Following the initial legitimate demands of the Syrian people, the conflict took on the regional and international dimensions of a long term conflict.
II. From civil war to regional confrontation
Are neighboring countries destabilized by the Syrian situation?
Yes, of course, because of the number of Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey (2.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (635,000), Iraq (245 000) and, to a lesser extent, Egypt (117 000).
The situation is different in each county. Turkey and Jordan organized the reception of refugees in camps near the Syrian border while in Lebanon, no census has been realized. But with the growing numbers of refugees, the Lebanese authorities have taken measures making it very difficult for Syrians to enter the country.
While Lebanon and Jordan apply a policy of reserve, Turkey has been very implicated in the Syrian crisis and applies an assertive policy.
Which countries support the regime of Bashar Al-Assad?
Since the beginning of the revolution, Iran has given unfailing political, financial, diplomatic and military support to the regime because Tehran wants to avoid, at all costs, the establishment in Damascus of a Sunni government or any other force eventually backed by the Gulf oil-monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah which supports Tehran is also involved in the conflict alongside Assad’s forces. On the 5th of June 2013, it formally enters the Syrian territory and took the border town of Qusayr from the insurgents, thus avoiding a defeat for the regime that could have announced its collapse.
For Iran it is important to have this strategic continuity between Tehran / Baghdad / Damascus and the Hezbollah. That is why we speak of the Shiite axis versus the Sunni axis formed by Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara with the oil-monarchies of the Gulf. Also, many foreign Shiite militia are fighting in Syria in the name if the Iranian regime.
The signature of the Iranian nuclear agreement on July 14, 2015 is important because all Washington’s efforts were concentrated on achieving this agreement which was a priority for Barack Obama. Some observers believe that in August 2013 the American presidency renounced a possible intervention in Syria so as not to hinder the discussions with the Iranians.
Which countries support the opposition?
Since the AKP came to power in the beginning of the 2000s, Turkey, Syria’s neighbor, sought to improve a relationship which had been historically difficult. The minister Ahmet Davutoglu called this policy “zero problems with the neighbors”. Syria muted its territorial claims concerning Sanjak of Alexandretta and the two countries signed a free trade agreement.
After the first demonstrations in March 2011, Turkey tried to convince Assad to lead the reforms demanded by the demonstrators. When he refused to do so, and because of the persistent repression, the Turkish government supported the opposition, welcomed its first meetings and accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees on its territory. At the same time, the Turkish government is also accused of having a lax attitude towards jihadists, letting combatants and weapons enter into Syria.
In fact, Ankara is most concerned about the situation in Syria because of the long borders between the two countries. Two factors dominate its interpretation of the crisis: its relations with Europe concerning the acceptance of refugees and the Kurdish problem. The Turkish government fears that the autonomization of Syrian Kurdistan will reactivate the tensions within its borders. On these two points, the Occidental countries offer Turkey no garanties.
Today, Turkey’s position is evolving as the regime of Erdogan hardens. The attempted coup d’état in July 2016 changed Erdogan’s priorities. Moving closer to the Russians, he has attenuated considerably his opposition to the Syrian regime. Turkey did enter the conflict last Summer, going into Syria and with the help of Syrian Turkmens and unities of the Free Syrian Army liberated Jarablus from Daech. The possibility of future confrontations between the Turkish army and the Kurds of the YPG cannot be excluded, even if the agreement supposedly signed by Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime this Summer seems to have squelched the dreams of the Syrian Kurds.
Like Turkey, the oil-monarchies observed that support for the Syrian insurgents was not a priority for Washington, despite public declarations. Saudi Arabia and Qatar quickly engaged in the Syrian crisis with the aim of fighting the Syrian regime and thus limiting the influence of their Iranian adversary in the region. For this, they provide weapons to the rebels, which is insufficient because the regime forces have full control of airspace.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Qatar each play their own role, thus dividing the opposition. Qatar, in the beginning, was the most active, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, but has gradually withdrawn in favor of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh organized in December 2015 a meeting for the opposition in order to create la large platform in view of a new round of negotiations in New York aimed at ending the conflict.
How does Israel see the Syrian conflict?
Israel obviously follows with great attention everything related to neighboring Syria. Even if Israeli warplanes conducted several airstrikes – on 30/01/2013, 3/05 and 5/05, 5/07, 31/10 – against military research centers near Damascus and against convoys of the Hezbollah, Israel has no real influence in the conflict. It is above all concerned about the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons and the risk that it fall into the hands of radical rebel groups or the Lebanese Shiite militia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked: “We conduct occasional operations in Syria to prevent the country from turning into a war front against us.” Israeli officials are divided on the future of Syria. Some would accommodate to keeping Assad in power because they know him well and realize that they can count on him to control the border (which he does actually despite certain declarations made since 1974), while others believe that a Sunni jihadist power in Syria would lead to a profitable chaos and weaken their enemy the Hezbollah.