Syria is the field where Middle East powers are playing a game that involves regional interests and hegemonies, arms trafficking and funding to militant groups. A struggle far beyond Syria’s battlefield: the control of the Arab world is at stake.
The ‘Arab Spring’ was a nightmare for Israel. Uprisings led to the collapse of long-standing alliances or agreements (such as that with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak), which had guaranteed stability on the borders. The ever enemy, Bashar al-Assad, no longer threatened invasions, and in 2007, even some informal preliminary meetings were held for a possible return of the Golan Heights to Syria in a near future. The civil war has instead put everything into question, making Israel feel vulnerable. Though Assad is a dictator and a hostile enemy, he is not a threat to Israeli’s borders. Should the Syrian President fall, the extremist groups fighting in Syria could turn against the Jewish State. Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime, is also cause for concern to Israel. Tel Aviv fears that Syrian missiles and chemical weapons may end up in the hands of Hezbollah or terrorist groups, threatening in this way, the safety of the country.
Jordan’s risky bet
Jordan is giving hospitality to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees; this is putting a strain on the country’s economy. In less than three years, Jordan has spent more than a billion and a half dollars for the support to refugees. In the country, the powerful elite Bedouin community, which makes up a minority of the kingdom, supports King Abdullah II, the rest of the population are Arabs of Palestinian origin. Despite the fact that they make up the majority of the country they are marginalized, but they have, however, better living conditions compared to those living in Syria or Lebanon. Arms supplied by Jordan, along with the United States, Europe and Israel are flowing to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel factions, nevertheless Jordanian influence on the several fighting groups is rather limited. The rebel gains in southern Syria sharpen Jordan’s dilemma. King Abdullah had to choose between a potentially hostile dictator and the rebels battling him. He bet on moderate rebels but fears those linked to al Qaeda. A bet not easy to win.
Lebanon: pro and anti-Assad groups
Syria’s war has certainly heightened tensions in Lebanon. The country is under the constant threat of sectarian conflict between Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities. Lebanon’s social and political dynamics are starting to look increasingly like those in Syria, just on a smaller scale. On the one side, the political groups hostile to Damascus’ regime are in favour of arms supply and support to the Takfirists fighters sent to Syria. On the other side, the Shiite Hezbollah movement backs the Assad regime. Hezbollah, justifies its choice saying that their goal is to defend the Shiite minority in Syria (in particular those of Lebanese origin) attacked by rebel groups. The movement also supports Baath’s regime, which backed them in the fight against the Israeli invasion.
Saudi Arabia: the duel with Tehran
Saudi Arabia is one of the most active players in the Syrian game. Syria is just one among the battlegrounds in the Saudi Arabia’s regional conflict against Iran in order to limit the Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf region. Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are more political than religious. Saudi Arabia is definitely the main guide and supporter of Sunnis and in particular of their extremist components, those that are Wahhabi-inspired. The Al-Saud ruling family supports radical groups with money and weapons, and pushes for US intervention in Syria. Riyadh’s goal is to oust Assad and create a Sunni-majority Islamic state under its religious and political control. The alternative would be: Syria remaining in the Iranian orbit, an unacceptable eventuality for the al-Saud family.
Qatar: the great ambition
Qatar is one of the main financers of Sunni insurgents, in particular the extremist group al-Nusra Front Jabhat. The country is very rich and the dream of the previous Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was to replace the Saudi rulers in the role of ‘leader’ of the Sunni Arab world. He financed, therefore, not only rebel groups fighting Assad, but also those insurgents supported by Riyadh. The rivalry between the two Sunni countries exacerbates tensions between factions. The result is a conflict within a conflict. Qatar Emir’s son, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, is now the country’s leader. He is apparently, according to some Western sources, more interested in business, than in religion.
The other Arab countries: sticking to Riyadh
Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman give financial support to Syrian rebel groups, sticking to the policy of the Sunni Arab leading country, Saudi Arabia. After all, some of these countries depend on Riyadh. This is reflected in Bahrain’s reality, where the al-Khalifa monarchy is Sunni, but the majority of the population is Shiite. The Shiites in Bahrain suffer religious discrimination and have limited political freedom. Since 2011, the regime has repeatedly needed Saudi Arabia military forces’ support to crush protests and halt ‘the Arab Spring’ that threatened the small Persian Gulf state‘s ‘status quo’.
Iran: more than regional leadership at stake
Syria means even more to Iran. It is not only the struggle for regional leadership against Saudi Arabia, or a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Syria’s conflict may affect Iran’s safety and power. Teheran fears that the stability of the country could be threatened by the United States and Israel. For this reason Iran has so far supported Assad, also pushing its Hezbollah allies to directly intervene in Syria. Syria’s events might affect Iran’s security system. However, as the Geneva deal on the nuclear program, signed in Geneva on November 24, has been reassuring for the Ayatollahs’ regime, Teheran may not be interested in being involved in the Syrian conflict anymore. This would eliminate one of the strongest external interferences in the conflict. (H.M.)