Gulf countries have dealt with protests in Bahrain, and Iranian intervention there, as an act taking place in the Gulf arena. These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are worried by the extreme conditions of crisis in Yemen as something taking place in their back yard, and are undertaking mediation in the framework of successive initiatives that they have put forward. But the Syrian situation constitutes an extremely important arena for two influential powers in the region, namely Iran and Turkey. The unfolding of events in Syria is cause for innumerable calculations for Ankara and Tehran.
It is no secret that the leadership in Turkey, based on a desire for stability in Syria and the preservation of the current order there, led by President Bashar Assad, have prompted and encouraged, and even pressured, in the direction of seeing the regime respond to the demands for reform, even though this is causing resentment in Damascus. It is also no secret that Ankara is anxious about the repercussions of any security upheaval or escalation of the situation in Syria along the two countries’ 700-kilometer-long border, among the minorities that are embraced by Turkish society. This anxiety is connected to the long-term security of Turkey’s rulers, and not the democratic change that the Turkish model has come to represent for the world; the Justice and Development Party believes that the Syrians have learned lessons from the experience of their neighbor.
Needless to say, the upheaval in Syria affects Turkey’s political and economic interests, since Damascus is the gateway to Ankara in these arenas in the Middle East. Turkish exports have grown by billions of dollars and the country’s role has grown larger in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in treating the Lebanese crisis, not to mention in Iraq. All of this has rendered the call for the Syrian leadership to respond to reforms, and quickly, an urgent matter; recent visitors to the Turkish capital say Ankara will continue to “lobby” for these steps, relentlessly.
Meanwhile, Iran is also anxious, about the possibility that the developments will lead to a new political formula in Syria, which will have an impact on its role and influence in the Levant, due to the likely impact on the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This anxiety is understandable, and legitimate. In parallel to Turkey’s advice to the Syrian leadership to accelerate the pace of reform steps, Iran has closely followed the developments in all parts of Syria. The close ties between the two countries in recent years, at the political, economic, social, military and security levels, have also allowed it, along with the leadership of Hezbollah, to give advice to the Syrians about how to deal with the popular protests. The Iranian anxiety about the consequences of these protests can only been explained by Tehran’s accusation that America and Zionism are conspiring against Syria, with Iran’s allies in Beirut repeating this accusation.
The possibility that the current Syrian regime will change its behavior, instead of experiencing regime change, has Iran anxious about the transformations in Syria. This is taking place amid talk that the concerned countries, which favor the survival of the regime, want to see its reform moves, which will gain Damascus their support, accompanied by a policy of moving away from Iran. What increases this concern even more, to the degree of outright tension, is that Ankara has seized two Iranian planes loaded with weapons that were headed for Syria, and announced the move. However, it was not disclosed that the Turkish authorities also seized another shipment of weapons that were being smuggled over the land border to Syria.
Although one might assume that Iran is advising Damascus to deal with the protests the way it dealt with those of the Iranian opposition, Tehran is also keen to see Syria continue as an arena that is in the interest of its regional policies; this is not unrelated to its support for seeing the Syrian leadership adopt a policy of reform, even if belated, which is followed by a hard-line policy after each reform step, or a carrot-and-stick approach.
The Syrian leadership’s decision, between the advice of Ankara, and that of Tehran, is the decisive point here. Will Damascus try once again to have it both ways, or will it listen to one set of advice, and not the other?