The regional struggle for Syria

Two years after the beginning of an uprising against President Bashar-al-Assad, Syria is gripped by an ever deepening civil war that is having a significant impact on the entire region.  

This article forms part of ECFR's “Syria: Views from the Region” project, exploring the regional responses and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. A new ECFR report includes eight essays documenting the dynamics driving the key regional states and actors most affected by the conflict.

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Two years after the outbreak of a largely peaceful uprising, Syria has fallen into a deep civil war that is increasingly drawing in regional actors. While the battle on the ground continues to be predominantly fought by Syrians, neighbouring powers have a growing stake in the conflict, providing important patronage to the warring parties as part of a broader regional struggle. This confrontation has drawn in Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in support of the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey behind the rebels. Other players, including Jordan, the Kurds, and Israel, are active in pursuit of narrower interests. Violent tensions are now spreading out beyond Syria’s porous borders and the risk of a regional conflagration is growing.

While regional players have been active in Syria since the early months of the conflict in 2011, the intensity of their involvement has clearly escalated in recent months. In June, Hezbollah fighters played a key role in helping President Bashar al-Assad seize the strategic town of Qusair and, together with Iranian advisors, have now assumed a greater role in facilitating regime efforts. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey remain the key sponsors of the rebel movement, providing it with arms and finance. There is also a growing cohort of foreign militants – from across the region and beyond (including from the Central Asian–Caucasus region, the AfPak theatre, and Europe) – fighting on behalf of the rebels. According to one credible estimate, the number of these fighters now stands at five thousand. Recent calls by leading regional religious figures, including the influential Qatar-based cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for a Sunni jihad in Syria will fuel this flow.

At the same time, neighbouring states are feeling the chill winds of violent destabilisation with increasing frequency. Attacks in Iraq killed more than one thousand people in May, the largest figure since the height of the civil war and an upsurge partly attributed to revived Sunni militancy linked to the Syria conflict; in Lebanon, clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups are now happening on a near daily basis and the country is teetering on the edge of a deep abyss; and in Turkey, two car bombs in May killed 46 people in the town of Reyhanli, which sits along the Syrian border, the country’s largest terrorist attack in recent history. Meanwhile, of deepening concern for almost all of Syria’s immediate neighbours, the flow of refugees continues, seemingly without end. Lebanon, a country of four million, already hosts up to one million Syrian refugees. Jordan and Turkey host another half a million each, Iraq more than 150,000, and, further afield, Egypt has also received 300,000 Syrians. The associated political and economic strains could, quite simply, prove overwhelming, and although all of the states are trying to limit new arrivals, they keep on coming. No neighbour remains unaffected. Even Israel – not a destination for refugees – faces new threats emanating from its de facto border with Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.                                     

In this context, this series of essays charts the interests of the key regional players and aims to deepen understanding of the forces shaping the regional dimension of the conflict. The battle for Syria has morphed into a regional conflict, drawing in multiple and competing ambitions and sending out increasingly destabilising ripples. There will of course be no end to the fighting in Syria until domestic actors reach some degree of common accord. But, short of a comprehensive understanding of the motivations driving increasingly influential regional actors, efforts aimed at charting a path out of violence are likely to continue to falter.

Iraq and the regional order

Given the maelstrom of competing ambitions, it is hard to identify one overarching narrative guiding regional involvement in the conflict.The fact that the warring parties and their backers largely break down along communal lines – Assad tied to regional Shia forces and the rebels to Sunni actors – makes it easy to assume that Syria and the region are engaged in a religious war driven primarily by identity politics. And indeed the reality is that the sectarian dimension has developed into the most powerful discourse, assuming a strong imaginative hold over actors, state and non-state, that is directly fuelling the escalatory dynamic of conflict and sharpening polarisation across the entire region.

However, the picture laid out in these essays is that the regional battle over Syria has emerged out of a more conventional struggle for regional hegemony, driven by geopolitical ambitions of a worldly nature rather than celestial differences over religious beliefs. Sectarian prejudices and ambitions animate most of the actors identified in this series, but regional engagement in Syria is first and foremost a product of strategic ambitions. These dynamics can be traced back to the 2003 Iraq War, which, by upending the existing regional balance, set in motion a new competition for regional hegemony – played out in sectarian guises and now coming to a devastating head in Syria. While many observers ask whether the fall of Saddam Hussein planted a democratic seed that bore fruit in the Arab uprisings of 2011, it is in fact the destructive forces unleashed by the Iraq conflict that are now playing out most powerfully across the region.

