Saturday, 13 October 2012

Syria: A Victim of Geo-Politics

Published Friday, October 12, 2012

The “Arab Spring” came to a halt in Syria, where an intransigent regime with powerful allies remains entrenched in power. With Russia and China obstructing numerous Western-backed resolutions targeting the Syrian state, the debate was no longer simply about Syria’s internal power struggle.
Instead, with their vetoes, Moscow and Beijing were saying that they too had interests in the Middle East which they were determined to protect, and that the region is not an exclusive Western preserve under the hegemony of the United States and its allies.

Essentially the Russian position and its unprecedented triple veto of the Syria resolutions were influenced by the Libya intervention. Russia and China were vehemently opposed to NATO intervention, as it exceeded its operational and legal mandate by arming the rebels and bombarding Gaddafi’s forces. Russia accused the US and its European allies of tricking fellow Security Council members and using a mandate to protect civilians as a cover for providing support to Libyan rebels and ousting Gaddafi. It was, in short, regime change.

Russia, which abstained from the 17 March 2011 vote authorizing the use of force in Libya and allowed it to pass, vowed not to let that happen again in Syria, a key weapons-export destination and host to Moscow's only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the US and Saudi Arabia lost a crucial ally in Yemen with the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh, further fueling the scramble to exert influence in the region.

The Arab world is now in a fragile phase, thus increasing its susceptibility to regional powers. Syria’s strategic geopolitical importance adds a new dimension to the escalating crisis with more external interests at stake. Russia, as the former superpower patron for traditional Arab nationalist states, played an important role in the region, and Syria is its last ally in the Arab world. Russia’s position toward the political upheaval both in Syria and the Arab world is determined by power: the power to emerge as a victor in the larger battle against the United States and to project resurgent Russian designs in an area which should naturally come under its sphere of influence. By working with Iran and Syria, Russia gains set goals in the region – politically, economically, financially and militarily – in order to reassert its hegemony, in the Cold War sense.

The Syrian president commands a number of keys which are imperative to the protection of the Syrian-Iranian axis. Firstly, he has powerful international friends such as Russia and China, who constitute a new bloc of power against US hegemony in the region. Secondly, Syria has acted as a loyal Russian ally for the last 40 years and accounts for approximately 10 percent of Russian arms exports – with Syria’s arms imports growing some 600 percent over the last five years. Russian and Chinese support at the UN Security Council has given Assad breathing space and has protected him from Western plans to topple his political system. It is likely that neither Russia nor China will abandon Syria, as they have fundamental interests at stake.

The Arab world is unambiguously going through a transition; the "Arab Spring" halted in Syria and the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council against resolutions targeting the Baathist state have re-initiated a near return to deadlocked Cold War politics, where US hegemony and interests clash with that of the other major international actors. The fundamental difference is that the world system is now a multi-polar system in progress, and the Middle East is a main battleground in this international struggle.

This current plethora of political manoeuvring resembles the Soviet Union-US proxy wars of yesteryear in the region. Apart from prolonging the regime’s de facto colonial status, it seems clear that the constant struggle for influence waged by the US and the Soviet Union effectively polarized and/or anesthetized political life in most Middle Eastern countries, encouraged the rise of military or military-backed regimes, and generally served to stunt or distort the growth of indigenous political institutions. In addition, the regional clients of the superpowers made generous contributions to the destabilization of the region by attempting to involve their patrons in various local conflicts.

The internationalization of Middle Eastern politics demonstrated by the growing importance of events in Syria has instigated a new trend of global interest in the region. Fuelled by rising oil prices, potential conflict and the looming prospects of war with Iran, Russian and Chinese solidarity with Syria can be described as evidence of a longstanding difference between Russia, China and many other countries, but particularly the West over the future of the world, especially in regions serving as a conduit for Sino-Russian influence and interests.

Ultimately the Middle East is separated into two camps: the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is an umbrella for all the Gulf States, allied with Turkey, Jordan and the Western powers; and Syria, Iran, and Lebanon (Hezbollah), who command political and military support from Russia, China and India. Israel’s position or balance of interests brings it to work indirectly with the GCC in undermining and threatening Iran. At the heart of this deadlocked system is an ideological struggle between Arabism and political Islam, and Syria is the current source of a regional and international struggle. No one state has managed to assume leadership over this fractured region which has inevitably led to the presence of many countries with medium strength functioning through the balance of powers or more accurately an alliance system which serves as a deterrent, especially for weaker states.

The "Syrian uprising", when placed in a regional and international context, portrays the reflection of a struggle between the Sunni Arab states and the status quo on a regional level, effectively acting as an arena for the clash of Saudi imperialism with Iranian imperialism. This provides the United States with the perfect opportunity to pursue “regime change” under the guise of human rights with the aim of overseeing the creation of a US/Israel friendly government as a replacement for a staunchly pan-Arab anti-imperialist state.

The political actions of regional states are essentially a facade, especially in the cases of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as higher stakes are at risk and symmetric imperialism in this region has fuelled a political crisis in Syria, which could have lasting implications on an ever violent region with global/regional interests at stake.

Perhaps we are witnessing an Eastern counterweight to the West’s hegemony, with Syria as the source and Russia as a main protagonist.

Danny Makki is a graduate in International Relations and founder of Syrian Youth in Britain and a member of the Syrian social club, a regular commentator on the Syria crisis.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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