Jun 24, 2013

    Players in Syria's proxy war

    Mr Ernesto Braam, the Netherlands' strategic policy adviser on North Africa and the Middle East, unravels for My Paper the complex geopolitics behind the proxy war in Syria.

    Which countries have been drawn into the conflict in Syria?

     First, there are neighbouring countries that are affected by the spillover from the conflict in Syria.

    Lebanon, particularly, is at risk because it has its own past of sectarian conflicts and there is a precarious balance between the different sectarian communities. There is a danger that the Syria conflict will ignite the tensions between those Lebanese communities.

     Also, Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah has sent a large number of troops to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's army in its fight against the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups.

    Another neighbour that is experiencing the spillover from the civil war in Syria is Iraq.

    Sunni Arabs - particularly in western Iraq's Anbar province, but also elsewhere - who as a minority feel disenfranchised by Shi'a Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, take courage from the Sunni-dominated uprising across the border in Syria. Also, jihadists from Iraq have joined the fight against Mr Assad.

    Qatar and Saudi Arabia support different opposition forces inside Syria, reportedly with money and weapons. However, they are not directly involved in the conflict.

    Turkey has major concerns about security in its border towns, and mortar shells from Syria have landed on its soil several times. The Turkish government wants Mr Assad to step down.

    Iran is a major ally of Mr Assad in the region and has been supporting the Assad regime in many ways.

    More from a distance, Syria has been a strategic partner of Russia in the Middle East since the old Soviet days, and a major purchaser of Russian weapons.

     Finally, Syria's neighbours have received hundreds of thousands of refugees, which puts a considerable financial and social burden on their shoulders. The humanitarian situation is grave.

    Who are the main non-state actors?

    There is a wide range of non-state actors involved in the conflict.

    The main opposition group, and interlocutor for the international community, is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Force. It has members from inside and outside Syria.

    The coalition includes local coordination committees (a network of activists and revolutionary councils).

    The main problem of the coalition is that it has so far not managed to include a sufficient number of Alawites and Christians in its organisation.

    With regard to armed opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army is the most prominent group. It is, in fact, an umbrella for former civilians who have taken up arms against the Assad regime.

     It also includes defectors from the Syrian army, as well as Islamists. However, the strongest and most effective armed group is Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

    The best-armed Kurdish group, which dominates the Kurdish- populated areas in the north and north-eastern area, is the Democratic Union Party. It currently sits on the fence, awaiting what will happen next.

     On the pro-government side, there is the Lebanese Shi'ite group, Hezbollah, fighting alongside the Syrian army.

     There are also the notorious "Shabiha", who are civilians armed by the Syrian government to crack down on the opposition. They use mafia-type methods and brute force.

    How have the sectarian differences in the region contributed?

    One of the most dangerous trends in the Middle East since the start of the Arab revolts is the increase in sectarian tensions, predominantly between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.

    Alawites have particular traditions and beliefs, but are generally accepted to be part of Shi'i Islam.

    Some politicians in this region purposely inflame such tensions by painting every conflict in terms of religion.

    Such people see the war in Syria as an opportunity to wrestle this country from under the influence of Shi'i Iran and deliver it into the hands of the Sunni majority. In their simplistic view, this is also an act of revenge for the "loss" of Iraq to Shi'ism.

    This propaganda battle does not recognise any shades of grey and overlooks the daily reality that many Sunni and Shi'a Muslims get along.

    Why do Iran and Hezbollah support the Assad regime?

     Iran, Syria and Hezbollah find each other in their antipathy towards the West - mainly the United States - and Israel, as well as towards countries in the region which they see as allies of the West.

    Both the Iranian and Syrian regimes have few friends in the region, and have supported Hezbollah with money and arms in its long confrontation with Israel.

    Iran does not want to lose its last big ally in the Middle East, while Hezbollah is dependent on supply lines that run through Syria.

    What do regional players achieve by supporting the Syrian opposition?

    Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to some extent, want to reduce Iran's influence in the region and see the Syrian war as an opportunity to get like-minded groups in a position of power in the future.

    All regional players have been positioning themselves in order to take maximum advantage of the shifting power balance in Syria. It has been a long time since such an opportunity has offered itself.

    It seems the war is spilling over to Lebanon and Iraq. Can you elaborate on this?

    Lebanon's fate is closely connected to Syria's. This has been the case throughout history. There are one million Syrians in Lebanon, of which about half are refugees and are a heavy burden on the fragile state institutions and economy of this small country.

    The influx of Syrians can also upset the precarious balance between Lebanon's different religious and ethnic groups. Hezbollah and Sunni militia are already involved on opposite sides in the Syrian war and, therefore, tensions between these groups are increasing inside Lebanon.

    The war in Syria is fuelling Sunni-Shi'a tensions inside Iraq. The 20 per cent Sunni Arab minority in Iraq feels discriminated against by Shi'a Prime Minister Al-Maliki. Also, violent Salafi jihadi groups in Iraq support their brethren in Syria.

    Who will be the biggest loser if the opposition wins/if Mr Assad wins?

    It is not conceivable that Mr Assad will stay in power in the long run.

    Allies Iran and Hezbollah will lose influence and support when Mr Assad falls. Russia stands to lose a strategic foothold in the Middle East.

    Why do you say that it is not conceivable that Mr Assad will stay in power in the long run?

    In the short run, it seems that Mr Assad will still hold out and make some gains on the battlefield.

    However, the battle lines are fluctuating. In the future, different scenarios could unfold. Increased pressure on the Assad regime, military advances by the opposition forces and defections from the Syrian army could all lead to a change within the regime itself.

    Another scenario would be a de-facto fragmentation of Syria along religious and ethnic lines.

    I would be surprised if Mr Assad is still the ruler of Syria in 10 to 15 years. The genie is out of the bottle in the Arab world and dictators, lacking legitimacy, will not stay on forever.

    What implications, if any, will there be for South-east Asia?

    I do not see any direct consequences for South-east Asia. I do not know whether anyone from South-east Asia is joining the Syrian civil war, as we see from Europe.

    That would be a worrying trend, as there is a danger - the size of which is unknown - that some of them might want to perpetrate acts of violence upon return to their home countries.

    We've seen this during and after the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. This is a concern, but not yet a reality.