The violent conflict in Syria, akin to a civil war, is changing the regional security dynamics in unpredictable ways. Reportedly, 20,000-30,000 people may have been killed in the conflict that began over a year ago. The Syrian government and its army are involved in fighting opposition forces that are being openly supported by its neighbours and Arabs in particular. Refugees have crossed over to Turkey, Jordan and other countries. Rampant external involvement is making the conflict intractable.
The Western and Arab countries demand that Bashar al-Assad must step down immediately. Russia deplores external involvement and would like to see the sanctity of the UN Security Council maintained. It advocates a dialogue among the representatives of the Assad regime, the opposition and the countries involved to set up a transitional government to decide the future government. Both the regime and opposition have been accused of having committed war crimes.
In his hard-hitting speech at the UNGA, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to overcome its deep divisions and take urgent action to resolve the conflict. The UNSC is deeply divided. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions on Syria.
The earlier peace envoy Kofi Annan resigned as his peace plan came to a naught. The newly-appointed UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has begun talking to parties in the conflict but kept his expectations low. He has also called for a rapid change in Syria going beyond ‘reform’.
The Syrian conflict can degenerate into a sectarian conflict of massive proportions. The stakes for all regional players are high. If the Alawite regime headed by Assad falls, Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened while Israel, Turkey, the United States and the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries would gain. The GCC is fully supporting the Syrian rebels providing arms and money.
The GCC was formed in1981 to counter a Shia Iran. Most GCC countries, having substantial Shia populations, are deeply concerned at the rising influence of a Shia Iran in the region. The relations between the GCC and Syria have also been highly problematic. During the Iraq-Iran war in the Eighties, Syria, along with Libya, had supported Iran. In the current developments, the GCC sees an opportunity for change of regime in Syria and a chance for a leadership role in the Arab world. That is why the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are at the forefront of support for Syrian rebels. The fall of Assad will lead to new regional balance in West Asia. The Shia-Sunni divide that has come to the fore can potentially sunder the region.
The Arab Spring is also having an impact on regional dynamics. The advent of Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt is a development of great import. Will it lead to a thaw between Iran and Egypt? There are some signs of coordination between Iran and Egypt although the two countries have stood at the opposite ends of political alignments in West Asia.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to Iran for the NAM summit in August was a landmark one. Egypt and Iran have not been on talking terms since 1979 when Egypt supported the deposed shah of Iran. Morsi publicly supported the cause of Syrian opposition and ticked off Iran. Yet, the very fact that Morsi visited Iran is seen by some analysts as a beginning of a thaw between the two. They argue that both Egypt and Iran would like to see Syrian conundrum resolved as otherwise tensions in the region would escalate. There are reports that Iran is selling crude oil to Egypt.
Morsi, in an interview on September 21, stated that Iran must be involved in a settlement of the Syrian problem. He has launched a contact group of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran on Syria. How effective will this group be remains to be seen.
The Syrian National Congress (SNC), representing the Syrian opposition, has called for exclusion of Iran from the contact group, as it sees Iran as a part of the problem. The SNC has called upon its Arab backers for a Libya-type of solution in Syria. However, both China and Russia oppose any such solution as they do not want to see Western intervention. The SNC itself is a divided house. Al-Qaeda influence in Syria is also on the rise.
In an interview to Al Jazeera, the deputy commandeer of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) showed optimism that his fighters would overthrow the Assad regime in two moths. He lamented the lack of arms and other support from various countries which had been promised. He warned that foreign jihadis — read al-Qaeda — are in and the FSA can do little to control them. He also admitted that the FSA fighters were difficult to control. This implies that there are many groups that are fighting in Syria for their own ends. For instance, the Kurdish group PKK is setting up its own zone of influence in northern Syria — a development Turkey would be concerned about. Turkey’s ‘zero problem with neighbours’ policy seems to be failing. Turkey had tried to persuade Assad to undertake reforms but instead it has ended up hosting Syrian refugees and supporting Syrian rebels.
The situation in Syria is deteriorating by the day. The rebels are getting more and more support from outside and al-Qaeda’s influence is increasing. The regime’s forces are involved fighting in the civilian areas. Russia seems to be distancing itself from Assad — Russian foreign minster Lavrov stated in a TV interview that Russia is not “wedded to Assad”, but it wants the problem to be resolved through dialogue. Assad’s removal should not be a precondition.
India has some tightrope walking to do on Syria. India abstained from the UNSC resolution of October 2011, voted in favour in February 2012 and in July 2012. All these resolutions were vetoed by Russia and China. India’s vote in favour of the Arab League resolution in February raised eyebrows whether India’s position had changed under Western pressure. India’s position, according to its UN envoy, has remained ‘consistent’. India is not in favour of a regime change by force but has come round to advocate sanctions. It condemns violence and human rights violations irrespective of the side that commits it and it wants a Syrian-led inclusive political process to start. India had thrown its weight behind the Kofi Annan peace plan but that plan is now dead, even though some of its key elements like the UN supervised ceasefire may still be valid.
Arvind Gupta is director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.