Viewed through a regional lens, the Iraq War disrupted the existing order. With Saddam used by regional and Western actors in the 1980s as a bulwark against Iranian post-revolution expansionary influence and, later, cornered alongside Iran as part of a strategy of dual containment, the collapse of the Ba’ath order and its eventual replacement by forces aligned with Tehran helped precipitate a wider shift in regional influence in favour of Iran and its so-called resistance axis – Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Following Iran’s success in Iraq, these forces cemented their sway in other contested areas, including Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, the occupied Palestinian territories (with Hamas winning Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006 and then excluded from a West Bank role but assuming sole control of Gaza), while also establishing broad popular support across the region. In one 2008 poll, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar al-Assad, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged as the three most popular regional leaders among Arab public opinion.

This emerging material and ideological strength came at the expense of traditional regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, which felt increasingly threatened by Iran’s growing influence and pushed back with its support of opposition forces in Lebanon and Iraq, cementing an effective regional cold war with Tehran. The regional alternative to the resistance axis was handicapped in several ways, namely by its strong relationship with the deeply unpopular United States, its lack of a mobilising raison d’être (described as the region’s “moderates”, they had no counter-narrative to sell), and by weak political leadership (Egypt under Hosni Mubarak could not assume that role, and neither could the Saudi gerontocracy, while Qatar at that time assumed more of a mediating role between camps). 

As part of these changing regional dynamics, identity politics – and specifically the struggle between Sunnis and Shias – assumed growing prominence. In Iraq, the crucible of this confrontation, battle lines for control of the state broke down clearly along sectarian lines – with Sunnis mobilising to defend their dominant state position under Saddam and Shias looking to reverse their longstanding marginalisation. A decade of communal conflict in Iraq fuelled a sectarian framing that gained wider regional sway, particularly as the pivotal animosity between Riyadh and Tehran also allowed for a neat Sunni–Shia divide. Over the past decade Sunni actors, both state and, more importantly, non-state localised actors in places such as Tripoli in northern Lebanon and Fallujah in north-west Iraq, have grown increasingly resentful of the growing ascendency of Shia forces at their expense. By 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan was already referring to a threat from an emerging “Shia crescent” of power.

The regional cold war

Ten years on, these forces have now come full circle in Syria with devastating consequences. While Syria’s fight remains a struggle largely fought by Syrians focused on their own ambitions, the desire of regional players to inject themselves into the conflict and the willingness of domestic actors to turn to external patronage has paved the way for a broader confrontation. The proxy element of the Syria conflict militates against de-escalation, fatigue, and deal-making; it has become the epicentre of the regional cold war, assuming a more deadly form than ever and becoming an arena that each side has defined as a “must not lose”. While victory may prove elusive, decisive defeat cannot be accepted.

Ironically, this new regional power play is taking place as the US under President Barack Obama draws down its war efforts in the region, pivots away from the region, and places greater focus on “nation building at home”. While Obama was not responsible for rupturing the regional geopolitical balance, the vacuum that has emerged as a result of his less gung-ho approach towards the Syria conflict is encouraging this regional jostling.

This was not the case when the Syrian uprising broke out, in March 2011. Regional players at first viewed it through the lens of the Arab uprisings then sweeping across the region, provoking caution rather than support, particularly among Gulf states fearful that instability might seep into their own kingdoms. These states, as well as Turkey, initially responded by reaching out to Assad, hoping to persuade him to appease the street with limited reforms and thereby maintain domestic stability and his position in power. However, as Hassan Hassan demonstrates in his piece on the Gulf, with Assad rapidly embracing a policy of repression – and drawing closer to Tehran – in short order Saudi Arabia and Qatar came to view the conflict through a broader strategic lens and turned their focus towards regime change.

