What You Need to Know About Playing Syria

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- As the devastating war in Syria continues, know that many Arab nations will be very wary of getting involved in Syria. Hezbollah came to the aid of the government's forces (as has non-Arab Iran), and the Saudis have provided assistance to some of the militias battling the government, but there is great caution in the region of getting stuck in a bloody morass.

- When portraying Syria, you need to understand that Syria has always played a central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only was Palestine part of Greater Syria before the colonial powers divided the entity into several parts, Syria has also been involved in almost all the major wars fought by the Arabs against Israel. During these wars, Syria has always committed heavily (militarily and politically) and has played a key role along with other central Arab states such as Egypt.

- You also need to know that the state of belligerence between Syria and Israel is still going on, partly due to Israel's continuous occupation of the Golan Heights since the 1967 war. This state of affairs has not allowed any type of complete peace agreement to be reached between the Israelis and Syrians.

- You must understand Syria's internal and international politics. Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad belongs to a ruling religious minority called the Alawites that has been ruling Syria for some time now. This not only puts him and his party in a precarious situation in the country with a Sunni majority, but it also forces him to take a stronger stance against Israel as a way to legitimize themselves as the defenders of the holy land and the leaders in the Arab-Israel Conflict.

- Since Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel, Syria has not been able to wage war against Israel, and thus many countries (such as the United States and Israel) have claimed that Syria has become a major supporter of Hizbollah and other guerilla groups inside and outside Israel as a means to force Israel to return the Golan Heights through terrorism. Furthermore, several anti-Israeli groups have in the past headquartered inside Syria, most notably Hamas. This has created a deadlock between Israel and Syria, with Syria asking for the return of the Golan first, while Israeli asks Syria to stop funding its enemies before the Golan Heights are returned.

-Keep in mind that for Syria to be able to play a major role in Arab politics, Syria will always need to be central to the Arab-Israel conflict. This position has always helped Syria to scapegoat Israel for all Syrian economic problems and also to gain prominence on the “Arab Street" (a term that is another way of describing Arab public opinion).

Recent events have had a strong effect on how your nation is received in the international arena. Below you will find a summary of how nations currently view you and what actions they have taken towards you. Remember, this is only a summary. It is also not inclusive. This section should alert you to the challenges that you will be facing in this upcoming simulation.

Turkey:

In recent weeks, Turkey has been given an unprecedented chance to step into a massive Middle Eastern power vacuum. For decades, Turkey has tried to recast itself as a true Middle Eastern power player. With the fall of many dictators, it has been given a chance to do exactly that. Turkey seeks to serve as an example to its neighboring countries of how a secular and modern Islamic state can exist. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey has been providing humanitarian aid to struggling transitional governments. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has personally visited Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya pledging Turkey's support. Turkey is attempting to recast its image as a nation in favor of democracy for everyone, and a supporter of the Arab Spring. If it is successful, Turkey stands to become one of the key diplomatic players in the region. It has a unique blend of characteristics which make it very appealing to all sides: it is an Islamic state, It has great trade arrangements with the Middle East, it engages openly with the West, it is growing quickly, it has a large population, and it has a strong military. This means Turkey is positioned to become a huge power in the Middle East.

However, Syria poses a problem for Turkey. How can Turkey, looking to recast itself in a democratic, free, and pro-Islamic image, tolerate the killing of protestors on its national doorstep? This throws doubt on the narrative Turkey is attempting to establish. Turkey has been criticized for not doing enough to stop Syrian aggression. Remember, Turkey and Syria are neighbors and in recent years have been growing closer, economically and politically. Now this relationship is a liability. Turkey has attempted to use diplomatic measures to dissuade the Assad regime from using violence. Turkey has endorsed sweeping political changes and encouraged the recognition of the people's demands. Turkey has also condemned the use of violence. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has personally visited President Assad and made these suggestions clear.

It is clear that, for the Turkish image abroad, Syria's use of force is unacceptable. It appears that relations between Turkey and Syria are at a head. It is believed that Erdogan gave Syria two weeks to stop the use of violence. That two weeks ended with the Syrian shelling of a town right next to the Turkish border. Turkey has stated that if Syria does not end the violence there will be grave and immediate consequences. Erdogan has also stated that there is no need to state what these consequences would be. This leads many to believe that it would mean an end of diplomatic and trade relations or worse, military action. It is doubtful that Turkey would move directly to armed conflict. However, it is a possibility, though sanctions are much more likely. It is also clear that Turkey wants Syria to believe that military conflict is a possibility.

