Weathering the Storm: Outlooks and Challenges for Syria’s Neighbors


Chatham House and the Center for the National Interest jointly hosted an event on June 25 to discuss the present situation in Syria. Neil Quilliam, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Senior Fellow at Middle East Institute, gave introductory remarks. Christopher Phillips, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, Doris Carrion, Research Associate at Chatham House, and Andrew Bowen, Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest spoke as panelists while Ambassador Ford moderated.

Event Summary

With Jordan and Turkey contemplating establishing safe zones in Syria, a panel of scholars and former practitioners concluded at a recent Center for the National Interest-Chatham House roundtable that that humanitarian safe zones are unlikely to help, but instead will provide fertile ground for fighter recruitment, and would require inevitably U.S. maintenance and assistance.

Panelists concluded, more broadly, that there is a clear absence of regional and Western leadership to address the mounting impact of Syria’s civil war on its neighbors’ security and stability. Robert Ford, a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, noted that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have created over 15 million refugees and internally displaced persons in comparison to the 700,000 Palestinian refugees resulting from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war whose impact still reverberates today on the region’s security and stability. Without the participation of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, Ford concluded that the conflict can’t be solved, and Syria is presently on course to partition.

Andrew Bowen, a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center, noted that with little over a year left in office, President Obama will unlikely invest much further political capital in securing a political solution in Syria unless events pull him further in. With the likelihood that the civil war will continue for many years, Bowen argued that the White House should pursue a policy of robust containment, which focuses on providing increased economic, security, and political support for Syria’s neighbors. He stated as well that the West has overestimated the GCC’s ability and willingness to provide the funds and support that will be necessary for reconstructing a post-conflict Syria. Bowen concluded that the Gulf States lack a region-wide strategy toward Syria and its neighbors and instead have each pursued their own individual short-term policies.

Israel’s role in the civil war was examined, with Bowen noting that the Israeli-Saudi alignment is unsustainable past a short-term convergence of interests in countering Iran and Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, stating that Israel is already implicitly supporting Jordanian backing of groups in Syria and is unlikely to get directly involved in Syria over the Druze issue.

Christopher Phillips argued instead for the need for proactive rather than reactive leadership from policymakers. He urged that the U.S. and the EU should shed the one-size-fits-all policy approach to conflicts in the Middle East and instead assess the specific needs of each of Syria’s neighbors. Phillips concluded that these states have attempted to pursue multiple and often contradictory goals in Syria and have failed to develop and communicate clear objectives to its regional allies.

Examining the long-term impact of the crisis on Lebanon and Jordan, Doris Carrion, a researcher at Chatham House, recommended that Jordanian and Lebanese policymakers should develop more nuanced views of their security, keeping an eye on increasingly marginalized domestic populations rather than only on Syrian refugees. Carrion recommended that the Jordanian and Lebanese governments find ways to create employment opportunities for Syrians, as this would move Syrians from the informal economy to the formal economy, halt wage depression, and allow international agencies to shift from addressing urgent humanitarian crises to helping these states’ grapple with refugee influxes. She stressed that the international donors should increase pressure for economic reform, including the decentralization of service delivery to host communities.

Even with the fall of Assad, Phillips stressed that this will not bring an end to the conflict and the Syrian conflict’s effects will resonate not just for years, but also for decades on the region’s stability. Phillips noted that Jordan may appear calm compared to instability in the rest of the region, but the Kingdom faces profound long-term governance challenges. In Lebanon, the military and Hezbollah currently share interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria, but could turn against each other if the Assad regime falls to the detriment of Lebanon’s stability.