Syria is in defining moment for Arab World: Analysis by Paul J. Sullivan


Syria is once again one of those beautiful countries with a deep and fascinating history. If it were peaceful and more open to the world it could be a tourism paradise that could link its great sites to those of Turkey, Jordan, and more. The potential for tourism development in Syria is vast.

Syria also has a fairly well educated population and fairly good infrastructure. Its banking system was on a long road to modernizing for years prior to the Arab Spring striking them. There were also some economic reforms in process that seemed to help the economy move along. Prior to the present troubles the Syrian economy was growing at about 4-5 percent. But as with Egypt and Tunisia this growth was not evenly shared. Macroeconomic data pointed to a strengthening Syrian economy. But microeconomic indicators pointed to high unemployment and underemployment. Corruption was rife and some people were getting very wealthy as most people stayed the same or worse.

Syria is yet another bifurcated economy in the Arab world that proved to be ripe for rebellion and dissent. This was kept in check for many years by a brutal and intrusive security services. The world is now seeing them in full action in the bloody response to rebellion. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian Army is not looked upon favorably by many in the country. It has also done much lately to make its relations with the people more strained. Could the Army of Syria save its country as the Egyptian Army did? I doubt it at the moment. This could make one worried about the future of Syria and how it will recover from its recent difficulties. There is also the huge question about who would take over if the Asad regime indeed falls. The pressures on the regime are gigantic, both internally and externally.

The best way for Syria may have been to reform the economy and open up the politics of the country gradually and carefully. However, this all seems to be a moot point now.

One of the major lessons for leadership in the future is: when the tide comes up, and the economic tide for Syria was coming up prior to the troubles, make sure everyone’s boat is rising. Otherwise, expect trouble.

Another lesson for leadership is: go after corruption and wasta networks that are damaging your relations with the people before the people turn on you. The best leaders put forward efforts to help the people as a whole, not just the people who are connected. Syria had a real chance to make change before all of this happened.

Syria has many important neighbors and its relations with these neighbors have changed in recent weeks. The leadership of Turkey had showed great restraint in its application of its good neighbor policy, but recently has begun to really question what is going on in Syria and has let many refugees from Syria’s north into Turkey. During recent years Syria’s relations with Turkey have improved vastly from the days of the tensions due to the Abdullah Ocalan events and the tensions over the PKK and other Kurdish groups. It was truly a marvel to see how those relations improved. Turkey’s relations with whoever takes over after Asad, if the regime does fall, will be vital to the future of Syria. They will also be important to Turkey. Turkey does not need an unstable a violent country bordering on chaos at its southeastern borders near Turkish lands that are mostly Kurdish.

Syria also relies on good relations with Turkey for much of its water, especially from the Euphrates, yet the Tigris also bookends the very important Tigris and Euphrates water basin that also includes underground aquifers that allow water from both rivers to percolate into Syria. Economic relations between the two countries were also on the upswing prior to the troubles. It is important to rebuild that as well.

Then there are the troublesome relations with Israel. One Syrian senior diplomat told me once: “Paul, this is easy. They give us back the Golan and we give them a peace treaty.” Surely there are more complexities to this, including the fact that a large amount of Israel’s water is from the Golan and above, and that there are thousands of settlers on the Golan. There are also strategic interests for both in the Golan. Syria has allowed Palestinians, and maybe others, to try to jump the border into the Golan. This could be an indication of how bad this could get. Syrian tensions with Israel are part of the complexity of undercurrents in the country that could lead to many other problems.

The “Peace Process” is moribund and going nowhere. The Golan is an important part of it, but nobody seems to be talking much about it. Also, come September, when the Palestinians will ask the UN to recognize them as a state there could be real troubles at this border, especially if the violence in Syria is continuing, which I expect it will. Frankly, if there is no peace treaty in the next two to five years there is going to be very big trouble in the region and, possibly, another war.

Then there are the very complex relations Syria has with Lebanon, including with Hezbollah and other powerful groups. Syria has been something of an entrepot for many things for Hezbollah from Iran and elsewhere for some time. Hezbollah has been somewhat reliant on Syria for certain assistance. Although Syrian troops left Lebanon a long time ago Syria is still quite powerful there. Then there is the looming report and potential indictments out of the Hariri investigation. These could be explosive in Lebanon, Syria and beyond.

If Syria falls into greater chaos this could have powerful effects on Lebanon. Who takes over next could also determine Syria’s relations with Lebanon. There are huge stakes here. Then, of course, there are the Sunni-Shia tensions that exist in both countries and these could get much worse if the Syrian rebellion turns more into a brutal and bloody sectarian contest. This could explosive for the entire region. Iran might get even more involved. The GCC states and other Sunni-led countries could see this as a building threat to them even more than today.

Syria’s relations with Iran are complex and somewhat shadowy. These relations involve trade, economics, and more. However, the most important relations right now may be the support Iran is giving to the Assad regime in order to make sure it does not “lose Syria” and all of its vital connections to so many other issues. Iran’s influence on Syria seems more powerful now than before the troubles.

What is quite worrisome is that the problems in Syria might become an important “proxy battle” between Sunni and Shia that could spread. How the problems of Syria play out can determine Iran’s clout in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. This could also determine some aspects of Sunni-Shia relations for some time to come.

The ethnic and sectarian nature of Syrian economic, political, and demographic strains is something the world needs to take care with and understand better.

Iraq is a trading partner with Syria. One can only guess what increased chaos might mean to the trading and other networks developed between these two important countries.
If Syria also falls into greater chaos then the chances for terrorists and others to use this to the situation to their advantage in Iraq increases. Syria and Iraq share a long common border. Iraq has had its ethnic and sectarian strains. In some ways Syrian strains could spill into Iraq.

The situation in Syria is also of great concern to Jordan, which may face an influx of even more refugees. Jordan has been one of the most welcoming countries in the region and has taken in Palestinians, Iraqis and more. Now it could face refugees from Syria. Syrian-Jordanian relations have had troubles in the rather distant past and had been improving prior to the troubles. What might be Syrian-Jordanian relations might be in the future? That, I am sure, is worrying the King of Jordan, who recently showed great strategic skill in opening up his political system to relieve some of the pressures in his country. If this works out well for the King and his country then Jordan could be a model for how political reform should be done for some. The King has shown real leadership and has walked a fine line on certain political and economic issues. I wish Jordan well. It is a small country with little resources that has survived because of the leadership of its monarchy and those who advise it. Now that the political system will be open let’s see what other leaders will rise above the tactical to consider the strategic on many fronts.

Syria could become a vortex of instability in its sub-region and this could spill, even if partially, into the greater Middle East. It is an important country for its neighbors and for others in the region, including GCC states who have not only investments there, but also see the great political and strategic stakes at hand in Syria. The Syrian troubles also have worldwide implications not only due to their importance in the “Peace Process,” but also due to their importance in the future developments of Sunni-Shia relations.

Syria could be a great tourism destination. It could be an energy bridge and a trade bridge from parts of the region to the outside world. It is culturally and historically an important country for the region as well.

How this all works out in Syria could also determine how some in the rest of the world see the Arab World. Syria is in the middle of a defining moment for the Arab World.

(Professor Paul J. Sullivan teaches at National Defense University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: [email protected])