Richmond World Affairs Council

Syria, Part 6: Syria and Its Neighbors

Syria, like any other nation, has a complex system of alliances and enmities with its neighbors, all of which have influenced, and in turn, been influenced by the ongoing revolution. Those relationships can determine the effect of the revolution on the countries that border Syria. This blog aims to explore the profound effect of Syria’s revolution on its neighboring countries and their relationships with Syria.

Lebanon’s relationship with the Assad regime is one of the most complex of those in the Middle East. Because of its shared border with Syria, it has seen a large number of refugees from the Syrian conflict, which has increased already-present tensions in the country. Lebanonis particularly susceptible to strife between conflicting religions and ethnicities because that stress already exists within Lebanon’s borders. The majority of the inhabitants are Sunni Muslims who support the revolution that originated mostly with the Sunnis in Syria. However, as in Syria, there is a small but strong minority of Alawites who support the Assad regime. These Alawites worked with Syrian officials during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, and the current Alawite party is linked to Damascusthrough arms shipments (BBC News). Further complicating the situation, the Alawites are connected with the Shia group Hezbollah, which has significant influence in the government of Lebanonand is strongly connected with the Assad regime. Hezbollah stands not only Shia Islam, but many minority parties that need protection. The influx of people from the Syrian revolution, a conflict primarily between Alawites and Sunnis, has heightened tensions between the two groups.

As a result, bouts of fighting between the Sunni and Alawite groups have been breaking out in Lebanon’s capital city of Beruit. Both groups have accused each other of relatively small or nebulous offenses that have provoked this violence. It is hypothesized that Lebanoncould be the grounds for a proxy war of the Syrian Revolution, with a variety of powers taking sides to promote their own interests. Qatar (which also is a strong and public supporter of the Syrian rebels) and Saudi Arabiaare funding the Islamist groups in Lebanon, almost in a rivalry to have the most influence (BBC News), while Hezbollah backs the Alawites and, by extension, the Assad regime.

Throughout Assad’s revealed abuses and crackdown, Iranhas remained a close ally and potential provider of direct aid to the regime. Throughout the recent decades, common enemies have forced the two governments to grow closer together. They shared opinions on Hussein’s Iraq, the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and the presence of Americans in the Middle East, all of which brought them closer together. The United States has accused Iranof giving direct assistance to Assad, such as military advisors, riot gear, and surveillance equipment in order to enforce the crackdown. Because of this, the US has begun to take actions against Iran with sanctions on the general of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (a branch of Iran’s military meant to enforce Islamic law that has been sent to Syria to help enforce Assad’s rule). There have been a variety of claims that the IRGC is aiding Assad in his fight against his own people, though none can be proven. Most notably, Israeli newspapers and the Syrian opposition have been trying to prove that Iranian forces are in the country. The most promising evidence was a video interview with the head of IRCG’s overseas arm that stated that Iranians were there, but it was soon removed from Iran’s news agency, so it can no longer be used as evidence (BBC News). Because Iran’s presence cannot be proven or disproven, it is impossible to stop the use of Iranian troops and supplies by force.

Syriaand Russia have been allies since the Cold War, though Russiais not quite as direct about its amiable terms with the Assad regime as Iranis. Russia fears that with a government change in the Middle East, it will lose its substantial influence, which is symbolic of Russiaas a world power. Russia has continued the sale of weapons to Syria, a tradition again dating back to the Cold War. Many of the tanks that Syria is currently using are 50 years old, from many of the old weapons shipments. Russia’s only Middle Eastern seaport is located in Syria, the Port of Tartus. Though Russian officials claim that it is mostly for strategic significance, Tartus also has an underwater port that could dock nuclear submarines. On July 10, 2012, Russia announced its intent to send 11 warships to the port, as a display of their naval power and intent to keep the port, which detracts from the claims of Tartus being a port of merely “symbolic” importance. All things considered, Russia will be unwilling to give up Tartus whether it is because of its strategic significance or symbolic value. Russia’s support of Syriaturns out to be more problematic than it appears on the surface for the international community because of its veto power in the Security Council, which prevents any resolutions taking action against Syria from coming to pass.

Certainly the most tense and immediately threatening neighbor to Syriais Turkey.Historically, the two nations have seen disputes and disagreements over Syria’s sponsoring of terrorism, water possession, and territorial matters, leading to an unstable base to hold their relations on. Recently, the situation has worsened because of the downing of a Turkish F4 Fighter Jet by Syrian forces. It is unclear what territory the plane was in and why it was so close to the border, but neither nation is willing to admit fault or apologize for the incident. The Turkish Prime Minister sent troops to the border with Syriain a military convoy as a “precautionary measure” (Huffington Post). Though the outbreak of war is not imminent, it is not to be entirely ruled out. On top of this crisis, refugees from the Syrian conflict have been fleeing to Turkeywhere they are being given refuge. Turkeyis outspoken in its opposition of Assad, directly condemning him and suspending all trade relationships with Syria.The condition of the relationship between the two is not a promising one, and the hostility seems to have no effect on Assad’s continuation of slaughter.

The effects of the Syrian revolution are not merely limited to Syria- they spill out into the world. The Revolution’s success is tied strongly to the relations that Syria has to its neighbors, as much as it is tied to the people in Syriadriving the revolution and the government’s reaction to the revolution. 

~ Rachel Smith