fledgling armed resistance. There is a lot of talk in Turkey discussing the expediency of establishing a military buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border with Arab League and possibly U.N. backing. No decision on the matter is sight as yet.
Syrian National Council. The formation of the inclusive Syrian National Council a few weeks ago is to improve coordination among a Syrian opposition divided by internal divisions. It will provide at least some framework for engaging the international community. Even rudimentary governance structures would demonstrate its viability as an option to the Assad government. However, though a step forward, very significant compromises were reached to pull the opposition together. The divisions may constrain its capacity to provide a unified alternative to the Assad government.
The SNC is a coalition of a few major groupings, with the Muslim Brotherhood enjoying leading position. Leadership is supposed to function on the basis of rotation among the leaders of the factions. The decision making process is still blur. Its leadership is seen to be heavily Islamist. Minorities and women, as well as Syrian secularists, are underrepresented. As a result a number of influential opposition factions were leery of extending their support to this version of the SNC. Its international recognition is put to the back burner, at least for the time being.
President Bashar al-Assad will not step down. If removed that is only after much more bloodshed and civil strife in the country. That would be the death knell for the position of Alawi minority dominating position and for secular socialist Baath Party that has been in power for over four decades. It does maintain a stance against rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country and it brings it the support among a significant portion of the Sunni and Christian Arab members of the population. Many Syrians fear an Islamic fundamentalist government may come to power Syria.
As violence becomes more widespread and better organized, concerns have been growing about the possibility of a full-scale civil war. Yet Syria is still some distance from such a tipping point. The balance of forces is still weighted heavily in the government’s favor. The mentioned above defections do not yet pose a serious threat to the capacity of Syria’s armed forces. The security and intelligence agencies ace effective bodies reflecting a high level of coherence.
Besides there is a probability of continued transformation of the uprising into a low-scale insurgency meaning violence below the threshold of civil war.
What are the options the West, Turkey, and the Arab governments are facing? The formation of safe havens on Syrian territory, continued support for the Syrian National Council and peaceful elements of the Syrian opposition. We’ve yet to see if demonstrations continue to spread, especially in Damascus, if the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo, would become a Syrian Benghazi. Another determining factor is what neighboring states stance, Turkey on the priority list. Is Turkey’s military intervention an option?
A Syrian friend and major trade partner not long ago Turkey has gone to a hostility that stops just short of intervention. Right now Turkey’s view and position regarding Syria is harsh and uncompromising. Its policy is based on supporting the US and Europe, becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition. Troops concentrated on the Syrian border, it tries to organize Syria's internal opposition and says it out loud the government in Damascus should be gone. Until now Turkey has used military force in the Middle East only to counter the intermittent threat of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). It had never called for any government to be overthrown or ever resorted to military force. It refused to join the operation in Iraq in 2003. Furthermore those days it refused to let the USA armed forces enter Iraq from its territory. No opposition movement had ever used its territory as a base. What’s at the root of this about face?
Turkey taking lead in the region
In his “The Third Wave: the democratization in the late 20th Century” Samuel Huntington pointed out the existence of a “demonstrative effect”, meaning a chain reaction – an example of earlier transitions provided patterns to follow for subsequent efforts at democratization that in turn provided models for other efforts. Turkey may start this chain reaction. Besides there is cultural affinity between Turkey and the countries of the region. So its example is more relevant in comparison with non-Muslim nations. A page from the Turkey’s book could be brought to bear on a number of areas where reform is vital.
Turkey’s role as a leading example for other Middle East actors to follow may present its relationship with the West in quiet a different light. A Turkey acting to foster democracy and the rule of law in the Arab world is a way to make a long cherished idea of a “Greater Middle East” a reality.
Egypt has lost its previous status and has gone to the sidelines. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia have their own internal crises and Syria has also lost its important role in the Arab world due to the events in question. So Turkey tries to rise as a major power while other main actors in the Middle East are in grips of political, social, and economic problems. This has become the main focus of Turkey’s foreign policy in relation to Syria and other countries.
No loss in trying. No way Turkey can join the EU but its NATO membership is not imperiled. Not with a NATO missile defense radar and a new drone base deployed on Turkish soil. Becoming a Greater Middle East leader is a good try.
Challenges on the way
But does Turkey have a stable rear? It has to fight the Kurds in the East. The further escalation means running serious risks. Kurdish separatist activity may spill across the border. So far, Kurdish protesters in Syria have been relatively contained but what if? Then further escalation would make Turkey vulnerable to Syrian and Iranian militant proxy attacks, at the time it has to deal with a significant rise in PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) activity and has a mission to uproot the organization’s cells in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Syria and Iran do not exert direct influence on PKK’s activities, but they do influence splinter factions that could demonstrate the repercussions of driving the Syrian government to the wall.
Inter ethnic and inter confessional strife in Turkey is here to stay. About 12 million Alawi Muslims (the estimates are very different – from 5 to 20) make up a part of the country’s population. It’s not the most prosperous or powerful part of it. Will they support a military action against Syria where the Alawis are in power?
Turkey’s relations with Iran have become problematic due to several issues. For instance, the installation of missile shield elements in Turkey and close relations with the United States and other countries that are hostile to Iran – all this causes anxiety among Iranian leaders. Right now relations between Iran and Turkey are very good and there are no issues reaching a crisis state. But once Turkey thinks of itself as a leader in the Middle East and strives to have a key role in the regional developments Iran becomes an serious obstacle and a mighty rival because by and large it pursues the very same objectives. For instance in Syria.
Of course, the Turkey’s foreign policy is based on its own interests. Therefore if influential countries like Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have internal challenges in their nation-building, the only country that can be the center of attention in the region is Turkey. The role is played aggressively in the framework of these developments. This does not mean that Turkey’s foreign policy is a total success until now, in fact, there are internal challenges, tensions with its neighbors and Iran is a strong rival. These are the factors to take into consideration. Think twice before jump.