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Syrian conflict could upend Middle East
Steven Erlanger
The Sacramento Bee
26 February 2012
As the dead pile up and diplomacy fails to stem the violence, it is clear that this conflict is unique in significant ways, difficult to predict and far riskier to the world. Unlike Libya, Syria is of strategic importance, sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.
"Syria is almost the only country where the so-called Arab Spring could change the geostrategic concept of the region," said Olivier Roy, a French historian of the Middle East. (…)
(…) The country has already become a proxy fight for larger powers in the region and beyond.
For decades, Syria was the linchpin of the old security order in the Middle East. It allowed the Russians and Iranians to extend their influence even as successive Assad governments provided predictability for Washington and a stable border for Israel, despite support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
But the burgeoning civil war in Syria has upset that paradigm, placing the Russians and Americans and their respective allies on opposite sides. It is a conflict that has sharply escalated sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations. And it has left Israel hopeful that an enemy will fall, but deeply concerned about who might take control of his arsenal.
For Russia, the fall of Assad, an ally and arms customer, would further diminish its influence in the region. If Assad goes, any new government will note Russia's support for him, including a steady supply of weapons. Arabs across the region, who are demanding their rights and freedoms, may resent it, too.
"Even switching sides at this point won't help," said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russia scholar with the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally financed research group based in Virginia.
For the United States, the conflict is a bundle of risks and contradictions that has made Washington's stance – frustrating those who favor a more robust intervention – far more cautious than it was in Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called any comparison of Syria to Libya a "false analogy." In the largest sense, Libya could be seen as a strategic sideshow, while Syria is at center stage.
If the responsibility to protect civilians is a legitimate new part of international law, why would it apply to Libya and not to Syria? Without a robust intervention, what happens to the momentum and principles of the Arab Spring? Will Western calls for democracy and equal rights suffer and help radical Islamists rise to power?
Assad's fall would be a major defeat for Iran, so it is giving his government money, arms and advice, say intelligence officials of two Western countries.
The United States and Europe – with tenuous Russian and Chinese support – have isolated Iran economically and diplomatically to try to forestall Tehran from being able to build a nuclear weapon. The conflict in Syria complicates that delicate diplomacy, but a new Syrian government could be a greater blow to Iranian influence than any sanction the West has mustered so far. It could also revive democratic protests in Iran.
For now, Washington has no intention to arm Syrian opposition groups, as two Republican senators recently urged. Washington is also ruling out direct military intervention in this conflict.
The central issue is how to speed up what many now regard as the inevitable collapse of the Assad government without plunging the society into a civil war, said Volker Perthes, a German scholar of the region who runs the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"Arming the rebels and bringing about a civil war will prolong the regime," Perthes said. "A real war is what Assad really wants, because it would allow him to overcome the reluctance of the great majority of the armed forces to fight."
A real war would also be messy. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, fears the growing instability and sectarian bloodshed. It worries about more refugees spilling over the border, having already accepted thousands. Israel, too, fears chaos.
As Syria slips deeper into turmoil, an alternative to Assad is not ready. The opposition Syrian National Council is still trying to broaden its representation, establish its credibility inside the country and improve links with the independent Free Syrian Army. The Arab League and Western nations, like the United States and France, want to help, much as they helped to sell the Libyan National Transitional Council as an alternative government to Moammar Gadhafi.
Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive board of the Syrian National Council, said that with the upsurge in deaths, including those of at least two Western journalists and a Syrian blogger, the council's view was shifting toward encouraging foreign intervention, as painful for Syrians as that might be.
"We are really close to seeing that military intervention may well be the only solution," she said. "There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war."
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