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?


Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."