Given the regional power shift generated by the Iraq War, Sunni Gulf powers, rapidly emerging as the main backers of the rebels, came to see the battle for Syria as an opportunity to push back against expanded Iranian influence. Suddenly the prospect loomed of dealing the resistance axis a dramatic setback in Syria and, by virtue of its strategic status at the heart of the Levant and close political and sociological linkages with its neighbours, of opening up similar possibilities in Lebanon and Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Iran and Hezbollah simultaneously shored up their own material support for Assad, intent on preserving their post-Iraq War strategic advantages. In the analysis of Jubin Goodarzi on Iran, there was never much doubt that Tehran would offer Assad full backing despite having supported regional uprisings elsewhere. The response of the Gulf states, together with the hard anti-Assad line taken by the West, confirmed Iran’s worst fears that the position of Sunni powers was as much about weakening it as it was Assad.

Of course, the humanitarian imperative, driven by popular pressure, certainly plays a role in shaping policy, particularly for neighbouring states. As Julien Barnes-Dacey explains, both Lebanon and Jordan are struggling under the immense economic – and associated political – pressures imposed by dramatic refugee flows. But, despite the savage brutality of the conflict, the regional states driving the conflict – the Gulf and Iran – quite simply would not have enlisted with such fervour had the strategic ramifications not been so enticing or threatening. Contrast the regional response to Syria with that directed towards Bahrain, where a 2011 (and ongoing) crackdown against popular protests – though this time with a Sunni monarchy facing down a Shia majority demanding change – enjoyed strong support and for which protesters gained little regional sympathy, let alone material backing.

This being said, it would be wrong to solely attribute regional involvement in Syria to this broader strategic confrontation or to so neatly break the struggle down into two monolithic blocs. While it is clear that those supporting and opposing Assad share certain overarching strategic ambitions, there are also rivalries within the competing camps and the pursuit of narrower interests that are making the conflict even harder to unravel. Most notably, as Hassan makes clear, Gulf states, while waging a battle against Assad and his regional axis, are also engaged in a struggle for influence among themselves – one that is working to the detriment of the anti-Assad cause. Riyadh and Doha, in particular, back different elements of the opposition, seeking to develop proxies that will give them the ascendancy in a potential post-Assad Syria. Qatar, like Turkey, has cultivated the Muslim Brotherhood and shown a willingness to facilitate more radical jihadist groups, while Saudi Arabia, long fearful of the potentially destabilising impact of both groups, backs more politically conservative Salafis and, increasingly, so-called moderates. Clashes on the ground between anti-Assad forces are growing in frequency.

Meanwhile, Turkey, itself looking to see an allied, Islamist alternative to Assad in Syria, is also pursuing more than one agenda. It remains focused on limiting the potential for Syrian Kurds to secure autonomy, concerned that this would offer a new springboard for political and military support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This would, as Nuh Yilmaz identifies, represent a potentially game-changing challenge to Turkey’s national interests, and it has been an important reason behind Ankara’s recent decision to advance peace talks with the PKK. It has also, however, been a source of tension between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish opposition groups, further weakening the chances for achieving a more inclusive opposition front.

Assad’s external backers, by contrast, have undoubtedly shown greater unity and commitment. Iran and Hezbollah, in particular, share a common purpose in restoring the strength of the resistance axis (from which Hamas has gradually backed away). However, the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is more conflicted. Up until the start of the uprising in Syria, Maliki viewed Assad as a cause of instability in Iraq and relations between the two countries were frosty at best. Maliki, meanwhile, though in part beholden to Tehran for his premiership, has long been resentful of Iranian influence in Iraq. Hayder al-Khoei makes clear in his piece on Iraq that there is now no ambiguity regarding Maliki’s support for Assad, based on his fears that the Sunni-dominated uprising is feeding resurgent Sunni militancy in Iraq. Al-Khoei explains that this position should not be confused with ideological affinity with Assad or blind loyalty to Iran. It is a pragmatic decision based on Maliki’s own reading of his map of security concerns and interests. 

This array of actors has forged a combustible mix that risks destabilising the entire region and that is coming together most dangerously in the form of a rampant new sectarianism given the links between Assad and Shia powers and the rebels and Sunni forces. While Assad has clearly manipulated communal dynamics with immensely destructive cynicism, and his backers are now mobilising regional Shia forces, Turkey and the Gulf have also not been shy in exploiting sectarian dynamics to strengthen the anti-Assad camp. And, as in Iraq post-2003, the unleashing of identity politics has assumed an escalatory cycle of its own, setting in motion an unprecedented degree of religious polarisation that is destabilising nearby states with mixed communal populations.

