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A Brief History of Syria and Regional Stability in Context

Many readers of RECOILweb are also keenly interested in current events, particularly in so-called “conflict regions”. This article is featured here courtesy of Grey Cell, a central information collection and analysis site. It appears here courtesy of Grey Cell and the author, Ben Lennon, PhD.

THE HISTORY OF SYRIA, THE US AND WHAT ROLE IT PLAYS IN THE STABILITY OF THE REGION, TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE CURRENT EVENTS WITH IRAN AND RUSSIA

Introduction

There is a prevailing belief in the international community that Bashar al-Assad stepping down as the president of Syria is an inevitability; it is just a matter of time. For now, the regime can only continue to stay in power based on his ability to manipulate and utilize whatever resources and personnel are available. Both military clout and loyalty, however, have their limitations and are not inexhaustible. A replacement for leadership can be found, but the process of presidential succession taking place without more blood being shed is a grave concern. More likely than not, political positioning for a post-Assad scenario is already in the works. Whoever is tasked to bring stability to the nation will ostensibly face a significant amount of historical and political attention. Thus, Syria’s role in the Middle East will continue to evolve based on the vision of this new administration.

History of Syria

Once a part of the vast Ottoman Empire, Syria declared independence in 1946 and is now a sovereign state. Surrounded by Turkey on the North, Iraq to the East, Jordan and Israel to its South, and Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, it has a total land area of 185, 180 square kilometers, part of which is the Israeli-occupied territory that includes the Golan Heights. With a population of roughly 18.5 million, it boasts of a very young population that has a median age of 20.37 years old. Nine out of ten Syrians are Arabs, and the remaining ten percent composed of Kurds, Armenians and other races. The predominant religion is Sunni Muslim (74%), followed by other Muslim sects (16%), Christians (10%), and small Jewish community. The literacy rate is fairly high at 76.9%. The nation and its people derive much of their wealth from abundant natural resources such as petroleum and other minerals.

The government has been categorized as a republic since the times of former President Hafiz al-Asad. He passed away in 2000. His son, Bashar al- Asad, was then selected by the ruling Ba’th Party as presidential successor. This was approved by the People’s Council or Majlis al-Shaab, Syria’s unicameral legislative body, and he been the head of state since then. The executive branch has two Vice Presidents, Abd al-Halim ibn Said Khaddam and Muhammad Zuhayr Mashariqa. Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri is the head of government. Syria is a member of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), the United Nations (UN), and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

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U.S. and Middle East stability

 All throughout the Cold War and during the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States played a significant role in Middle East stability by protecting and ensuring global trade routes and the international supply of oil. Support for the Americans from within the region comes from individual allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Emirates, to name a few. This regional clout is also reinforced by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, along with other countries whose economic and political interests are heavily dependent on the United States.   Members of OPEC, UN and WTO also rely on American leadership and initiative to ensure regional peace and harmony

The consequences of the events of September 11, 2001, however, drastically changed US relations and strategies in the Middle East. Islamic radicalism, the root cause of international terrorism in the 21st century, had to be suppressed. The objective was to stop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from being utilized by groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As a consequence, American-led Allied troops invaded two countries in the region, Iraq and Afghanistan. The continued instability of these nations, even after more than a decade of occupation, demanded a lot of military attention and resources from the United States. Americans also had to contend with Iran. Its relentless development of a nuclear arms program, which the nation’s leaders say was program for peace, remains a constant threat to stability in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring that began in 2010, and the subsequent downfall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, exposed even more vulnerabilities for the United States and its allies. The attack on the American embassy at Benghazi was worsened by the discovery of chemical weapons controlled by Libyan forces. Luckily, Gaddafi never used it on his enemies. There was also no evidence that it was obtained by anti-American entities. There remained, however, the possibility that other regimes in the Middle East possessed such WMDs.

American concern, as well as global attention, has now focused on the revolution that is currently taking place in Syria. Casualties have been estimated at 60,000, with more than 2.5 million displaced from their homes and workplaces since it began in 2011.   The continued efforts by the Jihadists to destabilize of the Assad regime have affected mostly civilians. The Syrian military does not have widespread support, but it does have the resources and ability to stabilize the nation. The international community wants to avoid another Iraq or Afghanistan, wherein weak governments can threaten regional stability. President Bashar al-Asad does have WMDs at his disposal, remnants of its relationship with the former Soviet Union and its continued ties with Russia.

The influence of Iran

 In 2005, Iran initially created an alliance with Syria as a deterrent against their perceived threat from Israel. To further enforce this partnership, both nations supported, armed and funded Hezbollah and Hamas. Only the mediation coming from Saudi Arabia and Egypt tempered the militant approach of Iran and Syria against the United States and its Western allies.  The Arab Spring that began in February 2011 was described by Ayatollah Khamenei as an “Islamic Awakening.” He had high hopes for Iran to be at the center of these winds of change. At present, however, the influence of Iran on Syria and President Bashar al-Asad has greatly been reduced. Sunni clerics continue to detach themselves from the political inclinations of Shiites. This has led to a divided Middle East where Iran’s isolation from its Arab neighbors has grown into a wide chasm.

Russia’s role

The Soviet Union has always been influential in the Middle East and with its ally in the region, Syria. Even after the fragmentation of the former superpower, and its consequent retention of its identity as Russia, Syria continues to have economically and politically significant ties with its communist partner.  However, the most importance factor that binds Russia to Syria is the former’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council. Any and all calls for intervention to replace President al-Assad will be met with stiff opposition by the Russians. Syria and Iran are its last vestiges of influence in the Middle East. Additionally, Islamic fundamentalist threats are not as much of a grave concern to Russia as it is to the United States. Vladimir Putin has expressed no intention of supplying arms to Syria to help quell the rebellion. At this point, President Bashar al-Asad can only rely on Russia as a mediator at the negotiating table for peace.

Conclusion

The result of the experiences of the United States and its allies with the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the two nation’s consequent social, economic and political deterioration brings a notable comparison.   The immediate and outright replacement of President Bashar al-Asad, without any consideration for a qualified, capable, and unifying leader can lead to similar deterioration of the conditions in Syria. Despite the lack of a popular support from the Syrian population and the international community for President Bashar al-Asad, the rebels and its leaders are not deemed worthy of being effective successors who can provide a peaceful and worthwhile transition. They are not tried and tested, and their brutality is at par with the Syrian military with some reports stating that they are more brutal. If President Bashar al-Asad is deposed, it is expected that the country will be thrown into chaos, similar to the post-Saddam Hussein scenario in Iraq. As of yet, there is no better alternative to the current Syrian administration.

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