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The Big Picture: Syria's Winners and Losers

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

• Syria's war has raged for 6½ years, during which the country's web of alliances ensured it became a stage for regional power battles, largely along Saudi-Iranian lines. • More surprising were the wider shifts that Syria's chaos invited, with Russia assuming a dominant role, and Shiite Iran effectively defeating the Arab Gulf states' policy of using Sunni Islamist proxies. The fierce competition for influence in Syria is rooted in its strategic position at the heart of the Arab world -- bordering key US allies Israel and Jordan, as well as Nato member Turkey, while sharing a porous border with Iraq. Syria is also home to sectarian divides, with a minority Shiite Alawite leadership governing a Sunni majority, and for decades served as a conduit for Iranian influence in neighboring Lebanon, the frontline of the Arab-Israeli conflict. An Arab Spring uprising in Syria was always going to trigger wider and deeper geopolitical cleavages than the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Syria's conflict also coincided with the US' reduced engagement in the region, largely out of a desire to avoid costly military adventures but partly also reflecting its rising energy self-reliance (EC Apr.29'16). The resulting vacuum was always going to be filled, and it is now increasingly obvious by whom -- with Russia and Iran emerging as the main beneficiaries amid signs that the conflict is finally heading toward its endgame. Russia's surprise decision two years ago to back the Al-Assad government militarily, as the Syrian army was rapidly losing ground, arguably turned the tide. Even if Russian forces are later scaled down, new bases will remain. This military presence, a main aim of Moscow, will allow it to "project Russian influence and power into the whole region," says analyst Cyril Widdershoven (EC Feb.3'17). Perhaps most importantly, Russia's reputation as a serious player in the region has risen exponentially, with even those who oppose its policy in Syria -- such as Saudi Arabia -- lending it a grudging respect. Russia is looking to turn its political foothold into economic dividends, such as future oil and gas contracts in Syria and Libya, where Moscow's influence has also been growing. State-controlled Rosneft has already signed deals in Egypt and Iraq's Kurdistan region (related). The Mideast Gulf is also becoming Moscow's go-to source of finance (EC Aug.18'17). Iran has been a big winner too, and is now able to connect its proxies -- Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Al-Assad regime in Syria, and its militias in Iraq -- in a Shiite arc of influence from the Mideast Gulf to the Mediterranean. And with the Syrian army now just one-fifth of its prewar size, the Syrian regime -- or its successor -- will likely have to rely on Iranian-backed and -funded groups to hold and defend territory, UK think tank Chatham House notes. Iranian ally Hezbollah now holds an expanded position along Israel's border in Syria and played a key role in recent fighting in Iraq, giving it a stronger standing inside Lebanon and access to more military hardware. Another major winner appears to be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded in doing what other Arab dictators failed to do in the Arab Spring -- survive in power. "Bashar managed to show the world that he has very powerful friends that can keep him in power, and Iran and Russia proved that they are loyal to their alliance and will stand by their friends, something that's missing in the Sunni world," said a Mideast Gulf-based Syrian diplomat. Syria's conflict has also seen its Kurds gain control of a swath of territory in the northeast (EC Sep.9'16). While an independent Syrian Kurdistan is unlikely, a postwar Damascus may be inclined to grant Syria's Kurds special status, building off long-standing tacit cooperation. Saudi Arabia and the wider Sunni bloc that includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey fall on the other side of the ledger. Having earlier lost the battle for influence in Iraq against regional rival Iran, Saudi Arabia is now facing the same outcome in Syria. The kingdom's troubled military adventure in Yemen, aimed against Iran, sharpens that sting. Equally significant is the effective demise of the Arab Gulf states' checkbook diplomacy, which brought few gains in Syria. Without it, Saudi Arabia looks short of a key foreign policy tool. The US also comes out on the losing side. Former President Barack Obama avoided dragging the US into a wider war by deciding against military action after a chemical weapons strike by the Syrian government in 2013. But US reticence paved the way for Russia to extend its influence in the region, at the expense of the US. And while President Donald Trump was quick on the trigger after another reported chemical weapons attack in April, the cease-fire he agreed in early July with Russian President Vladimir Putin effectively underwrote Russian and Iranian dominance in Syria, and by extension, the Al-Assad government. Turkey has also lost out. To keep what influence it still has in the region, it had to bow to Iran and Russia's position and accept Al-Assad's continued rule for now, despite having earlier demanded his departure. But for Ankara, the real test will center on the outcome for Syria's Kurds, who are linked to the Turkish Kurdish militant group PKK. Israel, meanwhile, is sounding alarm bells about Iran's ever-growing influence, especially in Syria and Lebanon, where a stronger Hezbollah is seen as posing real threats -- with the failure of the 2006 Lebanon war still sharp (EC Aug.5'16). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spelled out these concerns to Putin last month, but Moscow's response was not encouraging. Israeli officials have warned Washington of the trouble such an imbalance holds in store. Of course, the real losers of Syria's conflict are the Syrian people, with millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed, Andreas Krieg of King's College London says, while questioning the idea of winners and losers as Syria heads toward de facto division into smaller spheres of influence. This process, says Fadi Assaf of Beirut-based risk consultancy Middle East Strategic Perspectives, is the one to watch. "We're at the beginning of a new phase, where each actor tries to either consolidate its gains or limit its losses … a sort of geopolitical rope-pulling," he says, arguing that this is "the phase that should be monitored closely." What seems clear, however, is that the external forces pulling those ropes will mainly be Russia and Iran, not the US -- and that the region is entering uncharted territory. Jill Junnola, London, Amena Bakr and Oliver Klaus, Dubai

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