Syria has shown no willingness to change its actions in the face of Turkish pressure. It is clear President Assad believes that any reprisals from Turkey will be manageable. It even appears that the attack on towns along the Turkish border serves to demonstrate that Syria will not be cowed by Turkey's veiled threats. Syria has adopted a dangerous tact, but one that cannot be backed down from. Syria is seeking to demonstrate that it is in control of its own destiny. Had Assad bended to Turkey's threat he would have been giving up part of his sovereign power, power that is already being eroded by the protests. The Syrian team should take away from this the fact that Syria will do what Syria believes is necessary to maintain control of its populace. This means that if the President deems it prudent to use force, force will be used. Outside observers are just that, outside. They do not understand the realities of the situation. Even a nation as powerful as Turkey, with vested interests in Syrian stability, cannot be allowed to dictate Syrian policy. There is too much doubt about the Syrian government's capability to rule for it to allow this.

European Union:

The European Union needs Syria. The European Union is a huge consumer of Syrian oil. However, this also gives the EU a powerful means by which to exercise leverage over Syria. With Syria's continuing harsh treatment of protesters, the EU has been forced to levy sanctions against Syria. At first these were limited to the freezing of funds for individuals and banning of travel through European air-space. It is worth noting that all members of this team have been subjected to these rules. Since the limited sanctions were imposed, they have been broadened. The European Union has now stated that it will ban the importing of any and all oil and gas products from Syria. This is a huge economic blow to the Syrian government. However, it is not a death knell for the Syrian economy. There are other importers whom you may approach. The Syrian government has remained resolute in the face of these sanctions, saying that they will look elsewhere, and that the EU's actions are tantamount to a declaration of economic warfare.

The E.U. is unwilling to lift sanctions until Syria has returned to a peaceful state. Syria will not allow for its nation to be overrun by protesters and what the government has termed as terrorists. Therefore it is unlikely that relations between the two will thaw anytime soon. That said, Syria should be mindful of the Libyan example. Should it exercise the use of force two freely, EU military intervention is not an implausible repercussion.

Iran:

Iran is one of Syria's closest partners. As targets on the American agenda and frontline observers in the occupation of Iraq, Syria and Iran have learned that they are all each other has in terms of regional influence. This influence converges in Lebanon, where Syria and Iran are the joint tutors of Hezbollah, although for very different reasons; the Syrians do it to keep pressure on Israel and maintain a presence in Lebanon, while Iran backs the movement to maintain its role as ideological leader of the Shiite world. Neither side trusts each other very far, but they are willing to work together in the face of overwhelming external hostility.

In recent years, the distrust between Syria and Iran has been forced to subside by western policies. With both of the states elevated to the status of pariah states amongst nations, they have been forced ever closer. With both nation's access to international trade limited, they need each other now more than ever. Iran has provided weapons and material to Syria, in the hopes that it will help Syria put down this crisis. Iran has even stated that it is willing to send in troops, to help Assad. However, it is unlikely it will actually go this far. Maintaining such a force in another country would be taxing for Iran and draw much international criticism. One thing is sure, Iran does not want to see Assad go. Still, there have been rumblings within Iran that Assad has used too much force. Syria walks a tight line here. Iran is still an ally; however, with the death toll approaching 2,000 killed, the question of how much blood Iran is willing to see looms tall.

To put the scale of the Iranian-Syrian relationship into perspective, from July 15th of 2011 until September 1st, Syria and Iran have signed almost sixteen billion dollars worth of economic deals. Most of these are deals for Iranian development of Syria something that, given the economic sanctions currently imposed on Syria, is deeply needed. Syria must make sure that it does not alienate this important ally.

