As Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad brutally clings to power, proxy battles among neighboring countries—namely Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar—are helping determine which armed factions will emerge victorious from the rubble. Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour moderated a discussion of these powers and their role in Syria with Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Ambassador Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Henri Barkey of Lehigh University, and Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
- Russia and Iran: Hof explained that Russia and Iran have been critical in supporting the Assad regime’s war effort. Russia continues to assist the regime with technical support and diplomatic support, he argued. Hof also emphasized that although the extent of Iranian support is difficult to assess, many analysts have pointed to evidence of Iranian advisers operating on the battlefield with regime forces—a support system that is analogous to U.S. support of the South Vietnamese before the breakout of the Vietnam War.
- Turkey: Barkey argued that Turkey wants stability. He explained that in the early days of the conflict, Turkey tried to convince Assad to reform, even if only in name; but as the conflict dragged on and more than 160,000 refugees fled to Turkey, Ankara now believes that the sooner Assad leaves the better. Barkey drew attention to Turkey’s preoccupation with the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, not just the rise of Syria’s Kurds and its implication for the region and Turkey. Barkey added that Turkey is certain that once the Assad regime falls chaos will ensue, and this rationale has helped guide its policy to fund virtually every opposition group, with the exception of the Kurds, to hope for an ally in the aftermath of the regime’s falling.
- The Gulf: According to Hokayem, there is a great deal of misinformation regarding the role and influence of Gulf countries in the Syrian conflict. Hokayem argued that the Gulf countries have divergent aims in the conflict and their efforts lack coordination. Despite suggestions that private Gulf donors are freely funding radical opposition elements, he said, the reality is that Gulf regimes have been monitoring these transactions. He added that the presence of a large Syrian diaspora in the Gulf region helped contribute to the increase in money sent from the region to the opposition, and that this aid is mostly humanitarian.
Impact on Lebanon
- No End in Sight: Salem argued that Syria is disintegrating. Instead of transitioning to a functioning democracy it may face decades of violence and with no central authority, and like its neighbor Lebanon, Syria will be dominated by outside powers. He said that this is due to the fact that the regime would rather lose fighting than win with a political deal, and despite hopes that the opposition might win, the facts on the ground show that the regime’s forces are stronger and enjoy the technical support of Russia and Iran.
- A Balanced Lebanon: According to Salem, Lebanon has survived the worst of the conflict in neighboring Syria despite Lebanese politics being split on pro- and anti-Assad grounds. He explained that Lebanon’s power sharing system and the fact that many Lebanese politicians have a stake in the economy have resulted thus far in a balanced and cautious Lebanese foreign policy toward Syria.
- Lingering Fears: Salem pointed to three issues that may impact Lebanon’s involvement in the conflict:
- the long-term fears of the jihadi element in Syria and the possible repercussions for Lebanon of a conservative Sunni Islamist regime,
- the massive number of refugees that have been pouring into Lebanon;
- the fear that if Assad’s regime falls then Lebanon’s borders with Israel and Syria may be unsettled by Hezbollah activity. Thus far, Salem stressed, Hezbollah is not panicking and believes that Assad will prevail.
- Controlling the Flow of Arms: Hof stressed that “doing nothing” was never an option for the Obama administration, which believes that it did a lot of the early diplomatic heavy lifting to isolate the Assad regime. He added that the administration seeks a peaceful and managed transition and is supporting the Brahimi mission. The best course of action for the administration is to dominate the logistical systems through which weapons and supplies enter Syria, which may help in limiting the flow of weapons to radical groups, he argued.
- Securing Allies: Hokayem argued that on the macro level the United States is at best marginal in the dynamics of the conflict. Instead, there is a demand for U.S. leadership by other actors like the Gulf countries who have no expertise to help shape a new Syria. Hokayem stressed that as the conflict progresses and radical groups hold more terrain, the United States might be forced to target them to protect an ally’s security. He warned that the United States risks being criticized for failing to engage military when Syrian rebels needed it the most and only stepping if when Israel’s interests are at stake. He suggested that the United States should establish relationships of positive dependencies with some rebel groups in order to help prepare for future allies on the ground when the regime falls.
- No Direct U.S. Intervention: Barkey advised against any attempt to arm the rebels, since jihadi and non-jihadi rebel groups are working together and share weapons and supplies. He said that the United States should stay on the outside. He explained that regional players have a competitive advantage when it comes to working inside Syria to influence the outcome and that U.S. involvement may result in a huge quagmire. He offered that the United States may be able to give intelligence support while refraining from actively arming any one side.
- Global Action: Salem argued that there is no military solution to the conflict and that only political and diplomatic action at the global level can lead to a potential breakthrough. He argued that regional players have shown that they are not in a position to mediate and stressed that only Russia and the United States can help change the dynamics of the conflict. He added that a reset in relations between a second term Obama administration and Russia may reveal a common interest in securing regional stability and checking the rise of jihadis in the Levant, resulting in a serious push by the two powers for a diplomatic solution.