Conflict in Syria: The Regional Fall-out

The inter­na­tion­al community’s inabil­i­ty to end the blood­shed in Syr­ia con­tributes not only to a hard­en­ing of eth­nic and sec­tar­i­an bat­tle lines in that war-torn coun­try, but also to the exac­er­ba­tion of fault lines in Turkey.


The civ­il con­flict in Syr­ia has become a proxy war fought by glob­al and region­al pow­ers. The poten­tial fall­out ranges from the exo­dus of many of its 2.1 mil­lion Chris­tians from what they fear will be a Sun­ni-dom­i­nat­ed post-Assad Syr­ia, to the emer­gence of Kur­dish areas in Syr­ia as a new flash­point in Turkey’s inter­mit­tent war against Kur­dish insur­gents. It also risks a greater assertive­ness of Turkey’s Ale­vis, a Shi­ite sect akin to Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s Alaw­ites that account for 20 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion.

All out­side actors are being blamed for the cri­sis. Rus­sia, deter­mined to thwart per­ceived Amer­i­can region­al designs and wor­ried that its rest­less Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion may be inspired by the Syr­i­an opposition’s resilience, is seen as the bogey­man for par­a­lyz­ing the Unit­ed Nations with its vetoes, with Chi­na, of Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions that would sanc­tion the Assad regime. Iran, Assad’s biggest Mus­lim ally, is seen being com­plic­it in this.

While the Unit­ed States, the EU, Turkey, Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar claim the moral high ground by back­ing Syr­i­an rebels against Assad’s bru­tal crack­down, they may well be ulti­mate­ly seen as also hav­ing sharp­ened fault lines across a region try­ing to cope with his down­fall.

While there are ele­ments of cor­rect­ness in the posi­tions of the var­i­ous for­eign pow­ers push­ing their own agen­da in Syr­ia, for Iran the fall of Assad is a zero-sum game. Regime change in Syr­ia would deprive it of its fore­most Arab ally and com­pli­cate its sup­port for Shi­ite Mus­lim Lebanese mili­tia Hezbol­lah. Albeit late in the game, Iran last week sought to mod­i­fy per­cep­tions of its uncon­di­tion­al sup­port for the Assad regime by con­ven­ing a con­fer­ence attend­ed by 30 coun­tries that in a state­ment called for a three-month cease­fire and “polit­i­cal solu­tions based on a nation­al dia­logue.”

Like Iran, the oth­er play­ers have to vary­ing degrees set them­selves up for blame by sup­port­ing one of the pro­tag­o­nists with no cred­i­ble vision of build­ing a unit­ed Syr­ia that is more inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic and less cor­rupt. In doing so, they risk con­tribut­ing to a post-Assad Syr­ia that could be wracked by eth­nic and sec­tar­i­an ani­mosi­ties with dead­ly revenge and retal­i­a­tion cam­paigns.

Rus­sia and Chi­na have effec­tive­ly under­mined their cred­i­bil­i­ty by fail­ing to match their sup­port for Assad with cred­i­ble efforts to medi­ate a solu­tion as they had tried in vain to do in Libya. Both Rus­sia and Chi­na nev­er­the­less attend­ed the con­fer­ence in Tehran and endorsed its final state­ment.

Sau­di Ara­bia employs its sup­port of the rebels to fur­ther its Wah­habi rejec­tion of Shi­ites, Alaw­ites and Ale­vis as heretics and sup­port­ers of its Mus­lim neme­sis, Iran, by alleged­ly back­ing attacks on Shi­ite shrines in Syr­ia. Qatar rep­re­sents a less harsh inter­pre­ta­tion of Wah­habism but is no less sup­port­ive of oppo­si­tion forces that, if in pow­er, are like­ly to be no less bent on cre­at­ing a Sun­ni Mus­lim rather than a plu­ral­is­tic, mul­ti-eth­nic, mul­ti-reli­gious Syr­ia.

Push­ing a Sun­ni Mus­lim agen­da

Turkey, backed by the US, has posi­tioned itself as the par­ti­san cham­pi­on of the Syr­i­an Nation­al Coun­cil (SNC) that is dom­i­nat­ed by the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and con­sists pri­mar­i­ly of exiles with dimin­ish­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty among a pop­u­la­tion that is bear­ing the brunt of bat­tles rag­ing in pop­u­lat­ed cities, towns and vil­lages. Cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence sug­gests that the Free Syr­i­an Army (FSA) — flush with Gulf-fund­ed arms, strength­ened by US intel­li­gence and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sup­port, and enabled with access to bases in south­east­ern Turkey – oper­ates pri­mar­i­ly as a Sun­ni Mus­lim mili­tia.

In short, the lines for bat­tles are being drawn not only in post-Assad Syr­ia but also in the war-rav­aged country’s neigh­bours. Increas­ing­ly Syr­i­an Chris­tians, some of whom sup­port­ed the oppo­si­tion in the ear­ly days of the anti-gov­ern­ment protests, feel that they are being tar­get­ed for their per­ceived sup­port of Assad as the con­flict becomes increas­ing­ly sec­tar­i­an, and they wor­ry whether there would be a place for them in a post-Assad Syr­ia.

The mem­o­ry of the fate of the Assyr­i­ans in south­east­ern Turkey who were forced to migrate to Europe in the late 1970s as a result of the government’s eco­nom­ic neg­li­gence and Kur­dish attacks, is rein­forced by attacks on Chris­tians in rebel-held areas of north­ern Syr­ia. Chris­t­ian refugees from those areas, many with fam­i­ly ties across the Turk­ish bor­der, have all but giv­en up hope of return­ing to their homes.

Between a rock and a hard place

Per­cep­tions of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment favour­ing the Sun­nis is fuelling a sense of depri­va­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion among Turk­ish Ale­vis who account for 50 per­cent of the bor­der province of Hatay which was Syr­i­an until 1938, when the French trans­ferred it to Turk­ish sov­er­eign­ty. Like the Chris­tians they have cross bor­der fam­i­ly ties and for the longest peri­od of time saw the Assads as guar­an­tors of their community’s rights.

The esca­lat­ing fight­ing in Syr­ia puts Chris­tians, Ale­vis and Alaw­ites on both sides of the bor­der between a rock and a hard place: they can choose between a dis­cred­it­ed, cor­rupt pari­ah regime that has lost its abil­i­ty to pro­tect their rights and guar­an­tee a sem­blance of plu­ral­ism, and a post-Assad regime that threat­ens to make Syr­ia, with Turk­ish back­ing, a place in which they no longer are wel­come.

Their con­cern is height­ened by the impact of Sau­di finan­cial and cler­i­cal sup­port for the rebels, whose anti-Assad cam­paign is increas­ing­ly being cloaked in reli­gious terms. Salafis as well as home­grown jihadists and a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of for­eign­ers, have joined the ranks of the rebels, albeit con­sti­tut­ing a minor­i­ty. Nonethe­less, rebel fight­ers are report­ed to have attempt­ed on sev­er­al occa­sions to destroy the shrine of Sayyi­da Zeinab, the grand­daugh­ter of the Prophet who is revered by Shi­ites.

Rus­sia may top the list of nations Syr­i­ans will revile for either back­ing a regime that turned on its peo­ple but that will not allow the pup­pet mas­ters in oth­er world cap­i­tals to go scot-free. Many Sun­nis and sec­u­lar Syr­i­ans in a coun­try where minori­ties account for almost half of the pop­u­la­tion, as well as minori­ties in Turkey, heap equal blame on the Unit­ed States and its allies – Europe, Turkey and the Gulf states – for either fail­ing to inter­vene to stop the slaugh­ter or fuelling eth­nic and reli­gious con­flict. The out­come is one that is like­ly to pow­er not only anti-Russ­ian-Chi­nese and anti-Iran­ian sen­ti­ment but also anti-Amer­i­can­ism, and plant the seeds for con­flicts that are equal­ly detri­men­tal to Amer­i­can inter­ests.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.