The balance (or imbalance) between the Sunni and Shiite populations in Syria once helped to consolidate existing regimes all over the Middle East.
Syria’s regime was also a factor demonstrating which country in the region was cooperating with which great power. When Iran was a close ally of the West, Syria was supported by the Eastern Bloc. In those times, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel were all in the same camp. Then, Iran abandoned its Western allies and a bloody process ensued to re-establish the balance. In those years, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came into existence, Israel’s relations with Syria deteriorated, civil war in Lebanon intensified, and Iraq suffered a great deal and was literally occupied in the end.
Today, we have witnessed the long-term consequences of what took place decades ago. However, today’s world is quite different from back then and it is harder to force people to live under a regime they dislike. Moreover, today’s alliances are multifaceted. For example, Turkey is an ally with the West, but it is closer to Barack Obama’s US as it struggles with the France-Germany-Great Britain axis and tries to be on good terms with Russia. Israel opposes Obama’s policies and is actually serving Russia’s interests. Iran is trying to assure Russia’s partnership, not by using its antagonism with the US but via friendship with China. Many European countries are attempting to forge their own alliances and some of them are doing everything to win Russia’s.
Because of this complex configuration, it’s not surprising that the Syrian regime is breaking apart. It has had to decide whether or not it accepts the new parameters of foreign relations. In order to facilitate this decision, Turkey advised Syria to cut its ties with Iran. This would also allow Russia and the US to reinforce their cooperation in the region. However, Iran made a counter-proposal to the Syrian leadership: Stay close to Tehran and benefit from the Iran-Russia alliance. The problem is that the Syrian people have accepted Turkey’s proposal while the Syrian regime has opted for Iran’s offer.
Meanwhile, Europe has failed to pull Syria toward the international system, and Russia has preferred to negotiate directly with the West rather than sending its messages through Syria and Iran. The tension between Israel and Iran has surpassed the problems between Syria and Israel, and Turkey’s relations with Syria and Israel have simultaneously deteriorated. All this happened while the US was mounting pressure on Iran. In this context, Syria made a big mistake and tried to play the new game with old rules.
Syria had two choices: either to implement comprehensive political reform, in other words, to put an end to minority rule -- a choice that would mean a regime change, or to resist and try to convince third actors that this resistance is what is good for the region. Here again, the people and the rulers of Syria have made conflicting choices.
Syria’s leaders have chosen to liquidate the opposition and label their actions as terrorism. It has also chosen to intensify its cooperation with Iran and its sponsors. The only way to pull Syria out of this vicious circle was to support a regime change and this is the main reason why Turkey is now supporting the opponents. The regime change in Damascus is also good news for the “doves” in Israel, because Syria’s normalization may provide some security at one of Israel’s borders at least.
The Arab League’s recent decision to suspend Syria’s membership is an important step toward pushing Damascus to reconsider its choices. The Syrian leadership is lonelier than ever and the way is now wide open for all kinds of international interventions.