August 28, 2013 4:25 pm

Syria’s conflict: Where the key players stand

TORONTO – A handful of key players and opposing forces on the international stage are carefully crafting their next move as world leaders play their hand in Syria’s crisis.

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Experts suggest that U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing for U.S.-led military action as reports say the Syrian government used deadly chemical weapons on civilians. Still, the U.S. may make this contentious move without the support of the U.N. Security Council, where similar options have been struck down by Russia and China.

It’s a muddled web of international relations, appeasing allies, and ultimately investing in the outcome that’s in the best interests of aligned nations.

Global News spoke with two international relations and military experts in Canada. Aurel Braun is a visiting professor at Harvard University and a political science professor at the University of Toronto.  Christian Leuprecht is a foreign policy expert at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University.

They shared their insight on the policy and international relations at play between allied and feuding countries.

Propping up the Syrian regime

The key players helping the Syrian regime are Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Their deep pockets and military forces have aided President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels.  But each is helping the troubled nation in different ways and for separate reasons.

Russia’s waist-deep in Syria’s affairs

Russia has invested in the country’s tumultuous government in hopes of keeping Assad in power or manipulating the regime-change process so the new authority will maintain the decades-old strategic partnership.

“In the Middle East, Russia is trying to take advantage of American weaknesses and is trying to increase its presence,” Braun said.

“It’s not as powerful as it used to be, so it’s linking up with countries, such as Syria and Iran, which have opposed the U.S.” (In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and Obama’s opinions on Syria don’t “coincide.”)

Related: Russia’s ties to Syria’s crisis

Syria represents 10 per cent of Russia’s total international arms sales in $1.5 billion worth of contracts. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is in Tartus and a new regime may not accommodate this arrangement made under an outdated 1971 agreement. Meanwhile, other countries have turned Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf nations into their “backyards” with military bases among other things, Leuprecht said. Russia is trying to play catch-up.

Iran “staunchly” in Assad’s camp

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that attacking Syria would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East. He suggested the move would be akin to “a spark in a gunpowder store.”

“Its dimensions and consequences can’t be predicted,” he reportedly said.

Iran needs Assad’s regime intact. Leuprecht said Syria is the link between Iran and Hezbollah – via Baghdad, to Damascus and the Bekaa Valley.

“Iran’s entire influence over the whole region – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – would all be compromised,” Leuprecht said.

The West and its call for punishment

Last year, Obama vowed that the U.S. would contemplate using military force against the Syrian regime should Assad use chemical weapons. He called it the “red line” for the United States.

While a UN envoy is in Syria investigating the chemical weapons allegations, the world’s eyes are on Obama as he considers his next move. Activists say hundreds were killed inear Damascus from an alleged attack on Aug. 21.

Related: Experts weigh in: Should we intervene in Syria’s civil war?

Most experts say Obama’s actions are now too little too late and that he’s backed himself into a corner with few options.

“President Obama has dawdled while Syria has been burning. The options are not the same as they were a year ago, I don’t see a clear strategic plan,” Braun explained.

Should the U.S. go ahead with military action without the support of the UN, it’d need to call on Western allies, namely Britain, France and Canada.

European nations on divided lines

For the most part, the European Union and Britain are worried about what lies ahead of the general instability, especially if that means refugees could be flooding into their countries.

“There isn’t a unified front on the West as to what should be done and how it should be done. There are a lot of different perspectives,” Leuprecht said.

Related: Q & A: Will Syria’s unrest cross neighbouring borders?

Even countries as far west as the United Kingdom are worried, according to the experts.

“If the Middle East goes to hell in a handbasket, where are the people going to go? They will get in boats and go over to Europe,” Leuprecht warned.

“Given how the EU is set up, once those refugees get into the union, they can traverse into other parts of the EU,” Braun said.

Officials can patrol against hundreds of people trying to cross borders, but they can’t control thousands or tens of thousands of people trying to enter country lines.

Relying on Russia for resources

The problem with working with the U.S. in a potential attack is many of these countries rely on Russia for energy supplies, namely natural gas and oil. Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands each count on Russia for their resources. Syria isn’t an oil producer, but it does have pivotal transit and trade lines.

Leuprecht says that some countries may join in a potential U.S. attack on Syria, but Russia wouldn’t halt business.

Germany wouldn’t be a player in Syria, anyway. Its domestic matters come first – it is sitting on the fence because of its upcoming election on September 22.

“There is nothing that would sink a chancellor in Germany faster than getting involved in international military action in Syria,” Leuprecht said.

Turkey, Jordan proximity a natural concern

Turkey is backed by its NATO allies while Obama has subtly warned that the U.S. would intervene should its interests be in harm’s way, alluding to protecting Turkey and even Israel, Braun said.

Turkey and Jordan have each taken in about 500,000 refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Jordan, especially, is an unstable, poor country on its own and managing the repercussions of the crisis hasn’t been easy.

Leuprecht said wealthier nations are giving the countries handfuls of money and humanitarian assistance in hopes that refugees won’t push further into other countries.

“Inherently, when you border a country, you prefer not to have the people next door at war because that has unintended consequences and deleterious effects for you. You’d rather be trading with these people than caring for their refugees,” Leuprecht said.

China doesn’t want a precedent set

If the U.S. decides to attack Assad and the Syrian regime, it could be a landmark move that is against China’s interests.

“(China) doesn’t want to set the precedent of unilateral international action by the Americans or by the West because that might compromise their interests somewhere else,” Leuprecht said.

To the Chinese, what is going on in Syria is a sovereign state affair and unless there’s international consensus that outsiders need to intervene, world leaders need to stay out.

So far, Russia and China have each vetoed Western-backed UN resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad’s government to end its violence.

Keep in mind, Russia and China use similar abusive tactics on their citizens, Leuprecht notes.

“Basically, they don’t want a precedent set where the West gets to dictate what happens inside of a country. They don’t want to open themselves to all sorts of international criticism,” he said.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2013

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