“The Battle for Syria”

In Washington, DC, a Carnegie Endowment Meeting of the Minds discusses the Role of International Actors in Syria

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On Friday, February 8, 2013 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a discussion amongst a panel of Syria experts regarding the current and potential future roles of the international community in Syria. The panel included Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East – Atlantic Council, Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, and Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. The following is a summary of the the conference.

Turkey – Henri Barkey
Turkey, which encouraged the Assad regime to enact political reforms at the beginning of the revolution, quickly shifted its support to the armed Opposition once violence began. Turkey is now supporting–whether financially or militarily–nearly every armed Opposition movement, with the exception of the Kurds. With chances for a political solution now almost nonexistent, it is Ankara’s intention to support Syria’s armed actors, including jihadis, in the hope that it will maintain influential Syrian clients after the fall of the regime.

The Gulf – Emile Hokayem
There seems to be no single objective that GCC states are pursuing. Rather, each state is directing its support along the lines of its own respective geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia sees its role in Syria’s future as a champion of Sunni Islam; by setting up a virtual proxy state in Syria, the Saudis can extend their reach deeper into the Levant while also using religious ties with Syria’s Sunni majority to stop Iranian-sponsored Shiism from creeping into the region–the list-topping item on Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy agenda. Qatar also intends to gain influence in the Levant, but through different actors. Qatar is primarily responsible for funding some of Syria’s Islamist factions, and it is developing its ties with the long-marginalized Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. (Qatar has been an advocate of the Arab Spring uprisings mainly, it is thought, to gain itself more recognition from the West and other GCC states as a arbiter of social progress. Its intentions also likely lie in establishing Sunni-Sunni relations as an axis of influence to counter Iran’s spreading influence into Syria via Iraq.) Kuwait remains a surprisingly active hub of humanitarian aid for Syria, contributing directly to support for rebel-held and contested areas without using the UN as an intermediary. It, too, however, has more lucrative goals in mind. Wealthy Kuwaiti Salafis are known supporters of Salafi militias in Syria, such as Ahrar al-Sham.

Overall, the panel noted, the Gulf has taken less of a leading role in the conflict than expected. This may be because Gulf states do not want to be accused of manipulating the conflict’s outcome for neocolonial benefit.

Lebanon – Paul Salem
Lebanese politics are split on the Syria issue. Two of the parliament’s most influential groups, the March 8th Alliance and the March 14th Alliance, were originally established on the basis of support for or opposition to Syrian interventionism and influence in Lebanese affairs. Not wishing to reignite the tensions of the Cedar Revolution or disrupt the fragile sectarian cohesion of Lebanese society, the Lebanese government has for the most part remained quiet, allowing factions such as Hezbollah to act on their own instead of testing the inevitable failure that would result in trying to form an official and cohesive pro- or anti-Assad platform.

The End of the Syrian Conflict – Paul Salem
Syria is not transitioning; it is dissolving. The war is bringing to an end almost a century of integration that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the cohesive nationalism that was fostered in the Levant by European mandates. The rebels will not be able to defeat the regime in the near future, nor the regime the rebels, meaning that the conflict will be prolonged and hatred and suspicion will grow deeper. We will in the future be dealing with a failed state of scrambling power plays and violence in an area once known as the Syrian state.

On Arming the Opposition
Frederic Hof: The possibility of success for Brahimi’s plan or any type of political transition is almost nonexistent. The outcome of the conflict “will be determined by men with guns.” The U.S. should not seek to micromanage the Opposition in an attempt to bring about a desired conclusion to the war–it is far too late for that–but rather recognize the militarized fate of the conflict and influence its outcome by determining the best logistical systems for arming and supporting the FSA. This is now what the White House is wrestling with.

Emile Hokayem: There is a demand for U.S. leadership in the region. The Syrian conflict has exposed Gulf states’ weaknesses in that they seem unable to develop proxies on the ground in the way that Iran can. If the U.S. does not act now, it will be forced into a role of using drone strikes to target the most malevolent Islamist militias when the conflict inevitably dissolves into duels between competing religious factions. This is not ideal. The U.S. should decide who to support, or at least seek out the proper conduits for support to moderate groups.

Henri Barkey: The Opposition should not be armed; arms will proliferate to extremists. The Opposition is too fractured, and the U.S. will not make any friends on the ground at this point. Regional actors should become more heavily involved, but the U.S. should maintain a minimal role of humanitarian support and, perhaps, provision of intelligence.

Paul Salem: Major influence for the end of the war will not come from inside of Syria, nor will it come from the Gulf. The U.S. and Russia have lined up on either side of the conflict, and neither will act decisively until more pressure–domestic and international–is forced upon them. Russia and the U.S. must be forced to recognize the inevitabilities of the conflict and their own shared interests: that Assad will fall, that Islamic jihadis should not prevail, and that both countries wish to maintain regional influence. The pressure to force these powers into action must come from the international community.

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