As the crisis in Syria keeps escalating and the violent crackdown of the Bashar al-Assad regime results in more civilian deaths, the growing instability and civil opposition is significantly challenging the die-hard regime and raises questions regarding how much longer it can keep up with the deteriorating domestic situation and the increasing international pressure. More importantly, the troubling question that emerges is what might happen when the regime is finally overthrown?
While people in Syria and the West want a major change to take place in the country, the same cannot be said for some of the other states of the Middle East. Even if western countries want al-Assad to step down they will not intervene in Syria as easily as they did in Libya because this time there is much more at stake since Syria is geographically and geopolitically located at the heart of the Middle East and all of its problems. One needs only to look at a map of Syria and observe the countries with which it shares a border (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) to recognize this.
Syria also has political and strategic ties with actors that are hostile to the West such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Paradoxically, during the last decade or so Damascus has been maintaining good relationships with Turkey, a mostly western ally, as well. Nonetheless, for the last few months Turkey has been pressuring Assad to stop the violent crackdown and step down. This shift in Ankara’s behavior towards Syria was a concern for other states in the region like Iran – for various reasons which are examined below. From that perspective it seems that if the regime in Syria were to be overthrown and replaced with a pro-western one, the allies of the present Syrian regime could react in unpredictable ways out of fear, possibly disturbing the regional geopolitical realities and even the balance of power.
Iran is already worried because of Turkey’s stance towards the Syrian crisis. During the last decade the good relations between Syria and Turkey, the Kurdish problem that both states face and the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine of Turkish foreign policy, have brought Iran and Turkey closer to each other. Yet their good relations, in the context of their competition for regional hegemony and their traditional enmity, can still be questioned. For Iran in particular, the commercial and economic bonds that were developed between itself and Turkey were of vital significance since they constituted a way out of the western embargo (which was mainly imposed to counter its nuclear policies) and give impetus to its development aims. Furthermore, Turkey was a key ally for Iran given the always tense situation between Tehran and Tel Aviv and the fact that Turkey’s relations with Israel have been in decline for the last three years. On the other hand, Turkey used its cooperation with Iran to attain more stability in the transnational Kurdish territories, for economic reasons and of course to approach the Arab-Muslim world including the Palestinians. The increasingly strained relations between Turkey and Israel and the development of better relations between Turkey, Syria and Iran have increased Ankara’s prominence among the Arab countries while creating tensions within the western-Israel alliance.
If the Syrian regime were to be replaced with a pro-western one, a number of things could happen. Iran might turn against the new Syrian regime and Turkey for supporting the change while Turkey would probably lose the support of Lebanon, Palestine and probably of other Middle East countries as well. The instability or even sectarian conflicts that could possibly emerge in Syria would create the necessary conditions for the Kurds to intensify their efforts for autonomy thus creating instability and conflicts in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well. These, in turn, could lead Israel to adopt a harder stance towards Iran and therefore force the US to undertake a more active role in backing it. Within this context Turkey’s developing solidarity with the Arab-Muslim world could fall apart and the doctrine of “zero problems” would face a setback. Hence Ankara would once again have to rely on its traditional western allies, which it has been largely neglecting of late. This, of course, would depend on Turkey’s ability to strike a balance between its old friends and its new potential enemies, especially now that it would have to face the great Iranian threat.
The above scenario may not come to fruition, yet it is far from implausible. Such a scenario would create new regional and international alliances thereby changing the current order and balance of power in the Middle East. The possibility alone of such a development indicates both the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Syria and the reasons why the international community finds it more difficult to intervene there than it did in Libya. Even as the humanitarian crisis that is taking place there worsens, and evidence of genocide emerges, the Syrian crisis is far more complicated than the Libyan one and should consequently be handled with caution by the international community.