For further reading: http://www.irantracker.org/foreign-relations/syria-iran-foreign-relations


Israel: Syrian-Israeli relations are tense. Syria funds two of Israel's greatest threats and Israel occupies a large swath of Syrian territory. However, the relations between these two nations are stable. Even in the current political climate, the two nation's realities necessitate peaceful coexistence. Assad has refrained from violent acts against Israel for decades. Regardless of what Hezbollah and Hamas do, this means that the Syrian army is at least under the command of an actor who does not want all out war. This gains Assad a good deal of leeway from both the United States and Israel. While they might criticize him and rebuke him, they are afraid of what might replace him. While it is true that much of Assad's popularity stems from his rhetoric against Israel, he would be unable to remain in power without the backing of Israel and the U.S. The fear of what might replace Assad means that neither the U.S. nor Israel will use force against him. Thus, Syria has a vested interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Israel. These relations are not friendly, but exclude the firsthand use of violence. In Libya there was no strong fear of what would replace Ghadaffi. This allowed NATO to act, not fearing the consequences of their actions. The same is not possible with Syria, so long as peace is maintained.

Jordan: Jordan has always watched Syria with a wary eye: the countries are simply too close to ignore one another, and militarily Jordan is no match for its more powerful northern rival. Fortunately for Jordan, the collapse of the USSR has meant that Syria has faced virtual isolation, while Jordan continues to enjoy the protection of the United States. While Jordan has yet to denounce Syria, it has called for an immediate end to the violence which is wracking that nation. Jordan's predominantly Sunni population is very sensitive to the violence within Syria, violence that targets the mainly the Sunni majority within Syria. It is unlikely that Jordan would ever condone a military strike into Syria, though. The prospect of more refugees coming to Jordan is not a welcomed one. However, flagrant use of force could result in a further cooling of relations between the two states.

Lebanon: Relations with Lebanon have improved since a pro-Syrian government came to power. Still, memories of occupation cloud the relationship between the two neighbors. Lebanon is an important ally and neighbor to Syria. Syria is a conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah and a supplier itself. The concept that Lebanon was once part of Syria has governed much of Syria's approach to this nation. There are strong trade agreements between the two nations. The material support provided by Syria was crucial to defeating the last Israeli offensive into southern Lebanon. However, the current uprisings in Syria have made even this close relationship difficult. Still, you have received strong support from your allies in Lebanon. The Arab League recently condemned the violence within Syria. However, Lebanon broke with their finding and said that it would stand with brotherly Syria. Here, the relationship between Syria and Lebanon is reflected. While the Lebanese are worried by some of your political interference within their own country, Lebanon relies too much on your government for material and trade to allow for it to fall.

Palestinians: Ever since the Lebanese civil war, Syria has distrusted the PLO and Arafat, so Syria is cool towards Fatah and its supporters. Syria gives its full weight to Hamas, however, and shelters several of that organization’s leaders in Damascus, where they live openly as “politicians in exile.” Israel has made it very difficult to support Hamas materially, but wherever possible Syria tries, even if most of this support is merely rhetorical. The Syrian government gains most of its popular support from its sponsoring of Hamas. However, it has terminated this support because of Hamas's allowance of anti-Syrian rallies in Gaza. Damascus saw these rallies as a slap in its face. However, the cutting of support did not lead to a change in Hamas's policies. Hamas has become a more populist entity; therefore, it is more beholden to the opinions of the man on the street. Suppressing anti-Syrian protests would be too unpopular for Hamas. The threat of losing the support of the Palestinians is much greater for Hamas than the threat of losing cash support from the Syrians. However, for Syria this has been a huge black eye. Even their client state, a state seen by many as a terrorist entity, was unable to quench the up-welling of anti-Assad sympathies.

Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in 2006 that Syria has a positive role to play in the Middle East, and must not simply be ignored. In a show of good faith Russia cancelled almost $20 billion in Syrian debt and began high-level military exchanges with the new al-Assad government. This relationship seems bound to deliver tangible goods for both partners in the near future: Russia wants to get back into the Middle East, and Syria is eager to regain the military and financial support of its closest Cold War ally.

Russia's interest in Syria goes far beyond weapons deals. Russia is an energy independent nation. This means that it can engage in political and business deals within the Middle East without concern for its energy supplies. This allows it to reach beyond energy deals and make business deals with people on all sides of the conflict. For example, Russia has supplied weapons to both Israel and Lebanon, at the same time both nations were fighting each other. Russia tends to focus on nations in which there is no western commercial presence. These nations are normally under sanctions, and in need of technological goods Russia produces. Their need allows Russia to enter into these markets for high profits. This is one of the reasons why Russia is so interested in Syria. It is a great client; not only in the weapons industry, but also in the high-tech field.

