In his book The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958, Patrick Seale reminds us of the pivotal importance and attractiveness of Syria’s geostrategic location in the competition for power expansion and influence-building in the Middle East. Today, the situation is much more complex. Civil war is looming in the absence of the possibility of peaceful, smooth, orderly change. The Annan mission is supposed to help the Arab League and the United Nations contain and settle the conflict. But the latter is pitting an Arab-Turkish-Western axis against an Iranian-Russian-Chinese one, with different degrees of involvement, commitment and agendas for members of each axis.
Many factors tend to enlarge the crisis area, making the conduct of crisis diplomacy more difficult.
First, the strong revival of primordial identities: Ethnic, religious, sectarian identities that had been weakened or marginalized for years now threaten the fabric of already-vulnerable mosaic societies. This vulnerability is basically due to the failure of the national reconstruction process in post-independence states, as well as the strong wave of political Islamization in Middle Eastern societies. This wave is particularly strong in the Mashreq, which is rich in its diversity.
Second, the geopolitics of Islamism via the emergence of revolutionary Iran, the politics of post- invasion Iraq, and the sectarianization of Islamism. These schisms are exacerbated by the fear of reviving old wounds and the clash of religious legitimacies and political agendas. This revival has created an axis of tension and confrontation along the Sunni-Shia line, and made for the emergence of the Karbala paradigm. The confrontation between the two sectarian tectonic plates, a necessary tool to understand a great part of the dynamics of regional politics, threatens the internal stability of many countries and plays a key role in the game of power in the region.
Third, the political organization of Iraq is along the lines of the consociational Lebanese formula. These are democracies based on consensus among communities, which is a recipe for maintaining vulnerability and inviting interference. Add to that formula the fact that US withdrawal from Iraq has left the Iranians feeling they have a better handle in Iraq, while being afraid, at the same time, of the potential loss of Syria as an ally. These factors invite all kinds of conflicts over Iraq, from strategic to sectarian ones, which feed into each other.
Fourth, Lebanon needs to be revisited every now and then. It is vulnerable to any little change or tension in its immediate environment. It is a caisse de resonance for serious problems mainly occurring in Syria and around Syria.
Fifth, the escalating competition and confrontation by proxy between Iran and Turkey, on the one hand, and Iran and most Arab countries over Iraq, on the other, has created a power vacuum. The influence of that competition on the outcome of Syria’s internal conflict, the strong confrontation over the nuclear issue between Iran and the West, and Syria’s place as a major card in Iran’s regional strategy, are all elements that add to the challenge.
Thus, the struggle for Syria today is a struggle in reality that extends over a chessboard running from Baghdad to Beirut and the repercussions of the outcome of the struggle will definitely reach Beirut, Baghdad and beyond, into the entire Middle East.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is Head of the Arab League Mission in Paris and Permanent Observer at UNESCO. Prior to taking up his post, he was Professor of International Relations at American University in Cairo. Ambassador Hitti has a long and distinguished history of academic and diplomatic postings in Europe, North America and the Arab world.