By Amin Saikal
The Syrian crisis has taken on a wider dimension. It is now deeply entangled with the politics of major power rivalry in the Middle East and beyond. It could be settled through a grand bargain in the context of a number of other issues between the United States, Russia, and China. Otherwise, the Syrian conflict is set to be a protracted one, with the possibility of engulfing the region.
Russia and China have continued to stand firm in their demand that the Syrian conflict be resolved internally. They appear confident that the Assad regime has enough firepower and support among the Alawite, Christian, and Druze minorities to hold out against the opposition, albeit at terrible human and material costs, including the destruction of many historical cities. The Russians and Chinese have not only blocked previous attempts by the UN Security Council to adopt harsher punitive measures, including the use of force if necessary, against the Assad regime. They have also succeeded in watering down the Council’s condemnation of the Syrian regime’s most recent cross-border shelling into Turkey — a development which has brought Turkey very close to a sustained military conflict with Syria.
There are several considerations that have motivated Moscow and Beijing to be relentless on the Syrian issue.
For a start they do not want a dramatic shift in the regional balance of power. Although they approach the problem from different angles, they are in pursuit of a similar goal. Russia does not wish to see a further empowerment of Sunni Islam and a boost for Turkey, with which Russia has had historical and geostrategic differences, in the region. This is also to signal to Israel and to the US that any attack on Iran, which has a strategic partnership with Syria, over the country’s nuclear program is unacceptable to Russia. In fact, the Russian deputy foreign minister has already made a statement to this effect.
The implication of the Russian position is that if the US wants Moscow to be on board in relation to Syria, then it needs to enter a deal whereby the US retrenches its deployment of anti-missile shields from Eastern Europe, especially Poland, and halts NATO’s expansion into what Russia considers to be its traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. It equally views the establishment of American bases in the former Soviet central Asian states as more than helping the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, regarding it as an attempt to limit the space for Russia to regain some of its past Soviet influence in the region.
Similarly, China has a serious interest in the preservation of the status quo. Although Syria may have little strategic importance to China, Beijing imports 11 per cent of its oil needs from Iran, and, in return, the Iranian markets are flooded with Chinese goods, which for Tehran is a way of getting around the crippling Western sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Beijing is terribly disturbed by America’s strategic shift to deploy more forces in the Asia-Pacific, which Beijing views as part of a policy of containment of China. As such, both Moscow and Beijing are adverse to any major change in the current correlation of forces in West Asia.
However, if the US and its allies come up with a grand bargain to meet the wider Russian and Chinese concerns in return for their collaboration over Syria, then the way may open for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Otherwise, the crisis has all the potential to take an even heavier toll on the Syrian people and could drag neighbouring countries — most importantly Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran — into the conflict.
Meanwhile, the crisis will continue to eclipse the long-standing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and empower Israel to remain defiant of the US administration regarding an early resolution of that conflict, should President Barack Obama be re-elected. It is important to remember that the Israeli–Palestinian dispute is a major source of Arab and Muslim anger against Israel and the United States, irrespective of the claim to the contrary by Israel and some of its international supporters.
16 October 2012