With more money and supplies seemingly streaming into Syria every day, it has become even harder to keep track of who is supporting which faction, what types of aid and how much of it they are giving, and crucially what they expect in return.
Yet, understanding the dynamics behind the 18-month long conflict in which an estimated 27,000 people have been killed and some 2.7 million displaced, is more important than ever.
Ever since the days of the Cold War, Syria has been regarded as the linchpin of the Middle East. And although the country’s geopolitical prominence waned when the Berlin Wall fell, the ongoing uprising resuscitated international rivalries over the 20-million strong country.
The old familiar players – France, Russia, America and various Middle Eastern countries – have now returned armed with opposing agendas. Moreover they have been joined by new forces, further complicating the situation on the ground.
“Internationalization of the conflict is also now fait accompli,” wrote Dr Larbi Sadiki, a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, in a recent article for Al Jazeera. “It is delusional to think Syria is no longer the scene of an internationalized conflict, even if direct foreign military intervention is not forthcoming.”
France and the EU
Earlier this month France, Syria’s old colonial master, became the first EU state to directly funnel aid to the Syrian opposition, pledging to equip rebel-held parts of the country with basic supplies such as humanitarian goods and building materials.
To date, the EU Commission has provided around a half of all aid to Syria, on September 7 announcing a further €60 million ($76 million) to supplement the €200 million ($253 million) already given. The majority of this has been sent to aid groups.
By comparison, the latest French package – rumored to be some €5 million ($6.5 million) – seems merely symbolic. Yet, controversially France may also be sending cash that can be used to buy arms, and is also said to be considering direct weapons shipments.
The latter seems unlikely.
“At the moment we have a EU arms embargo on Syria, it’s not possible or legal for any EU nation to send weapons to anybody in Syria,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters last week. “…Therefore our chosen route and is the same route of France and the U.S., is to give non-lethal assistance and we’re doing that.”
However, the possibility of money transfers has incited critics. William Engdahl, an American-German historian and author, has called France’s decision, “the most dangerous thing I have seen in 37 years of analyzing geopolitical developments.”
“I think France is being a very dishonest peace broker in this whole process,” he told Russia Today news channel. “And I think they are acting as a cat’s paw, if you will, for the U.S. State Department and Pentagon until after the U.S. elections,” he added, while stressing that any further interference would additionally destabilize the country.
In mid-August, Britain also announced intentions to send £5 million ($8 million) in aid directly to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but its plans stalled because of difficulty in identifying partners on the ground.
So far Britain has been the second largest national donor of humanitarian assistance providing just over £30 million ($48 million) to various charities. Yet, until 2011 the UK was still supplying the Assad government with military software and non-lethal weapons as part of a general EU-wide attempt, underway since 2005, to improve relations with Syria in a bid to lure it away from its long-term ally Iran.
The Russian bear rears its head again, while the Chinese dragon buries its tail
Russia, emboldened by its natural gas and oil reserves and striving to reclaim its superpower status, has worked to protect Assad, blocking U.N. sanctions and supplying him with arms. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2007 to 2010 Russia sold $4.7 billion of arms to the regime, with $1 billion in 2010 alone.
Despite ceasing arms deliveries after the British navy intercepted Syria-bound helicopters in June, Russia continues to trade normally with Syria and says it will block external meddling. “Russia is categorically against any interference, especially military, in the internal affairs of a country,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said this week. “Efforts to resolve the problems in Syria through outside force would provoke utter chaos in the Middle East.”
Russia has a lot to lose. It has a military base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, is owed billions in loans by Assad, and was helping Syria modernize before the uprising. Russia is also reeling from Libya, where it believes the Security Council U.N. no fly zone was abused to bring about regime change and push Russia out of oil and weapons contracts.
In the wake of Libya, China similarly feels even wearier about U.N. intervention. Despite backing Russia at the U.N., it has taken a back seat by condemning the rebels but not funding Assad. For China, who is dogmatic about preserving the status quo, protecting Iran – a major supplier of raw materials to the quickly industrializing country – is a key motivator.
“China is a bit more hands off that the Russians, and so they don’t necessarily see eye to eye with Russia (for these reasons),” Roderic Wye, a China commentator at the UK-based think tank Chatham House told Record. “But this does not necessarily mean that there are any tensions.”
“Iran is a big element for China and it is one of the places where China gets a lot of its oil and, of course, it is a concern as Iran has been under a lot of pressure from the international community about its nuclear program,” he added.
America, the benevolent hegemon
For all its diplomatic posturing, America, too, has not openly taken a lead on Syria. Despite failed diplomatic pushes at the U.N., President Obama only stated in August that America might intervene unilaterally, or as part of a coalition, if Syria unleashed chemical and biological weapons.
Instead, America has provided humanitarian supplies and communications equipment. According to USAID, America officially gave $25m of “non-lethal” assistance in March, a figure which has since grown to $100 million, largely intended for humanitarian causes in Syria and for Syrian refugees.
Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. has been more provocative. In May, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. began coordinating arms shipments between Gulf countries and Syrian rebels, and, while the administration denied the claims, The New York Times followed suit with similar allegations in June.
In early August, more leaks appeared that Obama had signed secret deals to equip the rebels. It is not known how much, or what, the alleged secret orders approved.
The Gung-Ho Gulf, Turkey, and Iran
If the U.S. is playing a larger role, it is almost certainly doing so through its allies and proxies in the region.
“Let’s be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria,” Syria commentator and Oklahoma University professor, Joshua Landis, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. “The United States, Europe, and the Gulf states want regime change, so they are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition.
“They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and helping arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. It is also the most the United States can and should do,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been reportedly equipping Syrian rebel fighters since at least May, while Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria has acted as a willing distribution point for rebel-intended supplies.
No official figures have been released, but the improved coordination of rebel forces combined with their ever-more sophisticated weaponry and ability to penetrate and hold large parts of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, has been interpreted as proof that the Gulf states have made inroads.
Ultimately, the Gulf hopes that installing a Sunni-led government in Syria will prove a major blow to Iran, a long-time foe of the Gulf monarchies. In December 2011 Saudi Arabia purchased $30 billion in U.S. military aircraft, a sale analysts insist was designed to target Iranian movements in the Persian Gulf.
Fearing for its closest ally, Iran has dug its heels in over Syria, vowing to support its “vital partner.” It has continued sending unspecified supplies to Damascus through Iraqi airspace and Iran seems ready to do whatever it can to protect the fellow Shiia ruling minority.
What’s the end game?
For such a contentious issue, all sides do agree on one thing: no one knows what will happen next, and everyone understands that the future looks as multidimensional as the current struggle for supremacy.
As Landis writes in his “Stay Out of Syria” article, “the U.S. can play a role with aid, arms, and intelligence — but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria’s future and determine the victors of this conflict.
“If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must take charge of their revolution and figure out how to win it. It is better for Syria, and it is better for America,” he concludes.
The same can be said for all international actors backing the various Syrian factions.
As former general Manaf Tlass, classified as Syria’s most prominent defector, told French television Monday, “it’s up to the Syrian people to achieve victory by themselves.” But even he admitted external assistance was needed.
“The Syrian people must not be robbed of their victory, they must be given support, aid, arms,” Tlass said.