How the geopolitics of Syria has reshaped the politics of the Middle East

Slogans against the Syrian regime raised by the Syrian protesters on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian war (Shutterstock).

Ahmad Abdul-Rahman explains how the Syrian conflict has drawn in Western powers that have helped to reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The Syrian Spring has reached its 10th year with a terrifying outcome from the conflict, as the number of victims reaches the thousands and the number of refugees has reached millions, according to a report published by the Swiss newspaper "Le Temps". There is no sign that the crisis will end anytime soon.

The report recalled the beginning of the Syrian Spring. It started in the town of Daraa, which has a population of more than 100,000, and the arrest and torture of young men who wrote anti-President Bashar al-Assad slogans on the walls of their schools. Following the pro-democracy protests that broke out in Egypt and Tunisia, the mass arrests in Daraa triggered a wave of protests in Syria on March 15, 2011, which subsequently swept all over the country, according to the report.

To quell those protests, Bashar al-Assad resorted to using the usual methods of repression, which made the conflict gradually turn into a total war between the opposition groups, including the extremist movements. The conflict was not limited to these parties, but included the intervening regional powers.

Horrific outcome of the war

The decade-long war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, driven more than 12 million Syrians from their homes, and forced 6 million to leave the country.

The report also said the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has called for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible for arbitrary arrests, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly even genocide. It added that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime has led to a tragic number of deaths. These atrocities have gone unpunished, however. This case was not referred to the International Criminal Court as was suggested by Switzerland and several other countries, because of the Russian veto.

Undoubtedly, the Syrian conflict has reshaped the geopolitics of the Middle East. Russia, through its steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad, has regained its influential role in the region, alongside the significant increase in Iranian influence. After the disaster of the US invasion of Iraq, withdrawal from the Middle East became an essential part of the US' political discourse.

The West has been satisfied with having a limited role in Syria, unlike its role in Libya. Initially, the US strategy was to contain Syria's conflict within its borders and prevent the rapid and dramatic fall of the regime in Damascus, for fear of a security vacuum. However, Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin all expressed their political support for the revolution, and demanded the removal of Bashar al-Assad on several occasions, but never sought to overthrow him by force. Western support has mostly been translated into limited financial assistance to opposition groups in Syria, in the hope of deterring Damascus from using excessive force.

At the same time, in response to the growing chaos in Syria, regional actors have been directly concerned with the political and security consequences of the Syrian conflict. Iran, Turkey, and the Arabian Gulf states, which were directly affected by the current events, felt compelled to step up their involvement in the war when the geopolitical effects of their absence became too costly to bear. For Turkey and Qatar, as supporters of revolutionary forces, the Syrian revolution represented an opportunity for the emergence and leadership of a new populist regime following the Arab revolutions.

For the oil-rich Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, intervention in the conflict was aimed at preventing Syria from becoming part of the Iranian "corridor" and extending Iranian power to the Mediterranean region. In contrast, Tehran saw the Syrian revolution as a direct threat to its regional existence. It described the opposition as a tool in the hands of its regional opponents, and an agent of the US and other Western powers.

These regional actors have redrawn the outcome of the conflict in one way or another. Part of their ability to play this role can be explained by the geopolitics and strategic value of Syria in a region of polarisation, disagreements, and divisions. This influence would not have been possible without Syria's complex demographics and social divisions between religious and secular Sunnis and Alawites, Arabs and Kurds. These divisions have often been skilfully manipulated by emerging and traditional regional powers to achieve their goals.

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Tuesday, 03 August 2021