Dec 6th 2011

Keystone Influence: Syria's Arab Spring and the Race for Regional Hegemony

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The Arab Spring is changing the political and strategic map of the Middle East as we know it in ways that will persist for decades to come. Notwithstanding the domestic developments in each country, the Arab Spring is uprooting long-standing authoritarian regimes, antagonists and protagonists to the West alike, and is creating a vacuum that regional powers will quickly attempt to fill. Each of the regional powers in the Middle East - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel - are poised to exploit the uprising to their advantage. New regional alliances could emerge, as could a new "cold war" and the potential of violence between the competing powers. What is certain now, however, is that the Syrian upheaval thrusts Turkey and Iran into a collision course because they have opposing geostrategic interests that neither of them can afford to ignore.

The entry of Arab powers--Egypt and Saudi Arabia--into this rivalry might be delayed, but not for long. Once Egypt gets its act together and manages to sort out its internal socio-political and religious combustion, it will reassume its traditional leadership role in the Arab states. Though poor in resources, Egypt has always been the epicenter of the Arab world. Ideologies ranging from Arab nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism originated from Egypt and its political direction, from confrontation with the West and Israel to peaceful relations with them, have dominated the Arab political sphere. Despite gestures towards Turkey and Iran, Egypt will inevitably resume its role as a rival of both if it is to regain regional leadership. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia will continue to lead as the custodian of Sunni Islam and exert significant political and religious influence throughout the Arab world, especially in the Gulf because of its riches and ability to "buy its way" through the thickets of Arab politics. Despite the socio-economic and political differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they will no doubt attempt to maintain the veneer of good relations required by their natural affinity and shared concerns about the Israeli-Arab conflict: Turkey's desire to lead the Sunni Muslim world, and in particular, Iran's ambitions to become the region's hegemon equipped with nuclear weapons.

Conversely, Israel is the only regional power that does not have the will, capacity or the prospect to become the region's hegemon and yet, it will maintain its military superiority. Though not slated for regional dominance, Israel could still utilize the Arab Spring, should its leaders muster a moment of lucidity, to advance the inevitably-required solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than allow the Arab Spring to become the cause of a Palestinian uprising to end the occupation. In spite of their different reasons or motivations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel share a strategic interest to undermine Iran's pursuit of hegemony, not only because of its nuclear ambitions, but also its drive to destabilize the region through the spread of terrorism and its extremist brand of Islamic regimes. Therefore, all three would likely welcome any effort to cut the Syrian "line" from Tehran's axis in the region.

It is the non-Arab states other than Israel, Turkey and Iran, that are now on a collision course as they survey the Arab Spring manifesting itself in Syria which provides them both an opening to assert themselves as the region's hegemon while attempting to offer a model to emulate for the newly emerging Arab regimes. Iran was quick to proclaim that the Arab Spring was part of the "Islamic revival" and overlooked no opportunity to describe the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain as an extension of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution (which it failed to export). Turkey on the other hand is eager to suggest that it has created a perfect model of governance by successfully combining Islam and democracy while ushering in significant economic developments.

Syria, bordering both countries, is already the battle ground between Iran and Turkey who are determined to shape the outcome of the upheaval there to safeguard their national vested interests and ambitions. Neither Tehran nor Ankara is publicly assaulting the other, but both governments harbor tremendous concerns and suspicions of each other. Although Iran and Turkey have major stakes in Syria, for Iran the possible fall of the Assad regime would not only increase Iran's isolation and cut direct links between Tehran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon, but also inflict a major blow to its regional ambitions. This explains, for instance, why the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard's air division threatened this week that Iran will target the NATO missile defense installations in Turkey if its nuclear program is attacked by the United States and/or Israel.

The aforementioned suggests why even Iran's verbal support of the Arab Spring is absent when it comes to its ally, Syria. Tehran continues to provide the Assad regime with weapons, logistical support and cash to crush the protests. The decision by the Obama administration to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of this year offers Iran an added advantage to further expand its support of the Assad regime, and more importantly, to expand its influence in Damascus while maintaining and strengthening its contiguous Shiite-controlled landmass extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. However, if and when Tehran reaches the conclusion that the Assad regime is doomed, it will most likely shift tactics in an effort to shape the developments in a post-Assad Syria. For this reason, President Ahmadinejad, while supporting Assad to quell the uprising at all costs, made a statement condemning the "killing and massacre" in Syria to ingratiate himself in the eyes of the Syrian public.

On the other hand, Erdogan's Turkey, much like Iran, aspires to export its "Islamic model" to the Arab Spring countries. After a grace period in which Ankara attempted to pressure Assad to reform, Turkey has now finally abandoned him to his own devices. Not only has Ankara hosted the establishment of an opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), it now provides logistical support to the rebel Syrian Free Army which has a camp on the Turkish side of the border. Moreover, although it was initially reluctant to take severe measures against Damascus, following the Arab League's decisions to impose a diplomatic and economic boycott on Syria, Turkey is now gearing up to take further punitive actions. Ankara is planning to impose a new set of sanctions while preparing to intervene militarily to establish a safe haven in northern Syria for refugees and Syrian military defectors.

Having given up on President Assad, Turkey will do everything in its power to curry favor with the Syrian public to place itself in a preferred position to influence the new, emerging post-Assad political order. Iran, on the other hand, will stop short of nothing to continue its unqualified support of the Syrian regime as long as it believes that Assad might still have a chance of survival. Ankara and Tehran are determined to maintain their sphere of influence over Syria because both know how serious the implications would be to their national security interest and regional aspirations which place them on a direct collision course.

The United States, which had earlier been held back from stiffening its sanctions against Assad by Turkey, should now work closely with Turkey to hasten Assad's departure, especially in the wake of the Arab League's decision to impose their own punitive measures. This represents a golden opportunity to loosen Tehran's grip on Damascus and extract Syria from Iran's belly at a time when Iran is in dire need of holding on to its slipping regional influence.

To be sure, Iran is more vulnerable today than it has been in a long time. Faced with serious charges by the IAEA to pursue nuclear weapons, increased international sanctions and growing isolation, the loss of its Syrian connection will inflict a fatal setback to Iran's regional ambitions. The question is, will Turkey be up to the task and will the US aid Ankara in indirectly engineering such an outcome?


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