The Regional Implications of the Syrian Conflict: Challenges to the State Order in the Levant?
Roundtable Discussion Series
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) held a roundtable discussion on the regional implications of the Syrian conflict on Wednesday, 8 May 2013, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Beirut, Lebanon. The session was co-chaired by Dr. Steven Heydemann, Senior Advisor for Middle East Initiatives at United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and Dr. Bassel Salloukh, Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science at the Social Sciences Department at Lebanese American University (LAU). Among the 30 participants were ambassadors, diplomats, experts, academics, researchers and international organizations’ representatives. Mr. Sami Atallah, Executive Director of LCPS, moderated the discussion after a short briefing. Below is a brief summary of the main themes that were discussed during the roundtable discussion.
Change in Regional Dynamics:
American and European military engagement in the Middle-East region is not new. The Sykes-Picot agreement, the sustained arming of Israel, the continuous support for autocratic states, the US invasion of Iraq all showcase the unrelenting intervention of US and European powers in Middle-Eastern internal politics and affairs. Their on-going involvement in Syria marks, however, according to Heydemann, novel geopolitical dynamics that are re-shaping alliances and patterns of intervention and regionalization. These can be summarized as follows:
- The rise of the Iran, Hezbollah and Syria alliance: Since 2003, and especially since 2005, there has been more interdependence between these players. Hezbollah and Iran both see the survival of Assad as a strategic need.
- Turkey’s rise as a regional power: Under the leadership of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has favored turning away from the E.U., and prioritizing a more sectarian-led agenda in its regional policy. Turkey may be seen as “the defender” of Sunni interests in the region, playing onto a “neo-Ottoman” nostalgia.
- The consolidation of the political and economic roles of GCC countries: Though not a new phenomenon, Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have significantly increased their role and involvement in the region, via the Syrian conflict, thus enhancing its sectarian features.
- The consolidation of ethno-sectarian politics in Iraq: Iraqi Kurds, Shiite and Sunni are cooperating with their counterparts in Syria, thus also changing patterns of regional alliance.
- Global and regional trend of infusing sectarianism into regional power politics: Talks about the ‘Shi’ia’ crescent vs. the ‘Sunni’ powers in the region emerged during the Iraqi war, in 2006. Since, conflicts are increasingly framed in sectarian terms, and networks are sought accordingly.
In addition, the discussion highlighted the following key themes:
- Sectarian tensions vs. secular movements: The uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt can be partly explained by turbulent socio-economic conditions and income inequalities, that have been mobilizing secular movements and labor unions for several years. In Syria, the uprisings that began as peaceful and non-violent protests very quickly turned into uncontrolled sectarian and violent expressions, that swept away local civic networks of collective action.
- The Syrian crisis as a post-cold war confrontation: Events in Syria mark a different regional era than what we witnessed in the Arab uprisings, and the fall of four presidents. The Syrian conflict has taken new regional and international dimensions that can be qualified as “a post-cold war confrontation.” Russia’s and the US’ policies and visions for the Middle East are divergent, dividing the world’s powers into pro-Assad and anti-Assad camps. This geopolitical struggle may be redefining the state order in the Middle East, and possibly redrawing internal borders.
- Syria’s transformation from a player into a battlefield: Syria is no longer a sole player onto its territory, which has become a stage for multiple networked players, at various scales (sub-state and supra-state), fuelled by ethno-sectarian tension, and competing to dominate a new political and economic order. How will the crisis unfold? How will the state re-position itself? What are the new alliances that will be privileged?
The roundtable discussion finally raised several questions about the consequences of the regionalization of the Syrian conflict and its consequences on the new state order in the Levant. While some saw the reformulation of the post-colonial state architecture in the Middle-East at stake, others drew on comparative analysis to underscore that there is little evidence of fundamental changes to national borders even in the aftermath of major conflicts. Conflicts in Sudan, Eritrea and the Balkans have demonstrated that while internal boundaries are likely to change, regional borders are not easily redrawn. Questions discussed included: Will the Syrian crisis lead towards “balkanization?” Or will Syria become “lebanonized” and adopt a power-sharing confessional formula as a political compromise? Will political decentralization form the basis of the post-crisis Syrian state architecture, and how will this redefine other neighbouring states, and hence the overall regional order?