The Geneva II Conference this month was the product of years of U.S. diplomacy aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian civil war. America’s interest in quickly ending the fighting in Syria is based on moral concerns, as well as fears that the sectarian war will further engulf neighboring states.
The U.S. is right to seek a quick settlement to the civil war in Syria. The humanitarian costs alone compel America to push for reconciliation between the warring sides. Nonetheless, the legitimate desire to end the conflict does not diminish the reality that the U.S. is winning in Syria. From a purely strategic standpoint, no country has benefitted more from the horrible tragedy in Syria than the United States.
The most significant way the U.S. has benefitted from the Syrian civil war is by seeing its regional and global adversaries undermined by the conflict. Just as the U.S. has been the primary external benefactor of the Syrian civil war, no third party has been a bigger loser in Syria then Iran.
The prospect of the Alawites losing power in Damascus threatened to roll back all the gains Iran made over the last decade, not only undermining Iran’s position in Syria, but also by extension in Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Iranian leaders quickly sprang into action, providing significant assistance to Assad’s regime. They undoubtedly realized the danger of being seen as propping up Assad, as evidenced by their refusal to acknowledge doing so in the beginning. Moreover, Iranian leaders probably believed the rebellion could be suppressed quickly given their experience following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.
With the conflict nearing its third year, it has proven anything but short. Over the past two years, Iran and its ally Hezbollah have been forced to devote considerable blood and treasure into preventing Alawite rule from collapsing in Syria. Although the Alawites’ rule no longer seems to be in imminent danger, they also appear no closer to reasserting control over the entire country. Thus, the material costs for Iran are likely to continue to mount.
From Iran’s strategic perspective, the larger cost of supporting Assad has been its loss of Iran and Hezbollah’s softer power in the greater Middle East. Lacking the ability to project conventional military power, Iranian influence in the region is largely based on the soft power it accrues from its defiance and denouncements of Israel and the United States. For decades this soft power has allowed Iranian leaders to bridge the ethnic and sectarian divide with the Arab Sunni street.
The Syrian civil war, and Iran’s support for al-Assad, has quickly eroded Iran’s favorability among this demographic. Although Iran’s popularity in the Arab world began diminishing before the Syrian conflict began, it has virtually fallen off the cliff over the last few years. As James Zogby notes, in 2006 Iran had a 75 percent favorability rating among publics in twenty Middle Eastern nations, with 85 percent of Saudi Arabians viewing Tehran favorably. By 2012, Iran’s favorability ratings in those same countries declined to just 25 percent, and 15 percent in Saudi Arabia.
This has had real and immediate repercussions for Iran. For example, Iran’s support for al-Assad caused a serious rift in its relationship with Hamas. Similarly, after considerable diplomatic pressure, Egypt and Iran resumed tourism ties in April of last year. Egyptian Salafists responded days later by storming Iran’s chargé d'affaires in Cairo. Months later, Egypt quietly severed tourism ties. Elsewhere, in Yemen, multiple Iranian diplomats have been kidnapped and killed in recent months. The latest one was evidently beheaded after being held hostage for months (at the time of this writing, Iran is denying this account).
The growing sectarian divide in the Middle East poses a real threat to Iran. It is for this reason that the Rouhani administration has made repairing ties to Arab states a top priority, and why Supreme Leader Khamenei has made Muslim unity an ever-more prevalent theme of his public addresses.
Al Qaeda sits on the other side of this sectarian divide. Despite the current narrative in the West, Syria has been a disaster for Al Qaeda as well. Although the Arab Spring was a complete refutation to Al Qaeda’s central ideology, the increasingly desperate organization sought to capitalize on the civil war in Syria by establishing a localized branch in the country under the banner al-Shura. The decision to avoid using the Al Qaeda name underscored just how unpopular the group has become in the Arab world.
Although al-Nusra began with numerous successes, Al Qaeda’s plan to infiltrate Syria came unraveled when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ordered that al-Nusra integrate with his own group under the banner Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, objected to this demand and appealed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s top leader, who naturally decided that al-Nusra should continue to report to him. In a remarkable development, al-Baghdadi publicly rebuked al-Zawahiri, saying he was listening to God’s will, which wanted him to command Al Qaeda’s fighters in Syria. He then immediately sent AQI fighters into Syria, who were joined by many from al-Nusra’s ranks.
