Anti-Syrian regime protesters wave Syrian revolution flags
However Syria seems to be the abandoned child of the same international community that hailed the achievements of the revolutions that took place last year in the Arab world.
From new constitutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to the softening of authoritarian regimes in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen, a wave of social protest contributed to give a new impulse and a new role for the Arab world. And yet, in spite of the promises the Arab spring carries, the international community and especially NATO shows little optimism about the success of a Syrian spring. In this context, the humanitarian concern stressed by NGOs in Syria, urges to wonder why NATO has not yet intervened in Syria, as it did previously in Libya.
At first sight, Libya and Syria have a lot in common. Decolonized countries led by authoritarian regimes that encouraged the birth and the spread of a laic Arab nationalism, often synonymous to anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Add to this un-democratic political governments, economical troubles, decades of repression and a growing social contest that burst almost simultaneously in these two countries during the first weeks of 2011 and one can legitimately ask why Syrian wave of protest is not given the help that was granted to Gaddafi's opponents.
Furthermore, the issue of the non intervention of NATO in Syria raises deep interrogations about the current international balance of power as well as it highlights the upcoming challenges that NATO will have to face. While contemplating the motives of NATO's non intervention in Syria, different rationales comes into play. In fact, both external and internal factors prevent NATO from intervening in the Levant.
Syria and the different strata of geopolitics
Syria is a case study for the International Relations student. Indeed, the country lies at the heart of central security and strategic issues at the international, regional and national levels, that all might contribute to erode the frail stability of the region.
At the international level, Syria is the focal point of a crawling geopolitical debate between prominent actors of international power politics. Indeed, because of different rationales, Russia, Iran and China, are the main opponents of an intervention by NATO forces in Syria.
Russia's only naval base outside its territory is located in the city of Tartus on the Syrian coast. Although the Kremlin claims to make sporadic use of the base, a Russian warship stopped for maintenance on January 8, in the context of a training mission led in the Mediterranean. Despite the Russian Defence Ministry reiterated that the training mission was planned for long, the visit of a Russian naval task force in the middle of a political crisis in Syria raises questions. Additionally, on January 23, Russia and Syria signed a $550-million contract on the delivery of 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten combat trainers. The jets are expected to be delivered to Damascus in a "relatively short time", as the Russian agency press RIA NOVOSTI claims. This new cooperation between Damascus and the Kremlin sheds lights on Moscow's interested partnership with Assad's regime.
In fact, from a strategic point of view, Russia's main security concern is the NATO Anti-Missile shield in Europe. With the launch of a new anti-missile radar base in Turkey on January 17, there is little chance to see Russia giving up its invaluable base in Syria. Moreover, NATO's intervention in Libya has eroded Moscow’s patience that is willing to prevent the spread of NATO's influence in the region. With Libya changing its regime, NATO reinforced its position in the Mediterranean, something which is seen with resentment in Moscow.
In a nutshell, maintaining Assad's regime is a way for Russia to protect its position in the Mediterranean and to safeguard its only hint of influence in the region. However, Russia's willingness to secure its only base in the Mediterranean is not the only motive for NATO's non-intervention in Syria. The existing ties between Damascus and Teheran are part of the explanation of NATO's renouncement in the region.
The regional implications
If the Russian federation can be called a strong ally of Damascus, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the best friend of Syria since its bonds rely mostly on religious and ideological grounds. While a shared antagonism against the United States and Israel has contributed to tightening bonds between the two partners, the foundation of the Iran-Syria friendship is also religious.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic is the first Shiite country in the world. Teheran financially supports all Shiite minorities in the Muslim world, and accordingly, the Syrian one, which is very influent in the country (2 millions of Syrian are Shiite, 20 per cent of the population). Moreover it is no secret that Iran sponsors the Shiites Lebanese Terrorist Organization Hezbollah which uses Syria as a rear. Besides the Islamic republic considers Syria as an invaluable strategic asset, since Damascus shares a common boundary with Israel.
It is likely that, in the hypothesis of an operation run by NATO in Syria, the Islamic Republic will somehow answer. Tensions between Iran and the international community are at their climax. In the context of a campaign aiming at killing Iranian nuclear scientists, the probability to see the Islamic Republic involved in a conflict in the Middle East is very high. As a result, the readiness of Teheran to protect Assad's regime might deter NATO to intervene in the Levant.
Eventually, a new actor is emerging in the Middle East chessboard, namely China. Beijing has already vetoed UN's intention to proceed to "targeted measures" against Assad's regime and if on the one hand, the Popular Republic condemns the slaughter of hundreds of civilians, on the other, Beijing considers Syria as a strategic spot regarding its forthcoming energy needs. In addition, supporting Syria is also a way for Beijing to strengthen its position of "global power" in the international arena. From a regional point of view, the operations in Syria will deepen the instability in the region.
Besides, it is likely that an operation in Syria would trigger the revival of ethnical tensions in Syria as well as in the entire near East. Communitarian and ethnic issues are an eternal concern in the region since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Tensions in the region are profound among the different communities that inhabit the region, among them Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Druze, Assyrian, Circassian, or Jewish.
Internal reasons and the new faces of NATO
Critical internal reasons also explain why NATO is not willing to intervene in Syria. First of all, under the rhetoric of NATO's official many questions remain about the veritable success of the operation in Libya. These interrogations arise in the strategic and in the military field, but also arouse in the ethical debate regarding the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the commitment of the National Libyan Council to implement democracy and the legitimacy of the operation in Libya.
Furthermore, from a strategic point of view, the operations in Libya revealed the NATO's dependency on the United States regarding its tactical military operations and overall military capabilities. Indeed, voices have risen to stress on the failure of NATO in Libya. Eventually, within the context of a fundamental reshaping of NATO, which most important chapter will take place this spring in Chicago, an intervention in Syria is completely off-board. The current top priority of NATO is the transition of security in Afghanistan on which the alliance focuses all its military and economics efforts.
In the context of fiscal crisis, NATO members have no option but to implement the smart security policy, a defence concept that aims to make a better use of all the existing resources. In less than 5 month NATO members will meet in Chicago in order to discuss the future of the alliance and with its thorny agenda it is likely that the members will not start any intervention in the Levant.
The author is CEPI Research Assistant