In the last three years, the Syrian spectacle has deteriorated from demonstrations into civil war on the ground, where there is explosive confrontation between America and Russia, and the Gulf countries and Iran, thus far.
From armaments to monetary support and secret diplomatic struggles, no country has seen, since the Lebanon War in the ‘80s, this amount of intense violence and simultaneous fighting for influence between regional and international powers.
Amid this diplomatic shadowboxing, a number of countries have changed along the dimensions of their roles, like Iran. Some have gained influence, like Russia, while others lose ground and seem to be attempting to disengage with the situation, like the United States.
The United States: From an Inclination Toward Military Strikes to Gradual Withdrawal
The American administration often and loudly demanded the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the beginning it thought of sending weapons to the opposition, as was done with the Afghan fighters in the ‘80s. There was increased Western pressure from Paris, Washington and London, which peaked in the wake of the bloody chemical weapon attack in August 2013 near Damascus.
Westerners had never been closer to striking against Syria since the crisis began. But then, U.S. President Barack Obama chose to retreat. Since then, it seems that he has given up on any military option, and he moderates his criticisms of Assad. After regaining his footing Assad sent a delegate to Switzerland, taking a strong stance.
Russia: The Big Return to Influence in the Middle East
The Syrian crisis allowed Russia to realize a big return to the international scene. After being weakened by the collapse of the USSR, Russia has seldom been able to confront the desires of West. But Russia, with Vladimir Putin as its president, played its role with patience, hindering any military intervention with its authority in the United Nations and continuing to provide arms to the countries which form a strategic element in its influence in the Middle East.
In September at the height of the crisis, when the West was on the verge of using missiles against Damascus, Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to persuade all to agree to dismantle Syria’s nuclear* arsenal under the authority of the United Nations, thus silencing Western appeals for military intervention. This strategy allowed Russia to gain prominence in the game.
Gulf Countries: At the Forefront of Opposition Support, They Met Face to Face with Arabs of Rival Factions
In the Gulf countries, ruled by wealthy Sunni oil families, rushed to organize opposition against Assad in the framework of the Arab League (especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait). They based their support for the opposition on an estimate of what was best geopolitically. What was most important was to support the majority Sunni against the ruling Alawite minority in Syria on one side, and against Iranian influence in the Middle East from other side.
The Gulf countries also struggled amongst each other for influence. These struggles happened both outside of Syria, for the sake of control of organizations representing the Syrian opposition (i.e. Qatar against Saudi Arabia), and likewise on the battlefield between the opposition and the Jihadis (those who were close to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists). Qatar was for a long time most prominent, but after three years of crisis, Saudi Arabia holds its own.
Iran: Sponsor of the Assad Regime
Iran, a regional power and ally of Russia, pledged to support the Syrian regime. Calls for Iran to go to the Geneva II Conference angered the opposition.
Iran considers Syria a pivotal episode in the Shiite presence in the Middle East. The Assad family, from the father Hafez to the son Bashar, has allowed Iran a foothold in Lebanon via the widely influential Shiite Hezbollah. Hezbollah fighters have supported the Syrian Army on the battlefield against the opposition and Jihadis. The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned the West before the Geneva Conference that “they will regret” attempts to exclude Iran (when it received calls to Switzerland which were later withdrawn).
*Editor's Note: The agreement was actually to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons supply.