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06 outubro, 2013
Middle East Power Games
MIDDLE EAST POWER GAMES
Following the four-post series “Drums of War?”* my good longtime friend Mário
pointed out that another post focusing on the underlying interests and rivalries
was missing to complete the picture on the Syrian War. Mário was of course
right, so at his behest I decided to write about the Middle East Power games,
specifically those that are patent in the conflict in Syria.
Syria’s Civil War is an internal
conflict magnified by the interests of regional powers and the direct and
indirect interests of outside major powers. The regional powers that are deeply
embroiled in Syria are Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In this post there is no mention
of Egypt, because Cairo has not have any relevant intervention in the conflict,
as it is centred on its own domestic problems.
Turkey has been stepping up efforts to
increase her influence in the Middle East. That investment started slowly after
the world and the region were freed from the constraints of the Cold War, but
Turkey’s economic development and rising power were the levers that propelled
the Erdogan’s government to more ambitious goals, namely by trying to conquer
the so-called Arab street through an aggressive stance towards Israel. In this
context, the Arab Spring seemed to promise more opportunities: the removal of
the secularist-military autocracy in Egypt and the apparent crumbling of the
totalitarian Syrian Baathist regime, offered the perspective of the rise of
Muslim Brotherhood-led governments, whose ideological-religious affinity with
the Turkish ruling party AKP could enable a political rapprochement between Ankara,
Cairo and Damascus.
Syria is particularly important
to Turkey for three reasons:
border with Syria is Turkey’s longest, meaning that instability in or hostility
from Syria are serious liabilities for the Turks, as the present Civil War demonstrates.
2-Syria is home to a relevant Kurdish
minority. Turkey is home to some 12 million Kurds. Chaos in Syria has given space for the Syrian Kurds to carve out a
territory in the Northeast, contiguous to Turkey, where they may establish
an autonomous zone, following on the Iraqi Kurds footsteps. At a time when Ankara is trying to sort out its conflict with Turkish
Kurds, this is real bad news.
has been in the Iranian sphere of influence. Iran is Turkey’s biggest rival in the
quest for geopolitical preeminence in the Middle East. Removing a major Iranian ally and co-opting it as a Turkish ally could
be a game changer in the Turkish-Iranian balance of power.
Accordingly, Turkey has been
supplying the rebels with political,, diplomatic, logistical and military support.
Turkey invested heavily in Al Assad’s downfall, paying the price of instability
and terrorism and the burden of thousands of refugees. The aborted American
intervention makes Turkey’s prospects look bleaker.
Iran has been building up power and influence
in the Middle East for at least a decade. When the US military forces
completed their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iran’s arc of influence spawned
from Western Afghanistan on the edge of Central Asia, to Lebanon and Gaza in
Iran was viewed as a threat by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Israel and,
indirectly, the USA, the UK and France.
Like Turkey, Iran viewed the
Arab Spring as an opportunity, specially in the case of Egypt, the
largest Arab state who was very hostile towards Tehran since 1979. The rise of
the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its search for new alliances promised to change
the statu quo. Things started going awry for the Iranians though: the Gulf
States, particularly Bahrain, sustained the impact of the tumult; MB’s was
shoved away from power by the Egyptian military; and Syria, Iran’s closest
ally, unraveled into a civil war.
Iran’s stakes in Syria are three-fold:
1-Syria is Iran’s oldest and closest
ally and its loss would be a severe setback for Iran. Besides, it would break the contiguity
of Iran’s sphere of influence, severing Tehran’s direct land link with its
instrumental proxy in the Levant: Hezbollah.
sphere of influence is not just about
politics, it is also about religion. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein and his
Sunni based regime that Shia have been on the rise, an ascension spearheaded by
Iran. The removal of Al Assad and the
Alawites (a Shia sect) from power would entail an Iraqi-like phenomenon: the
ruling minority is replaced by the oppressed majority, with the roles inverted:
Shia down, Sunni up.
it would not be ultimately Tehran’s responsibility, regime change in Damascus could jeopardise
the Iranians credibility as a player with the will and the power to stand by
and support their allies.
Like Turkey, Iran is investing
heavily propping up the Al Assad regime: money, political support, military
advisors and weapons, possibly combatants and urging the Hezbollah to send fighters
to the battlefront (estimated at up to 10.000 men).
Saudi Arabia has been on the defensive
for the better part of the last decade. First it was the US invasion of
Iraq leading to the replacement of a Sunni regime by a Shia one. Then it was
the steady rise of a hostile (and Shia) Iran. Finally there was the Arab Spring
and the shaking and toppling of close and like-minded regimes.
Saudi Arabia’s external
priorities are: to maintain the political statu quo in the Middle East, meaning
few or no democratic reforms; ensuring security coverage from an outside power,
i.e. the United States; guaranteeing the supremacy of Sunni powers over Shia
ones; keeping in check non-Arab regional powers Iran and Turkey.
Thus, Syria presents a great opportunity
for multiple gains for the Saudis with residual costs:
1-The Saudis and the Assads have
long had a hostile relationship. So, if
Assad either falls or resists but tied up in a raging civil war, the Saudis
come out winning.
Turks have been pushing hard for Al Assad’s demise. It has not happened and it does
not look like it will anytime soon. If it eventually happens, Turkey will be
bordering a Sunni dominated country but far from the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled
nation conceived by Ankara two years ago:
actually, it will be infested with radical jihadists. If it does not happen,
Turkey will be struggling with a raging war next door and an ever-growing flood
has a vital stake in Syria. If the Syrian regime is toppled, Iran’s current
geopolitical position will suffer a significant setback. If the civil war rages
on, Iran will be bogged in the conflict for the time being.
Arabia’s investment in this enterprise is
sending weapons and money to the jihadists fighting in Syria. The risk is close to zero and the rewards are
very likely, with the prospect of Syria, Turley and Iran all tied up in a
So the war in Syria is as much an
internal struggle for power amid different Syrian factions, as it is an
unrelenting quest for hegemony and spheres of influence among Middle East’s
In this power game, different
factors and factions interact: Sunni versus Shia; Arabs versus Turks versus
Persians; Secularists versus Islamists; Jihadists versus Moderate Muslims; Monarchists
versus Republicans; Democrats versus Autocrats.
In the end, however, we are
witnessing a ruthless quest for power and influence. Each of these three powers harbours
ambitions and fears that propel
them into the conflict. Syria has been the perfect stage for this clash: all
three have a stake in Syria’s future, each of them has gains to be made and
losses to be incurred. Needless to say that in this sort of scenario my opponent’s losses are my gains.
Interestingly, the player that
is often regarded as the most vulnerable and feeble has the upper hand in this
war. As we have seen, Saudi Arabia comes out winning in every probable outcome.
Furthermore, her geographic distance ensures that there will hardly be any
spillovers into her territory.
For Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria
is little more than the stage where their interests clash, where they flex
their muscles, where they push and shove in order to outmaneuver and supplant
their opponents. It is Power Politics at its best. It is the typical Middle
East Power Games: ruthless, brutal and never-ending.