The Syrian conflict is much more complex than expected because it quickly evolved into a regional and international tug of war between great powers like the US, Russia, China, Iran, and Israel, and minor players like Jordan and the Gulf States. Each of those countries is vying for its own interests in this important regional country.
For China and Russia, the real issue is not just to prevent the US and Israel from dislodging an important ally and converting Syria from an important regional player into a US satellite state, but to challenge the US policies and hegemony around the world as rising super powers.
For Iran, the loss of the Syrian regime would end its historic expansion in the Levant and would isolate its Hezbollah colony in Lebanon. It is very important for Iran, moreover, which views itself as a regional powerhouse with regional interest and allies, to maintain its foothold in the Mediterranean and at Israel’s doorstep.
Its historic alliance with the Syrian regime gave Iran a much-needed Arab face that it used to increase its presence and influence in the region. More importantly, however, Iran uses the Syrian regime as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, as a first line of defense against its arch-enemy Israel.
Israel, in the meantime, sees the Syrian conflict as an important element in its wider conflict with Iran. Moreover, deposing the Damascus regime is a strategic imperative for Israel to ensure its supremacy over all of the Arab states especially after converting Iraq from a powerful Arab state with regional ambitions into an Iranian satellite and failed state.
Within the conservative American and Israeli movements Syria and Iran were supposed to be the next target after the war in Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. Having powerful unfriendly Arab states in the Middle East can pose a future danger to US and Israeli hegemony in the region and is something that should be addressed according to the neoconservative thinking in the US and Israel.
The war against Iraq that saw the establishment of the Bush doctrine of “preemptive war” was supposed to start the remaking of the Middle East and create surgical chaos before new weakened and fragile states emerge. Such states would depend on the US for their survival and pose no threat to Israel for decades to come.
The administration of President Barack Obama came in to power with the intention to roll back the Bush doctrine of preemptive wars in the Middle East and prevent Israel and its neoconservative allies from completing their overarching strategy of remaking the Middle East into chaotic and fragile states. Ironically, what made this strategy so successful was none other the Arab dictatorial regimes themselves. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Bashaar al Assad were brutal and oppressive dictatorships and inherently inflexible toward more democratic reform and allowing their citizens breathing space outside their suffocating control. Demolishing such regimes that lack basic legitimacy in the eyes of an oppressed citizenry proved much easier than expected.
Obama’s cautious approach toward Syria put a stop on the US and Israeli drive to remake the Middle East and forced the Israeli leadership to halt its war plans, for now, at least, against Iran.
The biggest prize for Israel is Iran, not Syria, but Syria is a necessary step toward defeating Iran by defanging its Syrian and Lebanese allies. This explains why conservative and powerful American lawmakers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are pushing the Obama administration toward more active military involvement in Syria that goes beyond diplomatic and financial support for the opposition and the refugees.
While the Obama administration also views Iran, and, to a lesser extent Syria, as a major threat to its interests in the region, its approach toward dealing with it is less confrontational and definitely not through military means. The irony of this is that the Obama administration ended up becoming a lesser threat to Iran and the regime of Bashaar al Assad because it considers clandestine operations, diplomacy, and containment as the best approach toward containing Iran and its Syrian ally. Kerry’s meeting with the Russian leadership is clear evidence that the Obama administration is hoping to coax the Russians and the Chinese to support an international conference to end the conflict in a manner acceptable to all concerned. Unless different kind of variables emerges on the ground, such as a military confrontation with Israel, or large-scale use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians, the Obama administration is content with a management approach to the Syrian conflict.
Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.