Syria emerges as a nexus of the regional power struggle

By Ayham Kamel

Recent, though futile, efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria have demonstrated the absence of leadership from global powers such as the U.S. and likely set the stage for possible contagion. The unwillingness of the major powers to intervene in crises such as in Syria -- a marker of what Eurasia Group has called the G-Zero World -- has allowed regional players to step into the breach, notably Qatar via the Arab League. But the League's efforts have also exposed a regional power vacuum and tensions among Middle East nations that could potentially escalate into a proxy war in Syria.

The Arab League's late-January initiative called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, leaving the vice president to negotiate with the opposition, but it reflects neither the complexity of the Syrian conflict nor the domestic power balance. For example, the opposition is still deeply divided and there is still considerable support for the regime among business interests and some minorities. The Syrian regime is likely to retain power throughout most of 2012, but the risk of collapse will rise considerably in the last quarter.

Other players have taken advantage of major powers' unwillingness to get involved in Syria. Qatar has been pushing for more hawkish Arab League policy on Syria, but the organization lacks the power to push through such initiatives. Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have also staked out a role. But, the lack of interest in producing a negotiated solution effectively means that the Syrian regime can disregard the Arab League on many issues.

Divisions in the League between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and other members also limit the group's ability to formulate and pursue effective policies. The 24 January decision by the GCC to withdraw monitors from Syria highlights this division. Both Egypt and Algeria, traditionally important players in the organization, are uncomfortable with what is increasingly seen as Qatari and Saudi dominance. In the near term, Egypt's leverage will likely decrease given its own political transition, but major stakeholders (such as the military and the Muslim Brotherhood) will eventually seek a more proactive foreign policy. Within the GCC, there is also a subtle, but important, tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Saudi royals are wary of Qatari calls for direct military intervention as a tool for democratic reform in Syria or any other Arab countries, a precedent that could be later used against Riyadh.

Syria is a key part of the regional balance of power between moderate pro-U.S. states and the so called resistance camp lead by Iran. Seeking a broader realignment in the Middle East, regional powers are likely to increase their support of their local allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are actively encouraging the uprising driven by conservative Sunnis. Meanwhile, Iran is providing the Assad regime with intelligence, and technological equipment to suppress the uprising.

The Syrian conflict has fanned Sunni-Shiia tensions and the risks of contagion in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are considerable. In Iraq, Sunnis are emboldened by a resurgence of conservative movements across the Middle East. Lebanon could become more unstable as the Syrian conflict has divided political factions in an increasingly delicate struggle. Jordan's own communities could reconsider their allegiance to the Hashemite monarchy as communal divisions between Jordanians of Palestinian descent and tribal elites begin to increase. Potential Syrian or Iranian support to Kurdish separatist groups in Turkey is likely to become a problematic issue. Finally, covert action by either the Sunni axis (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Arab League) or Shiias (Iran and Iraq) entails significant risks to regional stability and could spur a violent proxy war that would hurt the business environment and oil flows.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.