Syrian crisis now a global affair

The outcome of the Syrian crisis, no matter what that might be, will delimit the new Middle East in a way that will affect the entire world—not just Syria and the region

Western leaders’ conflicting statements underscore the unease about changes in the Arab world. Unless one believes that the speech of diplomats is unscripted, a recent statement by US secretary of State, John Kerry is extremely significant. He contended that the ultimate goal is to “see Assad and the Syrian opposition sitting at the same table to establish a transitional government as laid out in the Geneva Accords.”

Perhaps, partly, because of such conflicted statements, leaders from UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey have scheduled a one-on-one meeting with President Obama. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is talking about Syria to key world leaders, including the presidents of France, Egypt, Iran, and the BRICS countries. Most observers are predicting that the expected Obama-Putin meetings over summer will culminate in a unified stance on Syria. 

If that is the expectation, it might be too late for world leaders to predetermine the outcome of the Syrian crisis by September. The dynamics on the ground and the entrenched disparate interests of regional and global powers will make it extremely difficult to press the reset button. A simple review of the events of the last 60 days will show the complexity and centrality of the Syrian crisis. Simply put, the management of the war in Syria is no longer in the hands of the Syrians. It is now a global affair: 

1. In early March, the Syrian regime accused the opposition forces of attacking its troops and civilians with chemical weapons near Aleppo. The regime, supported by Russia, requested a UN investigation into this incident. After first agreeing to investigate, the UN’s efforts fell apart when some members of the UNSC wanted to broaden the scope of the investigation to include other suspected instances of use of chemical weapons. France and Britain accused the regime of using chemical weapons against opposition fighters in Homs. Russia accused the UN of politicizing the investigation. At the time of writing this article, no agreement on the constitution of an investigating committee has been reached.

2. With the rotating presidency of the Arab League transferred to Qatar, the host country of this year’s Arab League summit, the rulers of this tiny emirate did not waste time taking a lead. The Qatari Emir, in an unprecedented move, forced the rest of the Arab rulers (except those of Iraq and Algeria) to agree to give the seat of Syria to one of the opposition factions—the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (aka the Coalition), which angered at least two other major opposition groupings not represented in the Coalition. This development came just days after the Qatari rulers succeeded in getting the Coalition to establish a temporary government headed by a Syrian-American businessman. His appointment was immediately rejected by the Free Syrian Army and resisted by the then president of the Coalition, Moez al-Khatib. Consequently, an attempted assassination of the leader of the FSA, Riad al-As`ad, was carried out when he was touring northern Syria (he survived but lost his leg). Al-Khatib has announced that he will resign.

3. In early April, al-Qaeda satellite organizations in Iraq and Syria announced a merger and the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra publicly declared his allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda. These developments confirm the presence of al-Qaeda in Syria and put western countries and its Arab allies in an awkward position. The US cannot be seen to use taxpayers’ money to pay groups affiliated with the organization that attacked it on September 11, 2001. The new priority, then, has become more than distancing other opposition forces from al-Nusra. Western leaders want the “moderate” opposition forces to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Meeting with the Coalition leaders in Turkey, the new directives were made clear: Unless al-Qaeda groups are dealt with, the US and some EU countries would not indiscriminately supply the opposition with the sophisticated weapons that they had sought. That brought about the resignation of the president of the Coalition, Moez al-Khatib, again. The Coalition appointed an interim president, George Sabra.

4. Since returning to the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been building his legacy as the leader who would reintroduce parity into Russia-US relations. On April 12, Obama's administration issued a list of 18 people subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States under the Magnitsky Act, a legislation that was passed by Congress late last year. Without delay, the Russian Foreign Ministry listed 18 Americans subject to visa bans and asset freezes under a retaliatory law that Putin signed in December. The law targeted Americans accused of violating the human rights of Russians abroad. More significantly, the list included some top Bush-era officials whom Russia accused of the "legalization and application of torture." The list included David Addington (a former chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney), John Yoo (a former Justice Department lawyer), and two former commanders of the US military detention centres at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base.

Evidently, Syria is another area where Putin is determined to make a firm stand. Putin is deliberately building a block of countries that will counter any action taken by the US administration and its Arab and European allies. With China firmly with him on the Syrian issue, he is now building a broader coalition that may include former US allies like Egypt.

