Syria and American Intervention: New Kids on the Block
Over the past year, a decision on the questions of “if”, “when”, and “how” to become militarily involved in Syria, has moved slowly from obscurity towards potential clarity. Currently, President Obama is seeking the approval of Congress for any strike that may occur on what has been reported to be regime targets. The potential strike or strikes (we have little idea of what this would look like) would be to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future, according to the president. With the question of this tactical decision has arisen the question , by many, of long-term strategy. There is a plurality of views on what the strategy should be, if we should have one or not, and then further, what it should look like. What I want to do is address only the topic of actors and major players included in forming any Syria strategy.
The Unites States is not the only player. It is not new; and it has the least influence right now.
The uprising in Syria has been going on since March 2011. That summer, in 2011, is when it turned violent, becoming the most protracted armed conflict of the region’s uprisings. Over the past two and a half years, what happened in Lebanon during it’s own civil war has occurred in Syria. The chaos of the battlefield became cover for any party that desired to get a hand in on the action. The instability opened a door for geopolitical opportunism and agendas by foreign actors to be pushed through proxies. Right now, the US doesn’t own anyone is Syria. But Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sunni extremists, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia do.
The US has strategic interests in Syria. However, those interests cannot compete with the level of importance and ambition possessed by the interests of other parties involved.
Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East, thanks to a post-Cold War world. Syria is a minor energy producer as far as the region goes, holding modest oil and gas reserves. For Russia , one of the world’s largest energy producers, it is not so much what Syria sits on top of as much as it is where Syria sits. Russia’s nationalized natural gas company, Gazprom, is the largest producer of natural gas in the world. It is also the main supplier of LNG (liquified natural gas) to Europe.
In the Arabian Gulf, the world’s other natural gas giant, Qatar, sits on top of the largest proven natural gas field on earth. The North Dome field has turned the small peninsula kingdom into one of the richest countries in the world. That wealth has also allowed them to acquire greater political influence in the region in recent years. Bashar Assad’s control over Syria happens to be the one thing sitting between Qatar and a pipeline that could deliver Qatari LNG to the European market.
Qatar has been a strong supporter of the opposition, and one of the first, along with Saudi Arabia to send money and weapons to the Syrian rebels. For the past two years, the two gulf countries have been the largest supporters of the rebels in terms of money and arms. With what is at stake, Russia and Qatar are in for long-war to ensure the endgame swings in their favor.
The Sunni-Shia Divide
Increased political power, divided along religious lines, is perhaps the most prevalent goal among the host of parties that have joined the act of intervening in Syria. This is where things become muddled and complex. I say the divide is about political power, because at the core, that’s truly what it is. It happens to fall along sectarian, Sunni vs Shia, lines. However, the very nature of politics itself is sectarian. And not everyone asked for conflict to go that way. Several months back, a Syrian friend of mine remarked that he didn’t know members of his family in Syria spanned the spectrum of Sunni, Alawite, and Christian until some time into the uprising.
Syria is a Sunni majority country ruled by a minority regime, whose leadership ranks are filled with Alawites (a Shia offshoot, for lack of a better term). Iran and Hezbollah are trying to hold onto an important ally. For Iran, Syria is the only Arab country it has as an ally in its sphere of influence. The Shia majority Iraq is an unsettled matter. Hezbollah, more or less, takes guidance from its benefactor, Iran. If you listen to the rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, it is filled with religious language. He voices concern over the fate of Shia brothers and sisters in Syria that is not devoid of some level of sincerity. There is a personal element to the war for Sunnis and Shias, enough that it is already causing conflict by extremists inside Lebanon.
For Sunni nations, or kingdom in the case of Saudi Arabia, the removal of the Assad regime would mean another Sunni ally in the Middle East and increased influence and power in the region. For Saudi, it would greatly bolster their position against Iran in regards to security and regional politics. Iran would no longer have influence in the Arab League, and lose a pre-paid Syrian vote at the United Nations.
All of the groups mentioned above are bought in at higher stakes than the US. What they are fighting for has real implications for their lives, governments, and organizations. Power, influence, and wealth are visible through an open door. They were there before America could strike Syria, and they will be there after any strike occurs, if one occurs. What America is debating is Western intervention. In that regard, they are the new kids on the block.