If, at one level, a number of countries are drivers in shaping the regional conflict – namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran – a second group finds itself being sucked into the conflict. Lebanon and Iraq both have internal dynamics that mirror those of Syria – the two countries are politically divided along sectarian lines with Sunni populations resentful of perceived Shia ascendancy – and fears are growing of similar violent implosions, particularly given that both Iranian and Gulf actors view them as part of the broader strategic battlefield. While both states continue to display resilience – in part because of their recent respective experience of devastating civil wars – the risk of renewed sectarian conflict is growing. At the same time, localised assertions of communal power are increasingly challenging the ability of central governments to exert central control, a scenario that potentially threatens the Levant with widening political fracture over the coming years.

Here it seems that the short-term strategic goals of the main regional sponsors of this descent into the abyss – on both sides – are calculated to outweigh these risks. For the likes of Iran and the Gulf states this partly reflects a perceived safety borne out of geographical distance from the conflict zone. However, it also reflects the strategic importance of the conflict for both sides, which for the Iranian regime in particular may also have assumed an existential tinge. The different authors show that for these actors, as for Turkey, too much has now been invested to easily backtrack and increasingly this may be blinding them to ongoing miscalculations. Zero-sum ambitions are serving to entrench opposing positions, and great power politics are arguably accentuating the destructive dynamic. On the one hand, Europe and the US have lined up in support of the rebels and the necessity of Assad’s demise, feeding dreams of victory while offering them very little in material support to bring it to bear.Russia, on the other hand, has made clear its absolute determination to ensure that the West cannot engineer regime change in Syria, providing Iran with room to continue backing Assad without trepidation.

To this picture a third group of countries should be added – the remaining neighbours who are concerned by more parochial interests, primarily security and stability at home, as in the case of Jordan and Israel, but also, for the Kurds, with securing deeper autonomy given the emerging vacuum of power within Syria. These states are charting independent paths. To the south, Amman is more concerned with its own stability than with the fate of Assad, argues Barnes-Dacey. While they may recently have opened their borders to weapons flows in support of the rebels, this comes out of a desire not only to ensure that jihadist extremists do not gain ground in southern Syria but also to try to stem the refugee flow. It also reflects a desire to gain favour from the Gulf states and especially to benefit from their economic largesse. The Hashemite Kingdom, however, has not set its sights on a strategic reworking of the region; its focus remains more narrowly fixed on supporting any form of transition that would safeguard its own stability.

Israel, meanwhile, fears that Syria, having long been a docile enemy, could emerge as a lawless home to jihadist forces that might target it. However, as Dimi Reider explains, Tel Aviv also sees profit in the conflict through the weakening of Iran and its resistance axis. For the moment, it remains uncertainly caught between these two strategic goals and more focused on ensuring that its immediate security interests are protected (notably when it comes to arms transfers) through an ongoing willingness to tactically intervene in the conflict where it sees fit, including with direct military strikes.

Syrian Kurds, on the other hand, are faced with hostility from multiple sides. Neither Turkey nor any other prominent actor in the Syrian conflict wishes to see greater autonomy for the Kurds in Syria. While the retraction of the Syrian state in Kurdish areas has provided the Kurds with an opportunity to assert greater control there, it has also left these areas more vulnerable to contestation from other groups. For this reason, as Dimitar Bechev argues in his essay on the Kurdish position, Syrian Kurds face a crucial question: which power centre – the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq or the PKK – should take the lead in helping to secure their long-sought interests of greater autonomy in Syria?

No peace without regional accord

In this context, hope for a regional push towards ending the conflict remains elusive. Left to their own devices, the driving parties, notably Iran, the Gulf, and Turkey, but also the likes of Hezbollah and Iraq, show little short-term propensity towards encouraging de-escalation. Instead, regional parties continue to invest ever more deeply in the conflict, even as the cost to Syria and the region rises exponentially – fuelling intensifying violence within Syria and widening destabilisation across the region.

Despite the current trajectory, however, some form of regional understanding, a “grand bargain” of sorts, remains an almost certain pre-requisite of any successful attempt to move towards a dampening of the violence, a preservation of the Syrian state, and regional containment. Unless foreign parties decide to press their allies within Syria towards the negotiating table – a hard sell even were there to be a regional move in that direction – there is little hope of progress in stemming levels of violence. Given the strength of regional support on both sides of the fight, driven by the strategic and even existential concerns outlined in these essays, an absolute victory for either side remains a highly unlikely alternative means of ending the conflict. Hardening attempts to secure total victory will only provoke an intensified counter-response. Prolonged warfare, division, and the de facto break-up of Syria are more likely.

