Syria: Intractable Dilemmas for Everyone

There was a time when all, or almost all, actors in the Middle East had clear positions. Other actors were able to anticipate, with a high degree of success, how this or that actor would react to any new important development. That time is gone. If we look at the civil war in Syria today, we will rapidly see that not only are there a wide range of objectives that different actors set themselves, but also that each of the actors is beset by ferocious internal debates about what position it should be taking.

Inside Syria itself, the present situation is one of a triad of basic options. There are those who, for varying reasons, essentially support keeping the present regime in power. There are those who support a so-called Salafist outcome, in which some form of Sunni shar’ia law prevails. And there are those who want neither of these outcomes, working for an outcome in which the Baath regime is ousted but a Salafist regime is not installed in its place.

This is of course too simple a picture, even as a description of the positions of the internal actors. Each of these three basic positions is held by a number of different actors (shall we call them sub-actors?) who debate with themselves about the tactics their side should pursue. Of course, the debate about tactics in the struggle is also, or really, a debate about the exact preferred outcome. However, this triangle of actors, each with multiple sub-actors, creates a situation in which there is a constant revising of very local alliances that is often hard to explain and surely difficult to anticipate.

The dilemmas are no less for the non-Syrian actors. Take the United States, once the giant in the arena, now widely recognized to be in serious decline and thereupon to have no good options. But merely to admit this is itself very controversial in the United States, and President Obama finds himself under severe political pressure by some sub-actors to do “more” and by others to do “less.” This debate goes on within his own inner circle, not to mention in Congress and in the media.

Iran faces the dilemma of how to improve its relations with the United States (and indeed Turkey and even Saudi Arabia) without diminishing its support for the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. The internal debate about the tactics to pursue seems just as loud and just as intense as that inside the United States.

Saudi Arabia faces the dilemma of supporting Muslim groups in Syria that are friendly without strengthening the hand of groups like al-Qaeda that are pursuing the downfall of the Saudi regime. The Saudi government fears that, if it makes a mistake, it will advance the cause of those who want the internal turmoil to spread to Saudi Arabia. So, it puts pressure on the U.S. government to support Saudi objectives while simultaneously (and as quietly as possible) talking with the Iranians – not an easy game to play.

The Turkish regime, which now has its own internal problems, was originally a supporter of the Syrian regime, then a fierce opponent, and today seems to be neither the one nor the other. It is seeking to recuperate its erstwhile stance as a post-Ottoman Turkey that is a powerful friend to everyone.

The Kurds, seeking maximum autonomy (if not a full-fledged independent Kurdish state), find themselves in difficult negotiations with all four states in which there are significant Kurdish populations – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Israel can’t really decide whose side it’s on. It’s against Iran and against Hezbollah, but up to two years ago, it had quite stable relations with the Baath regime in Syria. If Israel supports the opponents of the Syrian regime, it risks getting a far worse regime in Syria from its point of view. But if it wishes to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, it cannot be indifferent to the role the Syrian regime plays in permitting the close links of Iran and Hezbollah. So Israel waffles, or stays mute.

Internal debates beset all the non-Arab states who have some interests in the region: Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, France, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy, for a start.

This is geopolitical chaos, and it takes very astute maneuvering for any of the actors not to make grievous errors in terms of its own interests. In this whirlpool of continuously shifting alliances, globally and very locally, there are many groups and sub-groups who consider it tactically useful to increase the scale of the violence.

The Syrian civil war is at the moment the locus of the greatest amount of violence in the Middle East, and there is little reason to expect that it will cease. It has begun to spread to Lebanon and Iraq in particular. Most of the actors are worried that the spreading of the violence, in addition to being appalling, may in fact hurt their interests rather than help them. So many actors try, in multiple ways, to restrain the spread. But can they?

When the People’s Liberation Army marched into Shanghai in 1949 and established a Communist government in power, a big and futile debate erupted in the United States. It was conducted under the theme, “Who lost China?” It was as if China was something others could lose. It is likely that very soon, there will be debates in many countries about “Who lost Syria?” Indeed these debates seem to have started already. The fact is that, in a state of geopolitical chaos, most actors have very limited ability to affect the outcome. The Middle East is careening out of control, and we shall be lucky to escape the crash.