The Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, is once again promising to put an end to the violence in Syria after over a year of bloodshed that has killed more than 9,000 civilians. This comes as part of his acceptance of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. While the plan calls for a number of humanitarian demands, it leaves out the obvious request for Assad’s final departure. Bashar’s brutal crackdown in the past year makes it difficult to believe his regime will be thoroughly honoring its obligations.
The international community has primarily condemned Assad for his management, or lack thereof, of the Syrian uprising, however, reactions in the Middle East have so far been largely polarized across a Sunni-Shiite divide. With a minority Alawite-led government and majority Sunni population, Syria is viewed as a proxy war for regional Sunni and Shiite powers and their respective allies. Recognizing that developments in Syria will be a major geopolitical game changer, Assad’s friends and foes frantically catapult ever growing support —financial and otherwise— to the regime and opposition, in order to assert their dominance at a time of perpetual suspicion and dangerous volatility.
Iran is repeatedly accused of being the main supporter of the Assad regime. A historic strategic partner since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has often used Syria as a transit route for weapons to neighboring Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah. Early on during the Syrian uprisings, White House officials and other western diplomats alleged that Iran assisted the regime with its crackdown on protestors by shipping oil and riot control equipment and intercepting internet, cell phone and social media communication with the outside world. The passage of two Iranian naval vessels through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979 has backed the speculations that Iran was sending ammunition, cargo and fuel to Syria. Furthermore, it has been reported that Iran sent $9 billion to help Syria ride out the harsh sanctions imposed by the EU (Syria’s largest trading partner), the US, the Arab League and others.
Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are Assad’s main friends in the Arab world. Though there have been speculations that Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has secretly pumped cash into Syria, Al-Maliki’s stance in public remains clear: any arming of Syrian rebels is regarded as foreign intervention.
A more powerful supporter is Russia, which for forty years has been the benefactor and supplier of weapons to Syria, its only major ally in the Middle East. In 2010, Syria bought $700 million in arms, which constituted 7 percent of Russia’s total $10 billion arms sales worldwide. Earlier this year Syria purchased $550 million worth of Yak-130 fighter jets, which could be used for air attacks on ground targets. In February, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution urging Assad to step down, causing immense international outrage.
Eighteen out of twenty-one members backed up the decision to suspend Syria from the Arab League. However, the states of the Sunni-led Gulf Cooperation Council, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are now taking a leap further with their direct support of the opposition. Participants at the “Friends of the Syrian People” conference held on Sunday in Istanbul assert that Gulf countries are creating a fund of several million dollars a month, and will be part of broader guarantees by more than 70 countries, including the US. Although much of these monies will be going towards humanitarian and communication needs, they will also be used to pay Free Syrian Army fighters. There is no doubt that the purpose of the Gulf states’ intervention is to keep Iran in check and shift the balance of power in their favor. It is feared that this type of intervention could set a dangerous precedent in the region. More importantly, the move could lead to the rise of militant Sunni Islam in Syria and possibly a messy and prolonged Iraqi-style civil war, which would have tremendous security implications for the rest of the region.
While Turkey has become increasingly antagonistic to the Assad regime’s policies, its position is precarious because of its strong trade and investment relations with Russia, China and Iran. Thus, it is likely to continue to provide the Syrian opposition with only low-level support such as hosting army defectors and refugees, including the Free Syrian Army.
Although it will not be arming the opposition, the US has placed various economic sanctions on Syria, much like the EU. Additionally, the UK will be sending secure communications equipment, while France will be providing safe havens.
The ruthless killings in the past year, combined with Assad’s dubious promises to the Syrian people, makes it almost impossible to give credence to Annan’s peace plan. Moreover, the dichotomous support to the Syrian regime and its opposition, exacerbated by the rapidly escalating Sunni-Shiite rivalry, is responsible for the intensification of this proxy war, which will prove to be costly for the region and beyond.