The Syrian Pawn on the Middle Eastern Chessboard

Why the Syrian crisis will continue

The Syrian crisis is entering its fifth year, at a time when many western countries are reconsidering and revaluating their military, security and political policies towards the Middle East following the assassination of journalists at Charlie Hebdoin Paris.

The gravity of the incident confirmed to the world’s policy makers that the policy of anticipation that aims to turn Syria into a holocaust for all terrorists only transformed the Syrian crisis from a regional crisis to a global issue that is extending to the usually safe European countries.

Nowadays, terrorists have a base with a myriad of possibilities through which they receive training, funding and all forms of logistical coordination and support, starting from polarisation and recruitment and ending with carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe.

The moving scene of the gathering of presidents and royalty representing more than forty countries in Paris does not only signify solidarity with France, but also a new understanding of the nature of the crisis, which could lead to a reform in western policies towards Syria. However, the fact that US President Obama has not participated in the demonstration conveys an implicit message of his lack of desire to lead real change in his policy towards Syria. Put more accurately, it shows his lack of desire in adopting an active policy in Syria, as the US administration has a very specific policy towards what needs to be done in Iraq to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This is only to relief itself from the sense of responsibility towards a country; the US has undermined its foundations in the past. In relation to Syria, the US does not have a tailored strategy except for the policy of anticipation and urging regional parties to arrive at understandings among themselves that would alleviate the crisis without risking the infrastructure of the Syrian state, without direct US military intervention.


However, regional powers remain strikingly divided. While Iran is still providing the Syrian regime with all its life support for continuation, the strength and stability of the Syrian regime is not Iran’s priority anymore. Iran’s main priority has become creating and forming strong local militias capable of protecting its interests, regardless of who is in power in Damascus. Several pieces of information that have come through the Assad’s military and security apparatus confirms the increase in the privatisation of Shite militia in Syria and the direct and central link between them and the Iranian Revolutionary guards, without a hierarchical Syrian leadership. This reflects that Iran does not believe in al-Assad’s capacity to remain in power under the current circumstances. For that reasons, these militias will constitute Iran’s military arm, which can weaken and destabilise the security of any new government or regime following the demise of al-Assad. The militias will also be used as a winning card in the game of negotiations and exchange of interests between regional and international powers, especially that it has proven effective in Lebanon and Yemen.

Despite everything, Iran still insists in all its political meetings and through the messages conveyed through its convoys that Bashar al-Assad is a redline, and that a political solution cannot be envisaged without him, at least in the early stages of a political solution. Iranian leadership wishes to see an allying Syrian government, which is on friendly terms with Iran and capable of giving legitimacy to the Shite militias widespread in a Sunni dominated country. Observers of internal Iranian political affairs attribute Iran’s continuing allegiance to al-Assad to fear of leaving an impression among its allies that it can easily give them up during the negotiation stages. In addition to that, the issue of keeping al-Assad in power has become a matter of national and religious pride within the Iranian internal discourse. It is important to mention that Iran is the only regional party, which systematically glorifies its achievements in Syria with time. Therefore, it remains the main beneficiary from the continuity of the crisis, as it utilises time for its own benefit to change reality on the ground to serve its own interest on the medium and long runs.

Saudi Arabia

Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, are still insisting that a political solution begins with the deposition of Bashar al-Assad. However, Saudi Arabia has conveyed its acceptance of the continuation of security and military control over life in Syria under Alawite leadership. Although Saudi Arabia funds some Salafi brigades, it is interested in founding a secular political system in Syria that is disconnected from political Islam, which could constitute a threat to its legitimacy of Saudi’s representation of Islam internationally, or that could provide an alternative that combines Islam and modernity similar to that in Turkey. A similar system could also offer an attractive alternative for active Saudi and Arab youth desiring to join modernity and development in the world. The support provided to Salafi brigades in Syria is aiming to preserve a minimum ability to affect the situation on the ground in Syria in order to invest this ability in the political auctions over Syria.

In order to pressure Russia and Iran to accept a political solution unlike the Yemeni solution, the kingdom has been able to exert pressure through controlling oil prices effectively. However, the cost of the military Iranian intervention in Syria is considered little as it depends mainly on a number of Shiite volunteers and the training of local forces from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This could lead to real pressure on Russia, which can serve EU and US interest, but it will not push Iran to change its current policies towards Syria.  

Qatar and Turkey

Whereas Qatar and Turkey agree with Saudi Arabia on the importance of a political solution that excludes Assad, however, they disagree on most of the details. The Turkish government today is seeking to establish a neutral area in the north to become a home for refugees, and at the same time a home for the opposition, its institutions, civil society organisations, and aid organisations concerned with Syria. Turkey can relatively decrease the social and security impact of the presence of more than two million Syrians on its lands, through restricting political and operational activities related to Syria to this area located outside Syrian borders. Whereas achieving that will allow for some stability in these areas, this stability will lead displaced persons to return to these areas, and will revive life and the economy in these areas. This, in turn, will lead to rebuilding social and political structures allowing the creation of a social and civil leadership capable of representing and negotiating on behalf of the opposition in a real and a serious manner.

On the medium and the long runs, this advancement could lead to the establishment of political Syrian institutions capable of representing and providing services to the people, and able to form an alternative regime to the Assad. It is important to mention that there is no justification for the bombardment of more than one third of Aleppo, except for Al-Assad’s desire to not allow areas outside his control to enjoy a state of stability. This is due to his belief that a state of calm and stability in these areas is the only way towards building new social and political institutions in these areas. Stability in the north could pave the way for the emergence of new social and political leadership representing these areas, and capable of offering an alternative and capable of engaging in real negotiations with other parties.

Syria: Where to?

Regional countries involved in the situation have different and contradictory visions about a political solution that can satisfy the interests of all parties and lead to an end to the state of war in Syria. This contradiction hinder the international forces from playing a mediatory role between warring parties, which can satisfy Iran and that would be accepted by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In the meanwhile, Syrian opposition institutions lost most of their ability to affect and play a political role and even to come up with political initiatives, which transformed the Syrian crisis into a regional and international conflict taking place in Syria and taking its toll on the population.Syrians have transformed from a pawn that can affect the game of the nations to the spot itself where nations are playing their games.

Based on this, most research centres and politicians confirm that the Syrian crisis will last for years, as long as international and regional powers remain involved in light of the lack of the opposition’s ability to influence them efficiently. This will remain the case unless a sudden fundamental change takes place among one of the parties involved in the conflict, which could lead to an unexpected change on the ground. Only then, the conflict and its tools will shift, but the crisis will linger on in a different shape.


  The Arabic version is availabl under the follwing link: Click here.