As others have pointed out, ISIS’s entry into Syria has fundamentally changed the conflict. While the opposition to Assad was always fragmented, ISIS has devoted the majority of its efforts to seizing land already under other opposition groups’ control. As one ISIS operative in Syria explained: “We are here to establish the Islamic state, not to fight Assad.”
Although it has been relatively successful in this regard, its brutal rule in the areas it occupies has alienated local populations, much as it did in Iraq. ISIS has also infuriated the other opposition groups by seizing their land. Things finally reached a boiling point in December when the other opposition groups banded together to fight ISIS. Among these opposition groups is al-Nusra, meaning that Syria has turned into a full-blown Al Qaeda civil war. As one terrorism expert told the New York Times, “It is a struggle for the heart and soul of jihadism.”
Meanwhile, by provoking a civil war among the opposition groups, ISIS has aided the Assad regime by giving it space. Should Assad prevail, then, its likely many in the Sunni Arab world will blame ISIS, leaving Al Qaeda even more unpopular than it currently is with its target audience.
The war in Syria has also weakened China, although not to the same degree as Iran or Al Qaeda. Although China’s support for Assad has been far less extensive than Russia’s, it also has more to lose due to the fact that it relies on the Middle East for over half its oil imports. This includes Iraq, where China has invested considerably over the past decade. All of this investment is now at risk as the sectarian conflict in Syria infects Iraq.
Furthermore, while Syria does not possess much oil itself, the Gulf monarchies that do are some of the harshest opponents of Assad’s rule. China’s support for the Assad regime has thus strained Beijing’s relations with these countries, which are vital to its economic interests. China appears conscious of this as evident by its attempts to compensate in other ways. Most notably, over the last year it has sought to increase its involvement in the Middle East peace process. But Beijing is as incapable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as is the U.S. and the West, and by becoming more involved in the conflict, China is almost certain to be blamed more for its inevitable failure.
Besides weakening America’s adversaries, the conflict in Syria has also benefitted its regional allies’ in dealing with their domestic problems. Specifically, the Syrian war has consumed the international media’s attention, giving Persian Gulf countries and other American allies’ greater flexibility in dealing with their own domestic unrest. The importance the Gulf nations placed in having a diversionary conflict was clear early on in the Arab Spring, when they strongly encouraged an international intervention in Libya immediately prior to intervening in Bahrain.
Additionally, by raising sectarianism in the region, the Syrian civil war has allowed the governments in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain to dismiss the very real grievances of their Shia populations. Moreover, the sheer level of violence in Syria has likely dissuaded potential protestors in other countries from taking to the streets. It has also made Western populations much more ambivalent towards the Arab Spring that they once so eagerly embraced.
This has benefitted the United States in a number of ways. First, and most obvious, it has allowed its allies in the region to fend off potentially destabilizing uprisings. Equally important, because international attention towards the Arab Spring has focused on Syria, the U.S. has been able to come out unambiguously in support of the protesters, which would have been much more difficult had some of its regional allies been the governments under siege.
Finally, it now appears that the Syrian civil war may help advance America’s interests in reducing weapons of mass destruction around the world. Specifically, to avert a U.S. military strike and perhaps because he is fearful of protesters assuming control of his stockpiles, so far al-Assad has been cooperating with the international community in removing his enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons. This would be no small achievement, as many of the states that haven’t signed or ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention are located in the Middle East or Arab world. The U.S. and its partners might be able to use the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons to convince states like Israel and Egypt to sign and ratify the CWC.
To restate, none of this is to argue that the costs of the Syrian civil war have been worth it, or that the United States should seek to prolong the conflict. Humanitarian concerns alone compel the United States to actively work to end the fighting. Moreover, the growth of sectarianism in the region is a potentially explosive force that the U.S. cannot control. Finally, the potential for the fighting and unrest to spread to strategically vital countries in the region also gives the U.S. a strong strategic interest in ending the Syrian civil war. Still, to date the U.S. has been winning in Syria, as it has been the primary benefactor of the events that have transpired there.
Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat where he authors The Pacific Realist blog. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bo yaser. CC BY-SA 3.0.