The ‘Arab Spring’ has seen the downfall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, while other nations remain wracked by protests, or in the case of Libya, civil war.


Among those countries whose future remains uncertain is Syria – the neighbour of regional powerhouse Turkey, and also Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.


This central position makes Syria crucial to the region, says Dr Matthew Gray of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.

“Syria is not the biggest country in the region, but it’s one of the most crucial, mostly because of its geography and modern political history,” he said.

When the Iraq war was at its peak, foreigners seeking to join battle against US-led coalition forces were gaining entry via Syria’s long desert border, Dr Gray said,

“Syria was pivotal to the security of Iraq, according to American assessments,” he says.

Then there is the fractious political status-quo in Syria’s smaller neighbour, Lebanon.

“Syria in effect politically controls Lebanon these days,” Dr Gray says.

“It suffered a setback when it had to withdraw its troops in 2005 … but it now basically is back in political control – it’s got an extensive intelligence network still in Lebanon, and it and Lebanon are linked economically.”

Further, Syria’s claim to the Golan Heights – controlled by Israel – and its backing of Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, mean developments in Damascus are watched closely by Tel Aviv.

“It is a key operational backer of Hezbollah, and importantly it’s still technically at war with Israel,” Dr Gray says.

“[Syria is going to be absolutely central to] … any comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours.”

Dr Gray believes a hostile – but stable – neighbour to the north may be the best the Jewish state can hope for in the short term.

“If they did get a Sunni Islamist leadership, or if they even got a secular but much more radical leadership … what the Israelis are nervous about is that that type of regime may pose a threat.”

The US has been measured in its criticism and handling of sanctions towards Syria, with some voices in Washington holding out hope the Assad dynasty can reform.

It is, however, vocal about Iran’s rising activity in the region, which included the docking of warships at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia earlier this year.

But a popular uprising that ends in majority Sunni government could spell bad news for Shia Iran, viewed by many observers as Syria’s key ally.

“Such a government would probably distance itself from Iran,” Dr Gray says, with potentially negative implications for Iran’s role in the region.

Whatever the outcome in Syria, all of its neighbours will be keeping a close eye on Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it fights to maintain control.

Read Bill’s blog: Before the unrest… a trip to Syria