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Posted by on Dec 10, 2013 in Featured, Middle East, Regions |

Syria and Broader Trends in International Diplomacy: Part 3, The Middle East

james_gordon_losangeles via Flickr

james_gordon_losangeles via Flickr

While perceptions of Russia as a ‘great power’ deteriorates, and the diplomatic position of the United States changes, we need to view the region differently. What once was a loose geographical expression which acted as a sandbox for empires and a Cold War battleground has changed. States like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have rising economies, powerful and developed state institutions and an increased presence on the world stage.[1] While this trend is certainly not new, the increased diplomatic influence of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran has been well highlighted by their importance in the ongoing Syrian crisis and the international efforts to create a peaceful solution to the conflict. In completing our analysis of Syria as an exposition of the broader trends in international diplomacy, this last article will naturally focus on Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. After tracing the positions the aforementioned states have taken towards Syria, and the recent change in their attitudes, this article will also offer some final conclusions on broader international trends.

Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Turkey, aligned with the Syrian rebel groups and supported intervention, whereas Iran supported its longstanding ally in the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia has generally supported the foreign position of the United States in the Middle East since the First Gulf War, supporting Washington on topics such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the condemnation of Iran’s nuclear programme. However they have taken an independent stance on issues like the US invasion of Iraq, and the Arab Spring, opposing the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime and battling the wave of popular unrest. The dual stance taken by Saudi Arabia represents a combination of their pro-American and adamant anti-Iranian stance. The lens from which they see the Middle East is strongly realist, with a tint of Sunni Muslim sectarian ideology. This stance, which considers their geopolitical position as the main regional rival to Iran and their support for Sunni Muslims over a Alawi-dominated regime, led them to support the Syrian rebels.

Turkey also considered realist interpretations when formulating their foreign policy towards Syria. Ankara’s largest worry was the proximity of the conflict and the security concerns that that entails, a consideration that Saudi Arabia and Iran do not have to make. Turkey also had to consider their diplomatic position within NATO, which pushes them into a pro-American, pro-Western stance on many international relations. However, as recent polls suggest, their influence in the Middle East is deteriorating, and public opinion in the region believes that their foreign policy must change to a more independent stance. For the time being though, Turkey has maintained a pro-rebel posture.

Rounding out the other side of the conflict is Iran. Iran has made two considerations with respect to Syria, being their long-time relationship with the Assad regime and Moscow, and their anti-Western stance, roughly since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Like Turkey, this stance has begun to change in recent, especially with the reopening of diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

The outlined positions of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran seemed rigid in August and September of this year, as the likelihood of intervention increased. On the 14th of September, the United States and Russia signed a deal that would avoid military intervention, angering some and relieving others. It should be clear already that Saudi Arabia has not been altogether happy about the position the United States has adopted on Syria. They believe that this new stance diminishes the US position in the Middle East, thereby decreasing Saudi influence. Furthermore, they believe that the inability to decisively act against the Assad regime shows weakness in US foreign policy more broadly. They expressed this discontent with the developments in September and October surrounding the Syrian conflict by refusing a position in the Security Council.

Freedom House via Flickr

Freedom House via Flickr

While this came as a shock to most, it should not surprise thoughtful observers of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.Saudi Arabia is passionately anti-Iranian and opposes any concessions made with Iran or Russia. Concessions are not seen as a victory for peaceful, multilateral and cooperative decision making, but necessarily as a loss for Saudi Arabia and their interests. The extreme decision to reject a temporary seat in the Security Council was the product of extreme discontent with the United States, yet even so, it is a grave miscalculation on the part of the King of Saudi Arabia which places realism at the centre of the equation.

Conversely, as the United States did, Turkey and Iran have softened their stance on Syria. Turkey and Iran have acknowledged the fault in realist interpretations and are moving towards a more liberal view that recognizes the importance of multilateral action, diplomacy and the power of public opinion. As previously mentioned, both Turkey and Iran were at one point on opposite sides of the conflict. Though in the last couple of months both states have been seeking rapprochement with the opposing parties. Although they still broadly support different groups within Syria, they have come to the understanding that unilateral action and military intervention will only worsen the situation in Syria. They have found common ground opposing sectarian strife in the Middle East, promoting the Geneva II talks on Syria, and the international talks surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.

The recent collaboration between Turkey and Iran is in large part due to the change in Iranian foreign policy under recently elected President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani does not subscribe to a realist perspective on international relations, and has signalled a wish to reduce the importance of power politics in the Middle East. The shift is also due to the broad recognition that in a post-Iraq world, states have to tread more carefully when considering military intervention, more often than not opting for multilateral and diplomatic solutions.

While the Syrian conflict has illuminated the current state of Middle Eastern diplomacy, the shifts in power and perspective should come as no surprise. Syria has not changed the game; rather it has become another chessboard for the powers of the world to play on. Yet, in the post-Iraq era of international relations, the chess board looks very different and operates with very different rules; the United States can no longer impose its will, leaving regional actors to manage conflicts on their own. States like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran ought to learn from the mistakes of the United States and recognize the importance of multilateral action, diplomacy for the purpose of solutions rather than conflicts, and the power of public opinion. Acknowledging these trends can make the difference between successful foreign policy in the case of the United States, Turkey, and Iran, and unsuccessful foreign policy decisions in the case of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, the broader trends in international diplomacy as observed in Syria have only been briefly outlined. While Syria provides an extreme example of the shift in global policy, it is only one success story for international relations amongst many failures.[2] The nature of the conflict meant that the risk of war was helpful in changing attitudes in Washington, and could have certainly been very influential. Therefore, studying the broader shift in Washington’s foreign policy pivot would be of the utmost importance to assess whether or not the United States and the international community has learnt anything from the past twenty years of military intervention, and whether or not they applying the important lessons ‘learnt’ from Iraq. Leaving Syria, studying US diplomacy around the world in the post-Iraq era will be important for realizing the changing nature, and broader trends, of international diplomacy.


[1] There’s an inherit limitation when acknowledging the rising standard of living in nations in the Middle East – it’s often divided along gender lines. Regardless, the standard of living is generally growing in these countries (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran), existing gender divides or not.

[2] Recognizing the atrocities occurring within Syria, as a moment for international diplomacy it can be considered a success. The nature of conflict was high-risk for all the parties involved, and at least the worst outcome has been avoided. Nevertheless, the conflict still rages on and deserves the heightened attention it is receiving because thousands of Syrians are still being targeted by a harsh regime and the possibility for jihadist and sectarian violence is still ever present.

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