Syria neighbors’ quiet satisfaction

By John J. Metzler ,Special to The China Post

UNITED NATIONS — All of Syria’s five neighboring countries sensed a quiet pleasure in seeing the rebellion against the Damascus dictatorship start two years ago. Many observers, knowing the authoritarian political pedigree of the Assad family rule, probably assumed Syria’s entrenched but moribund political system would be swept away by the winds of the so-called Arab Spring. Thus this misplaced sense of schadenfreude for what many thought would be another Egypt or Tunisia. But Syrians are a tougher and harsher lot as all sides to the conflict are proving.

Now as the conflict, really a civil war, enters its third year with over 70,000 dead, the specter of a wider sectarian disaster looms both inside Syria and with collateral damage spilling over into neighboring states, equally causing tense political relations between the USA and Russia.

According to many security experts, Syria is disintegrating into a state where rebel warlords, militias, and an embattled Assad regime are divided along sectarian lines. Syria’s sanguinary struggle seems locked in stalemate and Islamic jihadi forces circle.

For Russia, the Syrian state remains a crucial and protected geopolitical chess piece; a longtime regional political comrade dating to Soviet times. The close ties are something akin to the former U.S. stance towards Egypt before the Arab Spring swept away a pro-American and secular government replacing it with a Muslim brotherhood regime. Moscow has given the Syrian regime diplomatic cover fire in the U.N. Security Council and along with the People’s Republic of China, has exercised three vetoes to shoot down moderately mild resolutions aimed at stopping the violence and brokering political change. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a blunt meeting with Secretary Kerry failed to reach any understanding which would ease tensions in Syria. Now Russia, as president of the U.N. Security Council for March, will direct debate on the crisis. As a geographical neighbor, Turkey is keenly interested in Syria for three reasons. The Ankara government fears continuing refugee spillover and destabilization from the conflict. Already Turkey hosts over 250,000 Syrian refugees. Second, the Turks see the conflict within Islam, in this case between Ankara’s Islamic-lite Sunni Turkish government, supporting an embattled Sunni majority in Syria. Third, since Syria was part of the old Ottoman empire, there’s the nostalgic and cultural pull towards sorting things out in Damascus.

In the wider scope, regional states face destabilization, especially tiny Lebanon where sectarian fault lines were long part of a fractious political landscape; the Kingdom of Jordan, another host for Syrian refugees but a state decidedly wary of allowing the Syrian spillover to tip a delicate political balance in Amman; Israel who can militarily take care of itself but fears wider regional chaos and the possible creation of an Islamic regime in Damascus; and both Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran whose Shiite majority has long supported Assad’s Allewite minority sect ruling in Damascus.