Making and Breaking Proxy Relationships in Syria
Since 2011, a host of regional and extra-regional powers have intervened in Syria’s civil war. The involvement of these outside actors intertwined and overlapped with three major processes during the war: firstly, the militarization of the Assad regime and, gradually, of the opposition forces; secondly, sectarianization, especially the hardening of cleavages between Syria’s Sunni majority and the largely Alawi-dominated region; thirdly, regionalization and internationalization, as the uprising against the regime transformed into a full-fledged, internationalized civil war.
By the late summer of 2011, only a few months into the uprising, geopolitical alignments were visible in Syria, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the US and European states siding with the emergent Syrian opposition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Iran and Russia, and then later Lebanon's Hezbollah, supported the incumbent regime under President Assad. The result, as Raymond Hinnebusch has pointed out, was a “balanced intervention.” This alignment was subject to changes. Qatar and Saudi Arabia withdrew their systematic anti-Assad support in Syria by 2015 and 2016. Turkey emerged from this as the prime sponsor of mostly Islamist, anti-Kurdish rebels in Syria. Turkey has also dispatched its own expeditionary force into Syria. On the flipside, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah gradually increased their support to the Assad regime, expanding this effort by directly intervening in the conflict.
To answer the question of the endurance of proxy-sponsor relationships in Syria, I therefore concentrate on the sponsorships of Iran and Russia, the two most important backers of the Assad regime. There are a number of important factors to highlight: First, for both Iran and Russia, Syria are national security issues. Both consider influence in and control over Syria as crucial for both authoritarian regimes in Tehran and Moscow. For Iran, having a close, even special relationship with the incumbent Assad regime allows the country to have direct influence in the Mashriq as well as a bridgehead from Teheran via Bagdad to Damascus and then onward to Beirut. Relatedly, having strong, direct ties in Syria also means that Iran can play a direct role in the “Palestine question,” the historically central arena of Middle East regional politics and exert military pressure on Israel.
For Russia, sponsorship of the Syrian regime allows the country to have direct access to the heart of the Mashreq, including to the Mediterranean port of Tartus and its airbase in al-Hmeimim. Further, Russia has economic interests that drive its ties to the regime, while also using this relationship to revive old Soviet-era global alliances. Iranian and Russian sponsorships of the Syrian regime have also endured – and partly thrived – because they are based on decades-long close collaboration in military, economic and ideological terms.
What Oisin Tansey has shown for the international politics of authoritarian regimes can also be applied here: “pre-existing relationships and linkages between sponsor and target country also matter” when accounting for the strength of sponsorship relations. The Iranian-Syrian and Russian-Syrian relationship are characterized by “high autocratic linkage". Bilateral ties have historically been strong and multidimensional. This increases mutual trust between proxy and sponsor and gives the sponsors a stake in the survival of the proxy regime, especially when the latter is challenged domestically by a powerful rebellion that poses an existential threat.
Other proxy ties in Syria have proven far less durable. Examining Qatar and Saudi Arabia, one can first refer to the flipside of the aforementioned central arguments relating to Iran and Russia. Neither Doha nor Riyadh have traditionally regarded Syria as a priority for their national security. Rather, Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s sought to have a presence in a country that was understood to be the central arena of regional, Middle Eastern politics post-2011. Qatar’s more modest aim was to increase its soft power, namely by supporting Muslim Brotherhood movements. Saudi Arabia had more ambitious goals that were designed to decisively weaken Iran. Qatari and Saudi proxy-sponsor relationships broke down quickly because they could not rely on longstanding relations.
Both Qatari connections to Muslim Brotherhood-aligned opposition networks and Saudi ties to Salafist or secular groups in Syria were almost wholly novel. Many only formed after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. There was, consequently, a lack of trust and experience in co-operation and co-ordination. During the civil war, it was often unclear who the actual proxy was. Both the civilian opposition and the hundreds of rebel groups regularly changed their composition, often their leadership and their ideological and political outlook, making it difficult for sponsors to keep track.
"Iranian and Russian sponsorships of the Syrian regime have also endured – and partly thrived – because they are based on decades-long close collaboration in military, economic and ideological terms."
A fourth factor accounting for the breakdown related to sponsors themselves. A change in the leadership and outlook of the sponsor can lead to an end or at least to a downgrading of proxy ties. In late June 2013, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani designated his son Tamim to become the new Emir of Qatar. The new leader concentrated on bolstering “the home front,” gradually decreasing Qatar’s role in the Mashreq. Similarly, the rise of Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) to Minister of Defense in Saudi Arabia in March 2015 also coincided with the massive Saudi intervention in Yemen. This personal-driven, significant policy shift expedited the Saudi withdrawal from the Syria conflict. This process was further accelerated when Russia directly intervened in Syria in September 2015, which decisively shifting the balance of the conflict in favour of the Assad regime and its allies.
The Syrian conflict is not going to end. When it does end, it will likely not conclude with a peace process or accord. Rather, localized fighting in Idlib, the north-east and other pockets of non-regime held territory will most likely continue. This form of regime “victor’s peace” has largely depended on Russian air force, Iranian revolutionary guards, Hezbollah and other disparate militia groups. These actors will continue to be invested in Syria and will not disappear from the conflict landscape. This also means that the humanitarian crisis will continue. The Assad regime will continue to be dependent on its external allies but it is far from certain that this dependency will continue in the long-term, particularly if the Assad regime diversifies its regional and international relations, as it has attempted in recent months by reaching out to China, some European countries and resource-rich states like the UAE.
Senior Research Fellow, GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies
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Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute