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Friends and foes

July 28, 2012

The Syrian conflict has shifted allegiances in the Middle East and forced members of the international community to take a stance. DW takes a close look at Syria's friends and foes around the world.

Members of the United Nations Security Council listen to Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at United Nations headquarters Thursday, July 19, 2012.
Image: dapd

Bordering Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, Syria has a central geopolitical position in the Middle East. The region is of vital global importance for religious, political and economic reasons. It is where the world's three great monotheistic religions originated, is a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, and has the largest fossil fuel reserves in the world. Many global trade routes converge in the Middle East, home of the Suez Canal.

Under President Bashar Assad, Syria has tried to stake out a position of leadership in the Arab world. The country saw itself leading efforts against the alleged "colonial" politics of the west, especially the US and Israel.

Assad's alliances with neighboring countries have made the Syrian uprising that started in spring 2011 a problem for the region and the rest of the world.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah
Key figures of the Shiite axis on a poster in BeirutImage: AP

Iranian angle

Syria is Iran's only ally among the Arab nations. Religious ties underpin the relationship.

The Assad family belongs to the Alawite sect, which is closely related to the Shiite branch of Islam. The Shiites have their political and religious center in Iran.

There are also political considerations. Syria, Iran and Lebanon form the so-called Shiite axis that works together against Israel. Lebanon is home to the militant Hezbollah group, which receives logistics support and weapons from Iran in the group's fight against Israel.

A change of government in Syria stands to alter the Shiite axis. With Assad's fall, Iran would lose its most important ally.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar

As the country where Islam was born, Saudi Arabia is the center of the conservative Sunni denomination. In terms of religion, it is Iran's biggest rival. Both countries compete over political dominance in the region. Saudi Arabia is also concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Saudi Arabia stands to move even closer to its longtime ally the US in light of their common stance against Assad.

Saudi Arabia has taken the lead among Arab countries calling for democracy and the rule of law in Syria. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia has helped neighboring Bahrain brutally suppress Shiite protests against the Sunni leadership there.

Protests within Saudi Arabia are also met with force. According to Amnesty International, serious human rights violations are an everyday occurrence. Dedication to freedom and democracy is not necessarily Saudi Arabia's true objective in supporting Syria's opposition.

Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah welcomes AssadImage: AP

Qatar is another close ally of the US. Just like Saudi Arabia, it is worried that Iran could become too powerful. Critics have accused Qatar-based Al Jazeera of bias in its Arabic-language coverage of the Syrian crisis. The influential broadcaster is owned by the emir of Qatar.

Iraqi ties

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2006, Shiite Nuri Maliki became the country's prime minister. Maliki spent his exile during the reign of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein in exile in Iran and Syria. He has maintained his ties with the Assad regime.

About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites, making the country close with both Iran and Syria. Baghdad sees them as allies against Sunni insurgents in Iraq.


Developments in Syria have strongly affected its little neighbor Lebanon. Damascus actually sees Lebanon as an artificial construct that should become part of Syria.

The Lebanese civil war saw Syrian troops in the country. Syrian forces stayed there even after the conflict ended. It was not until the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - which was blamed on Damascus - that massive anti-Syrian protests led to a withdrawal of the troops.

A masked protester holds up a gasoline bottle as others burn garbage containers in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011
Lebanon has seen protests as Hezbollah seeks to gain powerImage: AP

Hezbollah is a strong Assad ally, with members of the militant group reportedly joining the fight against Syrian rebels. Northern Lebanon is a major conduit for arms going into Syria.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Sunnis are lending support to Assad's opponents. The Syrian conflict has already sparked fighting between the two factions within Lebanon. The Lebanese government is trying to stay out of the Syria conflict. But it has to reckon with Hezbollah's representation in parliament, among other factors.

Israeli ties complex

Israel has a twofold relationship with the Assad regime. On the one hand, Syria has been a reliable and predictable neighbor. Despite anti-Israeli sentiment in Damascus, the  Golan Heights border has remained calm.

On the other hand, Syria has maintained close ties with Iran, Israel's biggest enemy in the region.

Assad's fall would present mixed possibilities for Israel. If he loses power, a new Syrian regime could take a much more aggressive approach to Israel. At the same time, Assad's ouster could weaken Iran and make Israel more secure.

Turkey assertive

In recent years, Turkey has worked to become a leader in its region. In that spirit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vociferously called for Assad to step down from power.

However, Turkey is concerned about Syrian Kurds, who have discussed forming an autonomous region since the beginning of the uprising. That could inspire Kurds in Turkey to step up their fight against Ankara.

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a military official
Erdogan is worried about trouble with the KurdsImage: REUTERS

Turkey is also worried that Assad's fall could lead to armed conflict between Syria's various opposition groups. A continued struggle could throw the entire region into turmoil.

US favors rebels

US military and economic strength has been greatly weakened by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Assad's fall would remove one of Washington's biggest enemies in the Middle East. The US is backing the rebels in hopes of seeing a friendly Syrian government in the future. Washington is not supplying them weapons, but is likely sending communications and other equipment through Turkey.

Washington is also trying to limit Shiite influence in the region, as the US generally has better relations with Sunnis. The US also has Israel's interests in mind and hopes that Assad's ouster will weaken Iran.

Russia supporting Assad

So far, Russia has vetoed every UN Security Council resolution against Syria. Russia has been an ally of Syria since the Soviet era. Damascus is Moscow's last remaining ally in the region.

Working through Syria is the only way Russia can still try to influence the Middle East. The Syrian port city of Tartus also hosts Russia's only military port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Further, Damascus is an important customer for Russia's weapons industry. Russian energy companies also do business in Syria.

Assad with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Assad greets Russia's foreign minister in Syria earlier this yearImage: AP

Russia is also concerned about its standing in the Arab world. If Russia gives politicians in the region the impression that Russia will not aid its allies, there will be little incentive to be on good terms with Moscow.

Another reason for Russia support of Syria is Moscow's fear that radical Islamists would dominate a post-Assad Syria.

China on Syria's side

China has pursued a course of economic expansion for years. It has been looking for ways to quench its thirst for resources, including oil, all over the world. That's why Beijing is trying to increase its influence in the Middle East. China's strongest ties are with Iran. But like Russia, China is banking that Assad will stay in power.

The Chinese government has justified its veto in the UN Security Council by saying it respects Syria's right to handle its affairs without outside intervention. That's a right China has striven to claim for itself in the cases of Tibet and Xinjiang.

If the Chinese government backed intervention in Syria, it would likely face more criticism for its own policies back home.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi with his Syrian counterpart Walid Moallem
The Syrian and Chinese foreign ministers in BeijingImage: picture alliance / dpa

The European Union

EU member countries have maintained rather discrete ties with the Assad regime over the years. The Syrian leadership tried to appear distant from the west, but kept up pragmatic, economic relations with the EU. Brussels also backed many civil society projects in Syria.

In light of the past year and a half of violence, though, EU member states have clearly distanced themselves from Damascus. The Assad regime is no longer a viable candidate for European partnership.

Author: Kersten Knipp /ai
Editor: Shant Shahrigian

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