IDSA COMMENT

Syrian Turmoil: A Test for the US Position

May 23, 2012

With the entry of UN observers but the conflict still continuing, a look at the US position on Syria has become pertinent. Approximately 9000 people have been killed by violence between the rebels and government troops in Syria since March 2011. The current US position calls for the Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad to abdicate. Earlier, the Obama administration was trying to engage with Bashar-al-Assad and both the US and Israel were sanguine about peace on the Israeli border given Syria’s secular credentials. However, with the escalation and expansion of protests and resistance against Assad’s rule, other discourses became dominant in US strategic thinking and it began to press Assad to step down. By early August 2011, the American ambassador was talking of a post-Assad Syria. President Barack Obama said during an interview with NBC, "We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go…This is not going to be a matter of if, it's going to be a matter of when."1 The US closed down its embassy in Syria on 6 February 2012 amid reports of an intensifying military assault on the central city of Homs.2 This happened two days after a veto by Russia and China in the Security Council on the resolution backing an Arab Plan calling Assad to step down.

Consistent support for the Israeli cause largely determines the US-Syria relationship, which is further aggravated by the fact that Syria has been consistently in the Russian camp since the Cold War. Stability in the region is of fundamental interest to the US as it is important for energy supplies and safety of vital trade and strategic routes. The US is not in favour of any military intervention in Syria as this may destablise the region. President Barack Obama said in February that, “It is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention”.3 This restraint is because of the US’s unwillingness to expand its military liabilities by opening another front, inability to afford further negativity of image, and Syria being poor in oil and mineral resources. Several other strategic points are also to be noted regarding the US position.

Firstly, there is the sectarian angle in terms of the growing Shia-Sunni rivalry in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia fears an uprising under the influence of the Arab Spring in its Shiite dominated eastern provinces, which are proximate to Shia-majority Bahrain and Iraq. Adjoining Kuwait also has about 30 per cent Shia population. Iran, which is pitted against the US, also supports the Shiites in the region.4 The rise of Shiite sentiments is a threat to the Saudi position in the region. The US has no contention with Shiites per se but the disagreements on the nuclear issue with Iran and the tension with Syria due to concerns about Israel’s security have brought both Saudi Arabia and the US into a conflict of interests with the Shiite ruled countries. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are predominantly Sunni. Iran and Syria are the only two countries currently being ruled by Shiite elites while there is a Shiite majority government in Iraq. The Arab League is pressing on Syria because it feels a need to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Riyadh’s and Washington’s will to break the chain of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance, which opposes a two state solution to the Palestine issue, seems to be driving their positions. Israel joins in, since this will result in a weakened Hezbollah. Exerting pressure on Syria is an indirect tactic to pressurise Iran; Syria and Iran are dependent on each other for strategic support and depth in the region.

Secondly, there is a contradiction in the US interest of keeping the Islamists away from power in Syria and its position demanding Assad’s departure. It has taken this position despite the very real possibility of a radical Islamic government coming to power in Syria after Assad. It is still unclear what ultimately the US is going to get out of Assad’s fall. Perhaps, the thinking is that “a more Sunni Syria would distance the country from the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus and enhance Turkey’s influence way above Iran’s in the region”,5 thus causing a setback to the rising Shiite power under the leadership of Iran. The US seems to have pitched its hope at Turkey’s (a NATO member) influence in the form of friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterweight to Assad’s departure.

Thirdly, a diffused and divided Syrian opposition is a challenge in achieving the expected outcome. According to the US Department of State, “the opposition is quite diffuse”.6 Independent rebel groups in different regions are being led by locals. The opposition based outside the country is quite ignorant about the ground realities. The Syrian National Council (SNC) formed with the support of the West is spineless and its leaders are out of touch with the country and the people. The Council itself has shown rifts within. Three of its prominent leaders had ‘resigned in frustration’ saying that a fresh approach is required to the Syrian crisis. The SNC was supposed to become a government in exile but it is still ineffective and reluctant to ask for any outside military help.7 There is vehement opposition to the leadership of Burhan Ghalioun, who has announced that he will resign as soon as another leader is found to head the SNC. The Turkmen, Kurds, Islamists and Secular party have formed another coalition that would act independently from the SNC and advocate a more vigorous external role in the Syrian crisis. Recently, amidst huge differences and strife for legitimacy, a Syrian ‘transitional government’ has been set up in Paris by Nofal Dawalilbi whose father was the Syrian Prime Minister before the Baath party came to power. But the US still does not know who to deal with in this constellation of opposition groups.

Fourthly, the influence of Russia on Syria and Iran in the region is not favourable for US strategic interests. Assad’s stepping down will weaken and push Russia out of the region as Syria is Russia’s only ally and provides it a naval base in the Middle East. Russia is also keen on continuing its arms contracts with Syria worth billions of dollars. China is also trying to register its influence by exercising its veto on United Nations Security Council Resolutions. In fact, the region has become a battleground for Great Power interests.

In conclusion, some may refer to the US position as ‘masterful inaction’, while others call it an ‘abdication of traditional leadership role’. But the fact is that the US position is a calculated move to counter Iran and curtail its influence in the region. The problems in the implementation of this US approach are the absence of any credible secular substitute for Assad, a divided opposition, and deadlock in the Security Council. Perhaps, the US has assessed that it can handle the post-Assad Islamists and therefore has prioritised the Iranian nuclear issue over concerns about an Islamic Syria. For this, the US has chosen to work through the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The idea is that a new government in Syria would be a great blow to Iran’s influence. At the moment, the US knows that Assad is discomforting, but it is not quite sure whether it can force him to go. Another set of dynamics is emerging with the formation of the so-called ‘transitional government’ in exile even though the SNC enjoys diplomatic legitimacy among external and regional powers and groups. The transitional government’s emergence in Paris simultaneously with the French demand for use of force raises suspicions about the latent forces behind it. If the United Nations and Arab League endorsed Kofi Annan Six Point Peace Plan were to be successful in terms of Assad remaining in power, it would expose America’s miscalculations. But, if the violence continues, as is happening, even in the presence of UN observers and the Kofi Annan Plan fails, then the US position would be considered valid.

  1. 1. “US Closes Embassy in Syria”, available at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/201226144614367905.html, accessed on 20 March 2012.
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. “State Department on Suspending Embassy Operations in Syria”, available at http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2012/02/20120206113..., accessed on 20 March 2012.
  4. 4. Saeed Naqvi, “The Storm in the Arab Spring, ORF Discourse”, Volume 5, Issue 15, February 2012, at http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/modules/orfdiscourse/a..., accessed on 21 March 2012.
  5. 5. Ibid.
  6. 6. Daily Press Briefings: 19 March 2012, available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2012/03/186036.htm#SYRIA, accessed on 20 March 2012.
  7. 7. “Syrian Opposition Groups for New Coalition”, available at http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2012/03/201231863010494648.html, accessed on 22 March 2012.