Dania Koleilat Khatib (ed.), The Syrian Crisis: Effects on the Regional and International Relations (Springer Publishing, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Dania Koleilat Khatib (DKK): The idea of the book came from a workshop I attended and co-directed in Cambridge two years ago. The workshop was one of the Gulf Research Meetings and this one focused on the effects of the Syrian crisis on the Arab Gulf. During our discussion, the contributors and I decided to go one step further and combine all our papers into a volume that would address the effects of the Syrian crisis on regional and international relations.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DKK: The book analyzes the effect of the Syrian crisis on international relations, namely how it has affected regional power balance. It also handles a variety of other topics, such as how the crisis has influenced bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example, as well as between Russia and Iran, and the United States and Turkey. The crisis represented threats as well as opportunity, a cause for divergence as well for rapprochement. Regarding Saudi-Russian relations, for example, the two countries diverged on the issue of Assad but cooperated on the issue of terrorism. As for Turkey and the United States, the latter needed Turkey to stabilize Syria but also relied on the Kurds to fight the Islamic State.
One chapter discusses how the crisis shaped the “export” of the revolution, one of the pillars of the Iranian Constitution. The book also studies the strategies adopted by foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in their attempts to isolate their foes from their allies instead of directly confronting them. In addition, the book discusses how the Syrian crisis has pushed three countries—Russia, Iran, and Turkey—with differing views on the future of Syria, and with differing goals in the region, to come together under the Astana alliance in order to find a solution. Alongside an exploration of motives for such an alliance, the relationship is analyzed for its exclusion or countering of the United States.
Whereas most literature talks about the Russian intervention, very little research has been dedicated to study the role played by China in Syria. Across two chapters, the book does just this. The first discusses the security threat posed to China as its citizens joined the ranks of the armed opposition, with fears that the rise of an Islamic alternative in Syria might embolden the Muslim separatists at home. The second chapter talks about the “belt and road” initiative and how China in Syria needed to walk a fine line between the two bitter foes, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to further its own economic interests.
The Syrian Crisis brings together under-discussed yet important topics such as the role of oil and gas in the conflict and how it affected foreign interest. Though Syria has meagre oil wealth, it is strategically located for the transportation of oil. This raises the salience of Syria for a country like Russia, whereby controlling Syria could also mean controlling the passage of Iraqi oil to Europe. The book depicts how propaganda was used to promote Russian intervention in Syria domestically in Russia, as in Syria. It discusses how Russian propaganda used powerful audio-visual tools and was thus able to frame its intervention as a fight against terrorism initiated by the US and Western camp.
Another key exploration is that of how Saudi Arabia and Iran used non-state actors in Syria; the books finds that Iran had better control over its non-state actors due to the ideological affiliations and organizational structures that link Iran to Shia militias in the region.
The final chapter of the book talks about the prospects of stabilization, zooming in on examples of local governance in the North West and North East of Syria. The chapter discusses how different countries may play a role in stabilizing Syria by nurturing local councils and adopting a bottom up approach
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DKK: To start with, I am not the author but am instead the editor of the works of several brilliant contributors. This book does, however, depart from my previous work which focused solely on the Arab Gulf, rather than Syria. My first authored book, The Arab Lobby and the US: Factors for Success and Failure (Routledge UK, 2016), explored the Arab Gulf trials to lobby the United States. It depicts where they were successful, and where they failed, and why. My second work is an edited volume handling how the West perceives the Arab Gulf.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DKK: I hope policy makers will read the book as it will help them to understand the other party view. The book shows how different states have diverging views because they have diverging interests and threats. Understanding the other perspective helps in reaching a consensus and compromise.
The work will also be important to all who have an interest in Syria. It is written in easy language and is made to be accessible to the general reader, as well as the academic one.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DKK: My new book is still in the planning process, but it will also revolve around Syria.
J: What difference do you hope this book will bring?
