Syria As a Mirror of the Changing World Order
No. 1 2013 January/March
Alexander Aksenyonok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Vice President of the Russian International Affairs Council.

The spate of massive popular protests, which two years ago heralded the beginning of an enduring (as it has become obvious now) and fundamental realignment of the Middle East, was a result of long-simmering tensions, yet it would not have been instantaneous but for the effects of the volatile world situation. Some seemingly irreplaceable Arab leaders (in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) were forced to “voluntarily” quit the political scene. The Libyan leader suffered a tragic plight. The young monarchs of Morocco and Jordan hurried to adjust themselves to the new conditions and demands for democratization as they embarked on the path of political reform.

The Gulf oil states opted for a different way of self-adjustment. In their domestic policies, unheard-of financial infusions into social programs were made, with simultaneous greater allocations for strengthening the repressive machinery. Foreign policy efforts were largely focused on the support of the growing Sunni and even ultra-conservative Salafi movements in Islam, which joined in the popular calls for democratization in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria with a view to taking the lead in the revolutionary surge. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two most active regional players, regard the promotion of the ideology of politicized Islam as both an insurance policy against internal upheavals in the Arab monarchies and a means to resist Iran posing a threat of implementing its nuclear projects and intentions to use the surge of Islamism to its benefit.


From this standpoint Syria represents an exceptionally complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. As the events there have spread far beyond the bounds of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring” – a name bearing a pinch of romanticism – it now embodies what should rather be called an “Arab Tragedy.” Importantly, it was the Arabs themselves who internationalized the intra-Syrian conflict. Some members of the League of Arab States, acting out of their regional ambitions or the feeling of euphoria over the “victory” in Libya, openly came out against legal authorities in another LAS member-state – for the first time ever in the history of this organization. From that very moment Syria’s internal crisis has been the hardest trial for the entire international community struggling through a painful and long-drawn-out process of reformatting world politics in the post-Cold War era.

On the other hand, Syria’s legitimate authorities, being unable to grasp the need for reform and resorting to military force in response to originally peaceful demands for reforming the obsolete political system (the monopoly of the Baath party had long gone out of date, and its slogan “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” had lost its original appeal), gave cause to question its validity. Whereas the ten-year-long civil war in Algeria (1992-2002) was the result of hasty political reform, Syria is a classical example of the catastrophic consequences for the very existence of a nation state that the policy of some rulers may entail as they stubbornly seek to keep intact what has long gone out of date. The ruling Baath party neither properly responded to the turbulent events around Syria, nor derived the correct lessons from the profound change in the world at the new stage of its historical development.

The use of armed violence by a state against its own people invariably arrests world attention. As time passed, the urge to use methods of collective response, justified and fair per se, broke the bounds of international law. The world saw a string of crises involving unilateral use of military force by a group of states, for instance, in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya (the United Nations as a settlement instrument was employed retrospectively); or, as was the case in Libya, UN Security Council resolutions were interpreted very loosely.

The Syrian leadership failed to properly assess all these new realities and the ongoing changes in the geopolitical line-up of forces. The young president, who quite unexpectedly inherited power from his father (sophisticated in the intricate matters of world and Arab politics) agreed to liberalize the economy, but failed to overcome resistance from the Baath party’s hard-line old-timers and the Alawite top brass firmly clinging onto their clan privileges and business interests.

The march of events related to Syria clearly indicates there has emerged a tight knot of overt and covert contradictions and conflicting interests in the struggle for regional leadership in the very center of the Middle East. The struggle is not so much between Russia and the West as between the Arab states themselves (the LAS produced no unanimous decision regarding Syria), between the United States and the chief masterminds of the anti-Assad campaign among the Arabs, and between the Arabian monarchies and Syria’s ally Iran. However, the ongoing realignment of forces and the reformatting of the entire system of inter-state relations in the region as a result of fundamental shifts have remained on the sidelines. The international media presented these developments as a confrontation between Russia – “the backer of the bloody regime” – and the West – the champion of democratic ideals.

In the meantime, the Syrian crisis is not that simple to be presented in black-and-white, the way Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channel has been doing all the way. Apparently, there has been growing awareness of this in the United States and, to a smaller extent, in some European countries.

As the intra-Syrian conflict got militarized, the Opposition’s actions and the operations of its armed groups focused on one objective – toppling the regime at any cost with the help of outside armed intervention. The Opposition was openly asking the United States and Europe for a replay of the “Libyan scenario.” As neither side succeeded in achieving the decisive superiority, the situation grew into a political stalemate, for which the Syrian people are paying dearly. The Syrian state, whoever may rise to power after Assad, has been thrown back a decade in terms of its national development. The worst thing of all is that it is a war of attrition, and an openly inter-confessional one as well. This makes it particularly ferocious. Religion-related crimes, as the United Nations and international human rights organizations have recognized, are being committed on either side. Casualties among the Alawites, Sunnis, Druzes, Kurds and Christians keep growing. Whereas certain Arab countries of the Gulf – sponsors of the Syrian revolution – are pursuing their own regional goals and viewing the current developments from the angle of political hostility towards Iran, the unilateral position of the West, which has legitimated the attempt at the overthrow of the Syrian regime by military means, invites far more questions: Whose interests does it serve – those of the West or somebody else’s? In the final count, it would be hard to imagine Saudi Arabia and the United States having a similar vision of Syria’s state system after the Baath party’s regime has been replaced there.


At the same time, one cannot but see other implications. Of late, the West has been showing certain signs of uneasiness over the developments in Syria going astray. The Assad regime, although gradually losing control of peripheral areas in the northeast of the country and along the border, has still retained a considerable survival potential. On the other hand, inside the Opposition, above all in its armed wing, radical Islamist organizations, including jihad-minded ones, have been gaining the upper hand. One of such organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra, is notorious for its daring terrorist attacks, hostage-taking and massacres of people of a different faith. There has emerged the so-called Green International in Syria. According to different estimates, the armed Opposition numbers some 300 groups and factions, all contesting each other for control over financial flows from Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the redistribution of arms supplies, and for political domination.

This turn of events in Syria has forced the United States to admit, as Hillary Clinton put it, that extremists have been trying to “highjack the Syrian revolution,” and demand a renewal of the Opposition’s political (mostly foreign) leadership, because the current one has failed to secure sufficient support inside the country. Regrettably, it soon turned out that the Doha and Marrakech agreements for creating an “umbrella coalition” and for its recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people were achieved not through their preparedness for talks, but on a different platform. It was declared that this new coalition, in which Islamists got about one-third of the seats, would be pressing not just for the overthrow of the current regime, but for dismantling the whole state machinery. The regime’s opponents emphatically refused to negotiate. Assad’s resignation is their invariable precondition. Then the questions arise: Does the West have a strategic vision of Syria “after Assad”? Are the United States and the European Union capable of controlling the behavior of such an ill-assorted Opposition at all?

After so many months of abortive attempts to set in motion negotiations over the parameters of a transitional period in Syria one can state that the United States made a great mistake by declaring Assad’s regime illegitimate. His resignation has become a precondition for starting a national dialogue, which leaves very few chances that the conflict can be settled peacefully. Zbigniew Brzezinski described that step as a result of “an irresistible temptation to proclaim simplistic remedies to complicated foreign challenges.”

In fact, it is the fatal U.S. pre-election statement, which the Opposition forces keep pointing to as they stubbornly refuse to embark on the path of negotiations, not Russia’s veto (as the mass media propaganda sources in the West and some Arab countries claimed), that has stalled the search for ways for national accord. It is nakedly clear that Washington and the Europeans are now unable to backtrack on this “high-principled” position of theirs, even if an Islamist and jihad-minded Syria will be the sole alternative to what Syria has been under the Baath party.

Russia used its right to veto well aware of the political and image losses it would have to bear. At that time it was essential to ward off the risk of an armed intervention of Syria, which Russian politicians and the expert community saw as the worst evil. Syria is a nerve knot in the center of the Middle East. It is not like peripheral Libya. The United States Institute of Peace has produced some remarkable findings. A foreign intervention prolongs civil war 156 percent. Many countries which have been through such ordeals tend to witness relapses of violence, while transition to democracy becomes less probable. Libya is the latest example. The longer a civil war lasts, the more chances there are power will end up in the hands of oppositional factions that have staked on the use of force and terror. A soft transition to democracy in this case looks still less probable.

Meanwhile, Russia’s veto, odd as this may sound, stood the West in good stead. Now, albeit in retrospect, it has become clear to everyone that neither the United States, nor Britain, nor even France – the chief architect of the Libyan campaign – were all too eager to open a new battlefront in the very heart of the Middle East. Criticizing Russia is one thing, but daring at direct military intervention is a different, no easy matter from the military standpoint; it is very costly and prone with extremely risky implications. The region faces the risk of the emergence of an “instability belt” stretching form Morocco to Pakistan, with chances of southward expansion to the Sahel region, where France is already leading a United Nations-approved multinational antiterrorist operation with the aim of restoring territorial integrity of Mali. It may also entail a collapse of Syria’s statehood, threats to the fragile bodies of power in Iraq and Lebanon, destruction of the fundamentals of the monarchy in Jordan, and eventual redrawing of the entire map of the Middle East. The possibility of an Iranian-Arab military clash should not be excluded, either.

The Kurdish factor completes the overall unpredictable situation. Its role in the domestic policies of countries forming the so-called Kurdish Triangle (Syria, Turkey and Iran) has always been significant. Shortly after the start of military operations between Syrian troops and oppositional militants, the Syrian government made a decision to put a number of regions in the northeast under the control of the Kurdish majority. Whereas during the period when Syria-Turkey relations were on the rise there existed some sort of tacit understanding over the Kurdish issue, now Ankara is forced to reckon with possible emergence of a self-governing Kurdish area enjoying support from autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turks view this possibility as a major threat, the more so since Syria’s Kurds maintain close contact with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which stepped up its military operations in Turkey’s territory with the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The Kurdish factor, the problem of Syrian refugees, miscalculations regarding the date when Assad might fall and the West begin intervention – all this provided ground for the Opposition to mount criticism against the ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party and personally against Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The drawn-out conflict in Syria, with very slim chances for being settled soon, and Turkey’s heavy involvement in it, may backfire on Ankara on the domestic political scene after its foreign policy doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors” suffered utter failure. The Kurdish problem, which went into high gear after the military escalation in Syria, will put to test Turkey’s ambition to play the role of a regional leader and the attractiveness of the “Turkish model” in the changing balance of power in the Greater Middle East.


Thus the Syrian crisis is not a manifestation of rivalry between outside powers which have traditionally competed for the region, but a result of the growing economic and political influence of the regional actors, who are playing their own parts in the great game in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring has triggered a new round of confrontation between the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf countries and Iran, which prompted many experts to interpret (not without a reason) the escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf as a manifestation of Sunni-Shiite rivalry, which erupted into sanguinary wars many a time in Islamic history. At this stage of the “Arab awakening” Syria has found itself trapped amid turbulent changes in the regional landscape. It is not accidental that the West has dubbed the civil war in Syria a “proxy war,” engineered and masterminded by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The world experience of civil and, particularly, religious wars indicates that there are no devils or angels in them. The vicious circle of violence goes out of control and follows its own logic.

The protracted conflict in Syria has also shown how much narrower the opportunities for outside influence on the internal processes in the region are, and how much more chaotic and unpredictable these processes have grown.

The tragic death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya during the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi is not the sole evidence of that. As soon as the United States, which earlier had recognized the Syrian Opposition, blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, twenty nine other oppositional parties and organizations openly challenged the Americans, making a joint statement in support of the Islamists.

Russia may soon find itself in a similar uneasy situation. Russian diplomats have been actively persuading the Syrian leadership to reconcile itself with the reality, confirm its declared readiness for a dialogue with the Opposition by practical steps, and display more openness and initiative, proceeding from the assumption that there can be no military solution. However, it looks like Damascus is still unprepared to demonstrate proper tactical flexibility, it continues to be inconsistent and hesitant in strategic terms. The Opposition’s unacceptable demand for Assad’s resignation merely reinforces the position of the advocates of “war to the bitter end,” who see Russia as a “political umbrella” which can be used indefinitely. Moreover, some Syrian officials take the liberty of interpreting Russia’s statements in their own favor and making emotional comments regarding the internationally supported UN and LAS special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, accusing him of “outrageous bias in favor of the plotters against the country and its people.”

In the situation of a military-political stalemate and expanding humanitarian catastrophe the outside players may well find themselves in the position of hostages of somebody else’s interests, if there is no early breakthrough towards starting internationally assisted peace talks. Brahimi is an experienced diplomat and former foreign minister of a country that has survived the nightmare of a civil war, so his continuing mission in close contact with Russia and the United States raises some hope. Provided there is the political will, this trilateral format may prove most productive in search for ways of, first, ending bloodshed and, second, establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue to form a joint transitional body for discussing and making decisions on a future state system of the war-ravaged country. Like Russia, the United States is aware of the risks of an uncontrolled course of events, and unwilling to assume the responsibility for the effects of the post-Assad period.

The regional dimension of the Syrian conflict, which manifested itself with the tide of the Arab Spring, is not the only factor that makes it so special. Syria has mirrored the new trends in international relations, which since the end of last century have become ever more pronounced and seriously complicated the settlement of crisis situations of national scale. At the new historical stage of the world’s development, nowhere, except for the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, the natural processes of democratic renewal of economic structures and political state systems have been orderly and smooth. In the Balkan region and the vast Muslim space, the problems of profound internal transformation were aggravated by inter-ethnic and inter-confessional discord, the weakening of the nation states and their territorial integrity, devaluation of ideological targets, and an upsurge of terrorist activities as a means to achieve political goals.

As conflicts and contradictions in the national development grew, a range of issues, which had traditionally been regarded as undisputable and exclusively internal ones, became the subject of acute debates in the United Nations and other international institutions, and in bilateral relations. The international agenda now invariably includes issues relating to the interpretation of democratic values: common traits and national distinctions in implementing reforms in different countries; the role and limits of foreign intervention; the observance of human rights and freedoms; humanitarian law in the context of commensurability of the authorities’ use of force in settling intra-state conflicts; etc. Eventually, the  seemingly absolute notions of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of states were questioned, which resulted in the weakening of global governance and the growing of tensions and unpredictability in international relations.

The Arab Spring and, in particular, the crisis in Syria merely aggravated contradictions that had formed a gap between Realpolitik and the observance of the de jure intact norms of international law. Today’s question is this: Is the international community able to take concerted action to eliminate hotbeds of conflict, or will the geopolitical interests of the leading world powers and inflated ambitions of the regional centers of power gain the upper hand?

The current critical stage of the Syrian crisis can and must, in my opinion, encourage all parties concerned to unify their approaches to selecting the tools for rendering international assistance in settling internal conflicts. According to Brahimi’s apocalyptical forecast, Syria will soon be turned into another Somalia and there would open “the gates to hell.”


The eventual outcome of the civil standoff in Syria will have effects stretching far beyond the regional borders. Moscow is certain that the way the situation in that country is settled will ultimately set a model for the world community to use in responding to internal conflicts in other developing countries.

Indeed, one cannot but see that far from all legal norms have retained their effectiveness in international relations practice. The policy of “accomplished facts” may erode such fundamental principles of the world order that took shape after World War II as the concepts of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, broad interpretation of non-interference in the internal affairs, and non-use of force beyond the framework and procedures established by the UN Charter. In addition, the Libyan and Syrian cases lent a Realpolitik dimension to the question of legal grounds for stripping regimes that are not to the liking of one or several countries of their international legitimacy status.

The Arab Spring developments of the past two years have shown that policies oriented towards observance of the principles of civil rights of an individual, personal freedom and justice find increasing understanding with the international community. The voting at a UN General Assembly session (the February 16, 2013 Resolution) and in the Human Rights Council in favor of resolute and, in fact, unilateral condemnation of the Syrian authorities for massive and systematic abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms is very indicative in this respect. Of course, neither resolutions by the General Assembly, nor the use of force bypassing the UN Charter, whatever plausible excuses might be found for it, cannot serve as a reason for a revision of the fundamentals that ensure international stability.

Also, the debates over Syria have sent a message to the international community to launch a campaign for collective unification – in the format of the United Nations or some other international forum, the way the Helsinki Conference did in its day – of criteria crucial to the settlement of internal conflicts that may grow international. At this point of world development, classical wars between states that the UN founding fathers were largely focused on are becoming rare. Today, precedents of external intervention with the use of force mostly result from soaring social instability, inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflicts in countries that undergo internal reform. So certain rules must be established to restrict the policy of “accomplished facts” and “time-serving expediency.” Since the globalizing world is getting ever more interdependent and transparent, the current efforts by the United Nations to develop and upgrade the legal norms should be extended to issues that have traditionally been assigned to the realm of national sovereignty and internal affairs. Finding solutions to this sort of controversial issues that complicate international relations at the new historical stage would be possible only through partnership and cooperation among all leading states in the international scene.