In several previous articles, I have argued that the conflict between the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and the opposition will not only decide the future of Syria for years to come, but will also have far greater consequences on the political landscape of the region and the world at large.
Regional and international backers of the Syrian regime understand this more than anybody else. The Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians will therefore do everything possible to ensure that their interests are not affected by the Syrian crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that the conflict in Syria will shape the future of international politics. The Chinese have said something similar. The Iranians went a step further when a senior military official stated last week that Iran and Al Assad’s other allies will not allow the defeat of the Syrian regime.
Given the huge political investment in the Syrian crisis, the sensitive nature of the conflict and attempts by several local and regional parties to give it a sectarian touch, the Iranians so far had decided to stay on the sidelines and let the Russians and the Chinese foil attempts to overthrow the Syrian regime, particularly in the UN Security Council.
Now that Moscow and Beijing have seemingly become absolutely convinced that change has become unavoidable in Damascus, the Iranians have decided to go public and become more aggressive in expressing their readiness to back the Syrian regime to the very end.
What is at stake here for all these parties and where do their interests converge and diverge?
For Russia and China, Syria in itself is not very important. All the claims about commercial and strategic interests do not do much to explain their positions on the Syrian crisis. Moscow and Beijing’s major concern was to prevent western intervention in Syria based on human rights considerations.
Both countries have poor human rights records and have more often than not suppressed internal dissent. In addition, Russia and China wanted the US in particular to focus on the Middle East rather than on them.
More important, perhaps, for the two great powers is the fact that regime change in Damascus will have far greater consequences on Iran. This concerns them more than Syria.
For Russia and China, Iran is of key strategic interest and any change in the regional balance of power vis-a-vis Tehran will affect their political calculations. Right now, what keeps the US from completely dominating the Middle East and the Gulf region is Iran’s policies. If the US manages to turn the tables against Tehran by bringing down the Syrian regime, it will not only remove the last resistance to US hegemony in the region, but will also allow Washington to shift the focus to Asia and the Pacific.
In fact, Russia and China benefited greatly in the post-9/11 world, when the US was obsessed with the Islamic world and had little interest or resources to devote to China and Russia. With the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq and with the end of the Afghanistan war looming, this respite seemed likely to end.
Undermining Iranian influence will rid the US of another obstacle and will secure a very important region for its interests. This is something the Russians and Chinese don’t want to see happening.
The Chinese primarily provided political cover, keeping the Russians from having to operate alone diplomatically. They devoted no resources to the Syrian conflict, but did continue to oppose sanctions against Iran and provided trade opportunities to Tehran. The Russians made a much larger commitment, providing material and political support to Damascus.
Despite their continuing support for the Syrian regime, it seems that the Russians and the Chinese have now become convinced that change might have become inevitable in Syria. Therefore, they have begun to give indications that they want to be part of that change.
In the past few days, the Russians have moved to the point where they had their ambassador to France suggest that the time had come for Al Assad to leave — later, of course, the envoy denied having made the statement. This shift in policy indicates that Russia may be willing to discuss a deal to end the Syrian crisis.
If Moscow walks this road, China will follow suit. This will leave the Iranians fighting the battle for Syria alone. But without Russian and Chinese support it will be a very tough one.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.