The interests outlined in these essays make clear that a regional deal would require a recalibration of the ambitions and cost-benefit assessment motivating the key regional actors in the conflict. For any chance of success, regional actors will need to accept that there is unlikely to be an absolute regional winner in Syria and that a compromise deal offers the best way to protect their own most vital interests – themselves potentially more threatened by how far an unpredictable cycle of violence could go. Such an agreement would probably see Syria initially emerge as a shared sphere of influence, through, for instance, a domestic power-sharing agreement that draws in all sides, a step that would represent a significant climb-down for both domestic and regional actors.

It is also clear that all regional players will have to be part of the solution. There is little prospect of finding a deal if key actors with substantial interests are sidelined. Attempts to exclude Iran from any proposed talks, as desired by Saudi Arabia and some Western actors, are therefore a sure way of dooming any political process to failure. It is precisely because of Iran’s deep interests in Syria, and its key material backing for Assad, that it must have a place at the table. While including Iran will not in itself deliver co-operation or compromise, its exclusion will result in a continued willingness to play a substantial spoiler role.

Meanwhile, the risk of regional contagion calls out for sustained regional and international focus. While Lebanon and Iraq are the states most immediately at risk of spillover violence, deepening sectarian polarisation threatens to contaminate the entire region and cement long- term destabilisation. Unless regional states act to contain the Syria crisis by providing greater support to neighbouring states and look to isolate them from, rather than draw them into, the strategic battlefield, while also working to stem the flow of sectarian incitement, the conflict will surely seep out across the region.

To date, more than anyone else, it has been the two joint United Nations–Arab League envoys for Syria, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, who have best recognised the importance of this form of regional accord. Their efforts, particularly Geneva I and II, have been built around the need to draw in the key regional actors in support of a political process, both as a critical means of securing the necessary buy-in to give diplomacy a chance in Syria, but also as a means of preventing wider implosion. However, these efforts have been continually frustrated, even undercut, by the unwillingness of regional and global actors to meaningfully support such an approach. Instead, outside states have continued to pursue a maximalism that translates into supporting their allies with political, financial, and military cover, thereby contributing to the intensification and prolongation of violence.

It is precisely for this reason that diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalation should be encouraged as the least bad option for all regional actors at this stage and pursued with renewed vigour. While the odds of near-term success remain slim, recent regional leadership changes perhaps offer the beginnings of an opportunity for a shift in trajectory. In Iran, the election of Hassan Rouhani as president offers a momentary possibility to change the regional optics driving the Syria conflict, even if the Syria file does not sit within his hands. As made clear in these essays, the strategic rivalry between Iran and its Gulf neighbours has been a key reason for the apparent intractability of the conflict, and Rouhani’s election could represent an opening to dampen these tensions. Rouhani has at least stated that a priority will be mending fences with the Gulf and, if pursued, this could play a significant role in softening the zero-sum ambitions driving regional escalation. Meanwhile, the coming to power of a new emir in Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, may herald a recognition of over-reach in foreign policy, which could in turn soften Doha’s maximalist ambitions in Syria. Doha was caught off-guard in Egypt when a military coup removed its ally, President Mohammed Morsi, and its favoured sons recently lost the leadership of the Syrian opposition; a Qatari rethink would provide a much-needed building block of any diplomatic efforts, given its central role in support of the opposition.

With the stakes so high, these diplomatic openings, small as they are, and the Geneva II initiative raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in May, should be energetically probed and supported by European states. For too long, the regional players, encouraged by their global allies, have sought to use Syria as a playground for the pursuit of their own perceived interests to the detriment of the Syrian people and regional well-being. If there is to be any hope for Syria and wider stability, this dynamic must urgently be reversed.

A new ECFR report – The regional struggle for Syria – explains the competing interests and ambitions of the key regional players (Click here to download). Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy also published  – Syria: The imperative of de-escalation –  which argues that the only way to deal with the conflict is to forge a broader political process that draws in all regional parties.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
President, US/Middle East Project

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