DKK: In addition to filling a gap in the research, the book represents variety and diversity. This comes across not only through the different perspectives in which the issue of foreign relations and the Syrian crisis has been discussed, but also through the different backgrounds from which the contributors come. These different backgrounds and views or interpretations of the crisis enable the reader to understand why, until today, there has been no agreement to put on the table a viable and permanent solution to the crisis.
Excerpt from the book
Syria and hydrocarbons: present and prospective politico-economic issues
There are also some vague prospects, concerning the hydrocarbon potential of the Syrian territory under occupation by Israel. According to an Iranian source not only does Syria have current oil and gas assets that are worth getting back into full production but there is also a potentially huge oil deposit in the Golan Heights that the Israelis are redoubling their efforts to develop, which only adds to Syria’s geopolitical importance. Indeed, for a few years now, Afek Oil and Gas – the Israel subsidiary of U.S. oil company, Genie Energy, which has former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney on its advisory board – has been prospecting on the Heights, which is now believed to have billions of barrels of oil present, according to Genie’s chief geologist, Yuval Bartov. As a quoted Iranian source underlined “Russia, with Iran’s help, is moving faster now in Syria because they think that although [U.S. President, Donald] Trump became the first U.S. president to recognise Israel’s jurisdiction over the [Golan] Heights… he [Trump] may not want to support that view in any meaningful way, given his Middle East-withdrawal bias.” Before January 2020 anybody could hardly imagine that the regular military forces of Russia and the U.S. might approach very near to a collision within the evolving issue of their respective countries control over the oil fields in North-Eastern Syria, which are certainly of no strategic importance for either the Russian or the American side. Nevertheless, an ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Russia over the oil resources in the Syrian provinces of Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zour was marked four times with such a standoff in the eight days of 18-26 January 2020. Despite no significant conflict being reported, the incidents have become a reminder of the high stakes in Syria, where U.S. military activity aims to guard oil fields and prevent them from falling into the hands of other actors, including Russia and extremist groups.
These events once again prove the practical absence of unimportant details in the very acute and complex problem of the Syrian conflict peaceful settlement.
Decentralization as an Entry Point for Peacebuilding in Syria
After reviewing emerging governance experiences and institutions in Syria, it is evident that a return to the pre-2011 central structure of government is not possible any more. The magnitude of the current crisis has shaken up society deeply and created new local intermediaries and structures. The achievements of LACs, including enhanced structures, financial capacity, governance, and public outreach, cannot be overlooked in any power-sharing political agreement. The rich LAC governing experiences constituted an important avenue for international aid distribution, local accountability, and an inclusive and participatory platform for local community engagement. These experiences have accumulated legal and practical traditions that should be accommodated and incorporated in any peace agreement. However, stabilization policies can only go so far without a sustainable peace process that addresses the deep-rooted political causes of the conflict, not only its aftermath. Without a comprehensive re-definition of a fair and equitable distribution of authorities between the central and local institutions, there is a risk of rewarding and empowering local war lords and profiteers. One of the main challenges that pose a great risk to the LAC experiences in opposition-held areas has been the interferences by HTS and its Salvation Government. If a solution is reached to eliminate the aggressive HTS authorities in Idlib, many local councils will be able to fill the vacuum of governance and present stable alternatives for the post-conflict phase.
These structures have become an essential part of local and regional politics and should be recognized and empowered within a negotiated peace agreement both constitutionally and legally. A decentralized structure has the potential of reconciling the conflicting regional and global interests in the country. It re-organizes the defacto decentralized governance structures by establishing a common constitutional and legal framework that re-distributes roles and responsibilities based on ground realities and needs, and balances between deconcentration of sovereign central services, delegation, and devolution of powers to sub-national governing units. This will ensure the territorial integrity of the state and would normalize and later dilute the existence of various zones of foreign influence. A decentralized framework resulting from a negotiation process would also safeguard reconstruction funds from re-empowering warlords and would establish a checks and balance system between a strong central state and empowered localities.
