Syrians caught in the middle

By: Stefan Koolen

 As the conflict continues in Syria, the international community remains divided. While rebels and allies of Al Qaida are fighting against mercenaries, terrorists, soldiers and against each other, the civilians are seemingly caught between the different interest of non-Syrian countries and groups. Apparently, different interests collide, and as a result overthrowing the current regime will most probably lead to a very explosive situation, carrying more violence due to the foreign interference.

Which foreign interest are probably at stake? First of all, Iran is a very close ally to the Syrian regime since the 1990’s. During the 1980’s, relations were mostly hostile. However, at this moment Iran seems to be strengthening its control in the region. After the war in Iraq – I purposely do not call it a revolution, although several were attempted in Iraq, the “liberation” of Iraq was not the result of a revolution – Iranian authority strengthened its influence through providing a remarkable support to the new –Shia- rulers. Iran now has a particular interest in Syria in order to (a) prevent the Sunni majority from gaining strength in the region and (b) to keep Hezbollah harassing Israel, Lebanon and other countries in the region in order to increase its (Shia oriented) power and weaken other (mainly not Shia oriented) countries.

Secondly, the Sunni dominated countries, basically led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar (possibly even Turkey), seek to stop Iranian (Shia) power in the region and expand their own. Similar to Iran, Sunni-led countries support the Sunni extremist organizations. For example, the Jabat al Nusra (al-Nusra Front), that is supported and connected with the Islamic State in Iraq (Al Qaida in Iraq) and with Al Qaida, most probably receives its support from those Sunni countries as do other groups affiliated with Al Qaida (NY Times, Cash Flow to Terrorists Evades U.S. Efforts, 5 December 2010).

Thirdly, Russia tries to keep its influence in Syria, but it seems that most of all they do not want others (such as the US) to gain any influence in the region. Most commentators do not consider the naval base as crucial. Notwithstanding the reasoning, it is obvious from the Russian attitude in the Security Council that Russia has an interest that is being defended. It is therefore logical to try to keep that interest, during a vacuum, whatever it may be precisely.

We can continue this list easily with the so-called western countries and with Turkey, who has to consider amongst others the Kurdish “issue”, economic interests and regional stability. The latter cannot be detached from the others.

The main problem is that the countries mentioned support either the Jihadist’s movements or the regime. If we consider a future without Assad and a divided opposition, the result will most likely be a power vacuum. In such a situation, the strongest and best organizaed claims power usually.

Before Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan experienced a vacuum of power. There is no reason to consider the events leading to a power vacuum as decisive for the prediction of its outcome. I think the interests at stake are decisive, especially the foreign interests.

Therefore, I agree with Fawaz Gerges (Professor of Middle East Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science), who in a recent interview with CNN (27 may 2013) – although he disliked the conclusion – concluded that peace talks are the best way out at the moment.

This conclusion also applies to the Syrian people. The reason is that, as shown above, a power vacuum will lead to chaos due to the different interest groups seeking to extend their power through violence. These powers are already present in Syria and do not obey the popular demand of the Syrian people. Other countries already proved this.

The reasoning that Syria is different from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is true but does not suffice, since the Syrians themselves have little influence on Al Qaida and Hezbollah or other terrorist groups. The intentions and opinions of the Syrians can easily be outweighed by foreign powers, if the latter choose – as they have up until today – to support a particular group for their own interest.

Unfortunately, relatively little terrorists are needed to disrupt a country, as shown in Iraq. Many Sunni’s arm themselves, the so called awakening councils (Sahwat), against Al Qaida in Iraq – which is an umbrella organization for several fractions who targets mainly Shia but also moderate Sunni’s. Relatively few Iraqis support groups like Al Qaida in Iraq, but not many are needed.

These groups are even more dangerous since ethnic tensions have risen in Syria and can be exploited by them. It is understandable that a part of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, victims or their families, will be seeking revenge, or at least will not disapprove the attack on the ethnic group associated with the regime or with the opposition.

The only way to prevent this scenario is a united Syria, or at least a united opposition with a popular support. The former is very unlikely since a civil war already shows that there is little unity at the moment. The opposition remains divided and terrorist groups are fighting alongside both sides, with no real insight in the popular support for the.

Although it may sound strange, Assad may not be the greatest enemy of the Syrians at this moment. He has maneuvered himself in a very dangerous but powerful position. A power vacuum is no option, neither is Assad’s continuing rule. It seems to me that the Syrians are caught in the middle.


Opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the view of ARA News.


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