June 29, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

A Syria in Minor Key

The strategic vacuum the United States is leaving in the Middle East is creating a dangerously unstable situation, arguably similar to the one immediately preceding the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This is characterized by a void in regional leadership and a disengaged Washington incapable of dictating regional dynamics.

While Iran has been seen to be challenging the US order for a while now, it is currently common knowledge that Turkey is also pushing to fill the vacuum and carve out for itself a dominant position in the Ottomans' former Middle Eastern domains. But where does the rise of these middle powers leave second-tier Arab countries like Syria, which has long claimed to be a vital regional player?

Some have suggested that a Turkish-Iranian balance of power would stabilize the region by containing Iranian influence. The test case they offer is Syria. A popular argument is that an ascendant Turkey that pulls Syria toward it would lead to better Syrian-Turkish economic integration and greater political moderation in Damascus.

This is a faulty reading. In reality, as Turkey and Iran assert themselves, Syria is again falling back into its historical role as the land between greater powers to its east, north and south. With that, its claim of a key regional role loses its credibility, both in political and economic terms. Yet for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, projecting an over-inflated image of itself is essential. That is why Assad has been painting a grandiose picture of his regime's central place in the so-called new regional order, built around the supposed alignment of Turkey, Iran, Syria and perhaps Iraq.

At a joint conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in May 2009, Assad laid out what became known in Syria as his “four seas” strategy: “Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran becomes integrated, we would link the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the [Persian] Gulf… We aren't just important in the Middle East … Once we link these four seas, we become the compulsory intersection for the whole world, in investment, transport and more.”

Not satisfied with just four seas, Assad recently added a fifth, the Red Sea, to his extravagant mix, describing Syria as the nexus of “a single, large perimeter [with Turkey, Iran and Russia] … We're talking about the center of the world.”

This was heady stuff, rather too heady for a country mired in endemic corruption, under American sanctions, parched by years of drought, with no economy to speak of, dwindling resources, and a decrepit, in some cases non-existent, infrastructure. We expect Assad to repeat the ubiquitous Syrian conceit that influence in the Middle East must necessarily pass through Damascus, but the “new regional map” the Syrian president speaks of in fact only affirms Syria's marginality.

Perhaps it is lost on Assad, and on his partisans, but the world for decades has managed to secure its energy resources without passing through Syria. It is Turkey that is the real candidate for being the transitory energy corridor to Europe. Syria is completely irrelevant in this picture. Assad is trying to claim for himself Turkey's advantage.

Turkish assertiveness and the emerging potential for Turkish-Iranian competition sidelines Syria's political aspirations as well. Damascus has historically sought to magnify its weight by attempting to sell to the West the notion that it alone controls the decision of going to war or of making peace with Israel through its partnership with such militant groups as Hamas and Hezbollah. That, in essence, was the heart of the Syrian position during the peace process of the 1990s.

But the reemergence of Turkey and Iran, historical centers of influence in the region, eliminates any credibility from the Syrian claim. Hezbollah has always been an Iranian creation whose loyalty and allegiance is to the Wilayat al-Faqih, the ruling jurisprudent, in Iran. And, as we have seen in the last couple of years, culminating in the recent flotilla incident off the Gaza coast, Turkey is now making abid to become the primary state interlocutor on behalf of Hamas. With that, Syria's designs to assume that role have been all but shattered.

In other words, despite the hyperventilation of the Assad regime's courtiers, the Turkish and Iranian power drive leaves Assad with ever-shrinking room for movement, as he becomes the junior partner not just of Teheran, but also of Ankara. This is quite apt in historical terms, as it was always the natural status of Syria, when it was subdivided into statelets, to act as a buffer between the traditional imperial centers in Anatolia, Persia and Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Still, policy mavens in the United States have argued that Damascus' improving relations with Turkey might serve to moderate the Assad regime, or serve as a constructive alternative to its enduring strategic alliance with Iran.

In reality, far from moderating Syria, the Turkish-Iranian interplay may in fact exacerbate Syrian behavior, because it would shrink Damascus' latitude to act, therefore undermining its claim to political centrality. Faced with this situation Assad could strive to hold on to any semblance of relevance the only way he knows how: through violence. It is in that context that we should read Syria's recent attempts to arm Hezbollah with Syrian-made weapons, as if to shout out that Damascus remains a factor to be dealt with alongside the big boys in Teheran and Ankara.

However, as Assad's options narrow and his declining importance is highlighted, American policymakers will continue to be treated to the reality of Syria's structural contradiction: the vast gap between its self-image and conception of its role on the one hand, and its actual, secondary strategic importance on the other.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.