In the meantime and in order to create the conditions for a political process, international donors should re-design stabilization programs to focus on establishing more community-based participatory and inclusive local governance mechanisms and processes. Aid and reconstruction funds should ensure the return of refugees, end mandatory military service with SDF, and establish inclusive governing structures that can synchronize existing legal frameworks and best practices in all regions in Syria. Developing a locally tailored decentralization model will help the peace process in framing the discussion beyond the problematic and controversial approach of SDF and DSA.
For opposition areas, LACs should be supported institutionally but conditioned on creating a central body that can provide oversight and implement a unified legal framework within its regions. NGO’s should be required to coordinate with local governing bodies in such a manner that establishes electoral and local legitimacy. This should go in line with a synchronizing policy between humanitarian, governance, and capacity building programs to go in line with a political process, and not pursue different directions. Allowing for local councils elections, for example, will create an alternative legitimacy that will enhance the chances (by complementing political representatives) for a sustainable peace process.
Saudi Arabia and Russia in the Syrian Crisis: Divergent Policies, Similar Concerns
As a result of the findings of this chapter, it is seen that there are significant factors that both contribute to and challenge Saudi-Russian relations in the post-Arab uprisings particularly when it comes to the Syrian case. Moscow and Riyadh are the two significant actors in the Syrian conflict and have crucial stakes from the outcome of the crisis. In order to understand the behaviors of the two countries toward the crisis, the chapter applied the Rational Actor Model. The model served as a useful tool in examining the decision-making process in the two countries, the main actors involved in this process, and how the state’s actions were determined by these actors toward the Syrian crisis. In the Russian side, Putin’s role in the foreign–policy making toward the Syrian crisis is non-negligible. From the Saudi side, MbS’ weight in Saudi foreign policy process is something that cannot be ignored, as well. Through the four step formula of the Rational Actor Model, this chapter tried to track the foreign policy making in Saudi Arabia and Russia, led by Putin and MbS, toward the Syrian war. Firstly, the chapter showed how two states define the Syrian crisis. Then, how do they identify their goals and prioritize them and how do they evaluate consequences of possible policy choices. Lastly, how do they determine the most rational decision that could maximize their benefits of outcomes. The chapter found out rationality played a key role in their approaches during the Syria war and toward each other. Although, both states completely follow a different path in all four steps, the chapter found out that they managed to find a common ground on certain issues. Identifying these common concerns as the contributing factors in their relationship, the chapter also identified the existing contending factors that may pose threat to this newly developed fragile relationship.
The effects of the Syrian crisis on China’s BRI approach to the Middle East
Syria holds a relevant place in China’s Middle East strategy and undoubtedly the reconstruction process can bring many opportunities. The Syrian crisis has provided an opportunity for China to be more present diplomatically, and more visible at international level.
However the regional and local environments are unstable which makes it difficult to predict future developments and protect an economic presence on the ground. The Middle East is also a region where hard power counts the most and China doesn’t have the capabilities to project influence and secure assets.
Regional rivalries such as Iran - Saudi Arabia have the potential to escalate which will put China’s strategy to work with all partners at risk, forcing it to slightly withdraw or to decide to take a more proactive role in support of one of the sides. This is an important risk that needs to be addressed. Leveling ambitions with the actual developments and being able to deliver on projects and investments carries a lot of significance as it represents the basis for upgrading the Chinese strategy. Taking into account that the timeline for deepening relations might be prolonged, there is the risk of very slow advancements. At the same time, matching ambitions might prove to be difficult given the limitations that the current approach reveals: willingness to maintain a balanced approach in cooperation with multiple actors although given the fact that some are direct rivals, failing to deliver on the announced promises, military involvement in the region is limited. On the long run, China will have to adapt its strategy based on the regional developments and limit its expectations given the complexities of the Middle East.