Russia also has political interest. By engaging these nations in trade, Russia helps persuade then not to support the Chechen rebels Russia has been fighting for years. The fear that Middle Eastern actors would support Chechen rebels is a real security fear for Russia. It is another enticement to engage itself within the Middle East as an honest businessman, disinterested in socio-political affairs.

Russia's economic and political interest in the region helps explain its current stance on Syria. Russia has condemned, "We have always said that unilateral sanctions will lead to nothing good. This ruins the partnership approach to any crisis." Russia has a long history of opposing sanctions. However, its portrayal of EU sanctions as unilateral is a bit misleading, considering that the EU is comprised of 32 sovereign nations. What this demonstrates tellingly is Russia's willingness to defend its commercial interests. It is also afraid of the replacement of the Assad regime with a pro-western government. This is one of the many reasons why it has opposed military action by NATO in Libya.

Libya should teach the Syrian government one thing; there is a limit to which the Russian and the Chinese are willing to look the other way. In Libya, global outcry forced them to condone a mission led by the U.N. and NATO. Assad's continuous, but controlled use of violence has yet to push the international community to talks about the use of force. However, an escalation of the use of force could eventually prove to be too much.

United States:

U.S.-Syrian relations have long been poor. Syria has been on the list of State sponsors of terrorism since the list was conceived, its place earned by Syria's support of Hezbollah and Hamas. However, the U.S. has deeper reasons to distrust Syria. Syria has maintained open borders with Iraq, allowing foreign fighters to easily enter into Iraq and fight U.S. troops. Furthermore, Syria has refused to deport officials from Saddam Hussein's government who took refuge there. These officials have provided support to fighters within Iraq, and, according to the U.S. State Department, have helped to encourage a continuation of the fighting within Iraq.

It was these concerns which initially spurred U.S. sanctions of Syria. The sanctions, which the U.S. placed on Syria, were strong. This included a banning of almost all trade, the prohibition of travel to targeted Syrians within the U.S., and the denial of access, by selected individuals, to the U.S. economic systems. The recent violence in Syria has led the U.S. to further decry the Assad regime. However, the pre-existing sanctions limited the power of newly emplaced U.S. sanctions. Simply, there wasn't a lot left to sanction. Syria had long ago shifted its economy away from the U.S. in order to cope with previous sanctions. With this bullet pretty much spent, the U.S. called for the resignation of President Assad. For one nation to say that another nation's president has lost legitimacy is a major step. A president ruling without legitimacy is a dictator which, essentially, validates the actions of those who seek to oust them. It also sets a precedent for others to follow. The U.S. has made it easier for other countries to withdraw their support for Assad. Notably, the E.U., at the behest of the U.S., also called for Assad to step down, and banned the import of all Syrian oil. This was a huge economic blow.

The U.S. has cast its die against Assad. However, it is unlikely that it will use military force against him. One of the reasons for this is that the U.S. is already over-extended. Wars are simply too unpopular at home, especially for a president who ran as a dove. Furthermore, while the Libyan venture does seem to be successful, the Syrian military is much better armed. It also has the support of numerous other nations, including Russia, Lebanon, Iran, and China. It is unlikely that the U.S. would be able to pass a resolution through the security council to validate a military intervention. Therefore, any intervention would essentially be illegal. Lastly, the U.S. is afraid. Assad has maintained peace between Israel and Syria. Furthermore, he has forsaken his bid for nuclear weapons. Whomever or whatever replaces him might not be so stable.

Syria is impotent to act against the U.S.; however, by making sure that the use of force does not escalate, the Syrian government can help to ensure that the U.S. does not use military force on them. To ensure this, Syria must also maintain peace with Israel. This does not mean not using scathing rhetoric against Israel at every conceivable chance; it merely means maintaining a real peace, with no violence along the border. Should violence escalate to the point where open rebellion breaks out, and Russia and China pull their support for Assad, it is likely the U.S. would opt for a limited air campaign. It is even conceivable that Russia would join the venture. The reasoning for this is simple; these countries want to be on the side of whoever comes out on top. Being remembered as a nation who enabled the slaughter of civilians is not a good place to be. Therefore, Syria has a vested interest in the selective use of force on its civilians.

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