5. After meeting with President Putin on April 20, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi stated that Egypt, “was committed to finding a peaceful and legal solution to the crisis in Syria.” On April 21, the official Egyptian State Information Service announced that Egypt had turned down a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Before leaving Russia, Morsi asked for Russian investment in Egypt and restated Egypt’s desire (which he first mentioned when he had visited India earlier this year) to join the BRICS. The meeting in Russia was followed by a visit to Iran (on April 28) by an Egyptian presidential delegation. Ostensibly related to all these developments, Qatar announced that the bonds it had offered to buy from Egypt (about $3 billion) would carry a 5% interest and must be paid within 18 months. Putin, it is thought, might have reminded Morsi that joining BRICS comes with the expectation of embracing the Durban declaration about Syria—which is contrary to the wishes of Qatar. A shift in Egypt’s position on Syria would weaken the Qatari-Turkish alliance. Moreover, if Russia decides to invest in Egypt, as Morsi requested, that, too, would weaken Qatar’s influence over Egypt.

6. The bad news for the Qatari ruling family did not stop there. Last week (April 23), after meeting with the Emir, President Obama said: "We're going to be continuing to work in the coming months to try to further support the Syrian opposition, and we'll be closely coordinating our strategies to bring about a more peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis." The “more peaceful resolution” comment appears to be a diplomatic reprimand to the Qatari ambitious ruler. After all, Qatar did not contribute to any semblance of a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. Instead, it contributed weapons and a blow to the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi when the Emir created a government for Syria out of a single unrepresentative opposition group and gave it the seat of the Syrian state in the Arab League. This rash move further complicated things for the Russian and American diplomats. In fact, it might have pushed Russia to take a more aggressive stance on Syria, as evidenced by the increased activities by Russian diplomats.

7. After meeting Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov over the weekend (April 27), a confident Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah (leader of Hezbollah) made an unusually detailed speech on April 30. Nasrallah stressed one key point: “The true friends of Syria will not allow Damascus to fall into the hands of America, Israel, or the takfiri groups.”  For those familiar with his rhetoric, this statement is extraordinarily specific and it could not be borne out of simple predictions. It must be a declaration of a political decision that the Syrian state’s supporters, like Russia and Iran, have taken. After all, Russia has sent many signals, explicitly and implicitly, about its unwavering support to the Syrian state. The Qatari move may have pushed the Russian leaders even further in their support for Assad’s regime.

Evidently, Russia was not pleased with the Arab Leagues’ decision to bypass the Geneva Statement on Syria. The US apparently was not thrilled either - hence Obama’s statement that he and the Qatari ruler will “be closely coordinating our strategies to bring about a more peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis." This statement confirms that the US is not happy with the unilateral, aggressive moves that Qatar has made thus far. The President appears to be stressing the new direction towards a “more peaceful resolution.”

The US administration cannot overlook or downplay the presence of al-Qaeda in Syria and its return to Iraq. It took the United States’ military, the most sophisticated fighting institution in the world, more than ten years to bring down the level of violence in Iraq - just down enough - to extricate itself from the mess the Bush administration had created. The invasion of Iraq is still fresh in the memory of Americans, most of whom now oppose any US military intervention in Syria. The Syrian military and security agencies will need at least ,as much time to bring the level of violence under control even with a political settlement that the regime might reach with most of the political and armed oppositions. Without doubt, al-Qaeda affiliates will not stop fighting in Syria because their fight is not against Assad. It is about re-establishing the caliphate as they understand it, and imposing Salafi dominion over all other religious and sectarian communities.

If the Syrian regime were to fall, the entire region will be destabilized. The first sign of this inevitable outcome is the increasingly violent confrontations in Iraq and Lebanon. Should the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Salafi allies) rise to power in Syria, Jordan, too, will be further destabilized. Syria, today, represents political and security challenges that will take generations to bring under control. Notwithstanding the repositioning of allies and foes, the outcome of the Syrian crisis, no matter what that might be, will certainly delimit the new Middle East in a way that will affect the entire world—not just Syria and the region.

The above opinions are the author’s, not those of the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

About the author

Ahmed E. Souaiaia teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice (State University of New York Press, 2010) and his most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam.