The Syrian conflict has led to the failure of the Syrian state, which has had consequences for not only the Middle East, but a host of other nations with interests in Syria. This has prompted these states to intervene in the crisis in an effort to end the violence there.
Prominent international actors in the conflict include the US, Russia, Turkey, the European Union (EU), Saudi Arabia, and Iran. I will divide the policies of the aforementioned actors into two categories. These categories are determined by relative similarity between interests, policies, and goals. The first category will be the West, which includes the US and EU. The second will be termed the East for convenience, and includes Russia and Iran, as well as the beleaguered Syrian regime. It must be noted that some states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as other inter-governmental groups like the Gulf Cooperation Council, play a role in the Syrian conflict. However, their role is less pronounced and influential than the West and East categories, and are largely idiosyncratic and circumstantial, placing them outside the scope of this paper.
West: Immigration Crisis, Counter Terrorism, and Human Rights
The US and the EU share a great deal in common in terms of interests in Syria. These can be summarized as attempts to deal with the refugee crisis, countering terrorism, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the enforcement of human rights. These three interests have variably assumed priority among the Western states, with enforcing human rights taking the primacy of place at the outset of the conflict only to be supplanted by addressing the refugee crisis and most recently a concerted counter-terrorism effort. Importantly, the call for protection of human rights has included attempts to bring the conflict to an end by brokering a political solution and insisting that the Assad regime step down, placing regime change at the core of the Western position on Syria (Ollivant, 2013). This has also led the US and its allies to support certain opposition groups, deemed moderate by Western governments, including provisions of lethal aid (Entous, 2015). While this policy officially remains, the immediacy of the refugee crisis and the threat posed by ISIL has caused Western states to pay more attention to these problems.
The focus on countering ISIL and managing intra-EU squabbles over refugees has obscured the root causes of the conflict, as well as elements of Western policy which is at odds with the Eastern category involved in Syria. The refugee crisis will persist until the Syrian state is able to function again, rendering all attempts by the EU and its member states to deal with the influx of refugees ineffective. Admittedly, ISIL represents a threat to the security and stability of Syria and beyond, and neutralizing it is a prerequisite for reinstating a functioning government in the country. Thus, while there has been success in countering ISIL among Western nations, this has not been oriented within a broader policy approach to solving the problem of Syrian state failure. Furthermore, the Western approach, particularly the arming of rebels and insistence on regime change put it at odds with the Eastern bloc.
The East: Supporting an Ally and the Triumph of Realpolitik
Like the US and the EU, Russia and Iran share many interests in Syria. For both, the Syrian government represents a threatened ally in the region. Both pragmatically value the perceived stability of authoritarianism over enforcing ideals like human rights; both see Western calls for Assad’s ouster as providing a pretense to attempt regime change in Russia and Iran; and both seek to use the conflict to demonstrate their diplomatic and military prowess to validate claims to global and regional power status. These interests have resulted in similar policies toward Syria, but both are aligned against Western positions, with very little overlap between East and West.
While both continue to support the Assad regime, support from both has also begun to wane. In 2012, Iran courted a number of opposition groups, probably perceiving the Assad regime’s inability to govern, but has since decided to continue backing the Assad regime (Goodarzi, 2013). In Russia’s case, it was quick to come to the ailing Assad regime’s aid when it was losing territory to the various opposition groups (Ioffe, 2015). However, the relationship, already downgraded from the one enjoyed by Bashar al Assad’s father, has suffered from the Assad regime’s inflexibility in negotiating a political settlement (Slim, 2016). Yet despite these difficulties, both Iran and Russia remain committed to the Assad regime.
Russia and Iran both feel threatened by the West’s insistence on regime change. The Kremlin has long argued that much of what the West considers to be universal human rights violates state sovereignty. Since the “color revolutions” of 2003 and 2004, Russia has increased its emphasis on protecting its sovereignty, seeing those revolutions as consequences of the expansion of NATO (Smith, 2013). More recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the West of attempting regime change via the imposition of sanctions due to Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian unrest (Devitt, 2014). The Russian interpretation of protecting sovereignty has extended to accusing the West of violating the sovereignty of Russia’s allies, in this case Syria. In response to US plans to increase its military forces in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that “it is impossible for [the Russian Federation] not to be worried that such an action by the [US] is being carried out without the agreement of the legal government of Syria,” claiming that such actions violate Syrian sovereignty (Al Arabiya, 2016). It is clear that Russia sees in the West’s attempt to oust the Assad regime a parallel: threats to its ally’s sovereignty are threats to its own. Therefore, Russia has established a hardline policy of support for the Assad regime.
Iran similarly fears regime change in Syria; surrounded by hostile Sunnis and its arch-nemesis Israel, and with frequent calls in the US for regime change, Iran is quite fearful of losing its principle regional ally. Thus, despite its reluctance, Iran has been forced to remain a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime. Iran’s alliance with Syria is based partly on its strategic interests, for example providing “a geographic thoroughfare to Lebanese Shi’a militia Hizb Allah,” but also on its “deep concerns about the composition of a post-Assad government” (Sadjadpour, 2013). This explains Iran’s support for the Assad regime, as well as its reluctance: should a successor suitable to Iran’s interests appear, it is likely that Iran would cease its support for Assad.
The Syrian state has failed. The conflict has expanded beyond Syria’s borders, drawing in members of the international community. Europe is beset by mass refugee migration; the US and Europe are united in the need to subdue the threat posed by ISIL; Russia and Iran face the loss of a strategic ally should the Assad regime fall. The Assad regime has proven incapable of governing Syria, necessitating international interventions. Yet the very countries best postured for these interventions have competing interests and thus competing policies for how best to end the chaos in Syria. On the one hand, the West seeks regime change, seeing the Assad regime as illegitimate due to its violations of human rights and inability to govern. This is unacceptable to the East, who both value the Assad regime as a strategic ally. Furthermore, Russia and Iran are concerned that Western-led regime change in Syria may be a precursor to similar attempts elsewhere. To this end they continue to emphasize state sovereignty. In some ways, the bloc politics taking place now inside of Syria have almost very little to do with the actual end game IN Syria and is much more about the politics and consequences that might happen OUTSIDE of Syria. Unfortunately, what these ‘competing interventions’ have shown first and foremost (and seems likely not to end or change anytime soon) is that the Syrian civilian population is only going to suffer more for the foreseeable future.