29 July 2013

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


The people of Syria are not only facing a brutal civil war; they are paying the price for a variety of international power struggles now playing out in their territory. The worsening conflict, and the resulting refugee crisis, have exposed a lack of international diplomatic leadership in a region where many resent the US’s traditional role as policeman, but have not yet devised effective local alternatives.

A decade after the invasion of Iraq, it is that conflict that still shapes both US policy and public opinion towards Syria. Obama was elected promising a different foreign policy approach to George W. Bush—the President has no democratic mandate to launch another Middle Eastern conflict. He has explicitly spoken of a 'pivot' towards Asia, at a time when China poses the biggest challenge to the global role of the US, and when the US is hoping to be less dependent on imported oil.

This raises questions about the sustainability of the existing political and security system in the Middle East, which has largely been shaped by the period of US unipolar dominance that started with the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, just as the Cold War was ending. A decade later, Iraq and the Gulf marked another turning point as the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation began to expose the limits of US power in the Middle East. Yet there is still nothing to replace US leadership.

Divisions within the UN Security Council mean it is hamstrung over Syria. Meanwhile, rising powers like China, India and Brazil have little appetite to imitate the US role in the region; they see the US's military and diplomatic engagement as costly and unpopular, and would prefer to be more neutral in the region's various conflicts. As was mentioned in a recent Chatham House meeting with Chinese experts on the Middle East, 'China sees the Middle East as the graveyard for great powers'.

Within the region, the Arab League is still moribund. Turkey, a non-Arab power that initially made itself popular by supporting both the Arab uprisings and the Palestinian cause, has run into its own problems over Syria. And the Gulf Co-operation Council, the bloc of six Gulf monarchies, represents a minority in the Arab world, even if it is a wealthy one. As the conflict in Syria escalates into a direct confrontation between Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other, the Gulf countries have neither the military force to strike a decisive victory on their own, nor the political will to negotiate a compromise with their enemies. Rather, the international dimension of the conflict has escalated sharply since the game-changing moment when the Iran-allied Lebanese Shia militia and political party Hizbollah explicitly stated it was fighting in Syria, which prompted Sunni clerics from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to call for 'jihad' in the country.

Two Congressional committees have given the go-ahead for the Obama administration to start arming the Syrian opposition, though they expressed a variety of 'concerns' and 'reservations'. US media reports have suggested US special forces had already been training Syrian fighters to use arms donated by Arab allies since November 2012. Echoing the notion of 'leading from behind' in Libya, this is an indirect intervention for the age of austerity; rather than sending in troops, today’s tendency is to support regional allies who are working with local opposition fighters, but with limited control over exactly who those allies work with.

Where the Iraq war was legitimized by a variety of grand, if ultimately disastrous, narratives that promised to bring democracy, freedom and even Israeli-Palestinian peace, the regional discourse around Syria has moved from Arab spring revolutionaries fighting for freedom to an increasingly nasty and zero-sum sectarian politics–partly because there are still few regional players who can claim to stand for democracy and freedom themselves.

This article originally appeared in Prospect and is republished here with their kind permission.