The sudden heightened rhetoric on the events in Syria by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League is unlikely to change how the situation in the country unfolds. However, it marks an important shift in the place and wider role of Syria and other states in the wider Middle East.
The most significant of trends is probably the more aggressive or assertive role of regional actors, as international players find that they have very limited means of influencing Syrian government actions. This is linked to the slow transformation of Syria from a leading actor that often defined key political realities around the Middle East, into a more passive player whose domestic troubles have suddenly clipped its regional wings.
The third big change is Syria’s sudden vulnerability at home, causing other regional powers to start working more diligently to either protect their interests or to make sure they are well positioned to take advantage of any forthcoming changes in Syria.
All of this has happened in just over four months. However, it is in fact the delayed and inevitable consequence of four decades of autocratic rule where the extended Assad family, security services and business interests badly gutted and corrupted Syria’s governance institutions. This helped expose the hollowness and weaknesses of the ruling edifice once a domestic challenge erupted. Syria’s ruling establishment remains strong and broadly unified for now, but its end is certain if it uses no other means than military force to respond to the populist national uprising that challenges it.
Three major regional players – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – are now actively working in different ways to secure their strategic interests by trying to influence events in Syria. Israel presumably also is keeping an eye on things there, but its capacity to intervene is much smaller for now. This extraordinary spectacle of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran focusing on Syria is not yet a bevy of vultures hovering over the wounded Syrian body – but it is the first step toward that. All the countries see trends signaling change, and for different reasons they want to influence these to suit their preferences.
Iran wants to keep the Syrian system in place, because its close relationship with Syria (as well as Iran’s links to Hezbollah in Lebanon) represents the one and only foreign policy achievement of the Iranian Islamic revolution. This is presumably why Saudi Arabia and the GCC, who fear more Iranian influence in the Arab world, have spoken out against Syrian government policy and asked President Bashar Assad to pursue political reforms – however lacking in credibility or sincerity is such a message from Gulf monarchies.
Saudi Arabia has been leading the Arab official tide to hold back the wave of populist democratization propelling the street revolts across the Middle East. It must calculate that it has more to lose from continued Iranian influence in the Arab world than it has to lose from Arab democratic reforms; so it works diplomatically (and presumably behind the scenes by assisting some Islamist anti-Assad forces) to weaken both Syria and Iran’s regional conduit via Damascus.
Last summer, Saudi Arabia was working closely with Syria on several issues, including stabilizing conditions inside Lebanon. Today, Saudi Arabia seems to have decided to pressure the Damascus regime, if not also to actively change it. Arab politics, like politics everywhere, can be a fickle and tempestuous beast.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria is the most intriguing. Turkey has several direct economic, security, humanitarian and diplomatic interests in its bilateral ties with Syria, and has proved willing in the past to throw its weight around in the region, including militarily, to secure its national interests. Turkey’s economic and political development in the past several decades has been one of the few regional success stories, and now Ankara is being tested on its diplomatic prowess. It says it has not ruled out joining the Western, and now increasingly Arab, trend toward imposing greater sanctions on Syria to push it to use political rather than military tools to respond to its domestic challenges. The trouble with everyone’s approach is that Syria, like Iran, has proved to be stubbornly resistant to external diplomatic or economic pressures ever since the U.S. unilaterally initiated sanctions almost a decade ago.
For now, the most interesting and historically important aspect of the situation in Syria is less the behavior of the top-heavy, security-based Assad regime – an endangered global species – and more the continued awakening of regional powers intervening in Syrian affairs more openly, as major global powers watch the people and regimes of the Middle East (still two different phenomena in most countries) retake control of their destinies.