Syria is the battleground where the new order for the Middle East will emerge.
As the second decade of the 21st century comes to a close, it has become increasingly clear that the unipolar moment of the post-Cold War era has come to a close and multipolarity is on the ascendant.
While an international system characterised by more diffuse power offers several benefits, it also contains risks, particularly as the foundations of a multi-polar world order are laid. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the Middle East, where a changing global balance of power and renewed great power competition has stimulated a dynamic where both international and regional powers continue to carve out their respective sphere of influence. Syria has arguably become the key battleground where this competition continues to play out. It has become a theatre where regional rivalries – involving actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran – have become interwoven with international projects involving the US, Russia and China.
Ultimately, it is in the broader Middle East, and Syria in particular, that we see a reflection of a developing struggle over the definition of international norms and institutions. Although it may seem hyperbolic, it can safely be said that the Middle East is fast becoming the region where the first significant conflagrations relating to the emergence of a new global order are taking place.
In 2011 when protests erupted across the region, there was a general feeling among officials in Europe and North America that the wave of post-Soviet democratisation had finally hit the Middle East. Western officials saw this as an opportunity, firstly two re-frame and ultimately cement their relationships in the region, and secondly, to pre-empt China and Russia from gaining a foothold.
However, through a combination of hesitancy (as in the case of Syria) and what is seen by some in the region as a betrayal of traditional Western allies, Europe and the US were decidedly outmanoeuvred in certain instances by both regional and international powers. The Saudi-Iran confrontation in the Middle East provides a lens through which we can develop a framework for understanding much of the current political dynamic in the region.
On one end you have Saudi Arabia and its allies – most prominently the UAE – who have embarked on a regional project premised on counter-revolution, enhancing business and security ties with the US, and shifting the status quo vis-a-vis Israel. The ultimate objective of this project is not only ensuring regime survival but also to establish a degree of regional hegemony. On the other side, Iran continues to push what all too often looks like an expansionist agenda, employing allied – and often sectarian – militias in strategic areas across the region to push its agenda. Although premised on ‘resistance’ to Israeli and American aggression in the region, continued support for the likes of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad and the project of demographic re-engineering in Syria calls this claim into question.
Furthermore, the spectre of Iranian power and the anxiety it causes Arab autocracies, in particular, is itself a major driver of policy approaches in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. As Rami Khoury wrote back in 2017: “the ghost that haunts conservative Arab autocracies is their perception of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.” While the Saudi-Iran rivalry provides a good explanatory framework for understanding the current dynamic in the region, there is the other, albeit interconnected, international dynamic between the US, Russia and China.
In the early years following the post-Cold War era, the US enjoyed the privilege of a high degree of both popular and elite support in the region. Following almost thirty years of interventions, numerous wars and seemingly increasing support for regional despots as well as Israel has left the US with an influence deficit in the region. Russia, for its part, is seeking to preserve and enhance its influence in the region by leveraging its relative military power in lieu of economic strength. Russia’s interest in the Middle East at this point—aside from protecting its relatively limited assets in Syria—can be attributed to its challenge of the post-Cold War international system, dominated by the US.
The so-called Arab Spring provided Russia with the chance to show the world that it was still a force to be reckoned with, and it continues to strive to construct an alternative pole of influence in the region. China, on the other hand, is engaged in a long-term program designed to restore its self-perceived historical position as a preeminent world power. While its current involvement in the Middle East remains relatively limited, it has shown signs of increasing concern beyond the energy resources the region provides. For example, following the announcement of the Belt and Road initiative, China released its first Arab Policy paper in 2016, coinciding with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip to the region, which outlines China’s long-term approach to building cooperative relationships with regional states.
China has consistently professed a non-interventionist doctrine, which is particularly attractive to regional governments at a time when the issue of state sovereignty and non-intervention are once again being debated at the international level, with a clear divide emerging between the West and the bloc of emerging powers. While China’s long term vision for the region is centred around the Belt and Road Initiative, it would be a mistake to think of Chinese engagement in the region merely through a myopic economic lens. The fact is that as much as the Belt and Road Initiative may appeal to regional states, it cannot be fully and smoothly implemented while conflicts – both political and military – continue in the region.
The Syrian microcosm
Events, as they have unfolded in Syria, represent a bloody microcosm of the region over the last decade. The Saudi-Iran factor looms large in this respect. While the Saudis supported the opposition from the start of the uprising to unseat a long-time Iranian ally in the Assad regime, as the war progressed and the regime appeared to be gaining in strength, Saudi Arabia began to rethink their approach. With a consistent view of countering Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, have sought to re-open relations with Damascus to secure influence as the war winds down and the rebuilding process begins.
For Russia, its Syria intervention perfectly characterises its new foreign policy approach towards the Middle East. The war in Syria became a means for Moscow not only to secure its strategic assets and increase its influence in the short term but also as a way to further its longer-term project of reducing Western influence in the region and using it as a stage for a political and ideological competition with the US. The US is arguably less strategically concerned with the Middle East than it once was, mainly because it is no longer reliant on the region for energy. Its increasingly ambivalent position towards regional issues is reflected in its approach in Syria where its objectives have been limited to fighting Daesh and a marginal containment of Iran.
The continued American presence in Syria sends a signal to both Russia and China that, although they are not engaged like they once were, they are not merely ready to cede their position in the region. China, for its part, has officially maintained its neutrality towards the Syrian crisis. However, as the war nears an end, China will be well-positioned to be a major player in the rebuilding process. Chinese capital, if untied to any political conditions, will undoubtedly be a key a facet in rebuilding Syria and will give them substantial political capital to be cashed in down the road.
Beijing has already been looking towards investments in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and a possible revival of the Tripoli-Homs route as a means of accessing the Syrian market as reconstruction moves forward. The opacity that has come to characterise the Syrian war, with its multi-layered levels of interventions and ramifications, serves as a simulacrum for much of the region as a whole. The various interwoven regional and international projects will, for better or worse, likely to continue to define the political dynamic in the region for some time to come. The hope is that the people of the region will be able to have their voices heard through the noise and be able to assert a degree of autonomy in the face of competing visions of the region that do not necessarily have their best interests at heart.