Israel’s military airstrikes inside Syria over the weekend represent a dangerous widening of a two-year-long conflict. If these attacks now spur the West or the United Nations to intervene, then the battle for Syria’s future will become far more than just another Middle East war zone. It will be global in scope. Such an escalation, however, will first require a clearer understanding of what is really at stake.
The Israeli attacks were preemptive and defensive in nature, aimed at preventing Iranian missiles from being shipped through Syria to southern Lebanon for possible use by Hezbollah guerrillas against Israel. And to add to the list of foreign hands now at work in Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are reportedly helping the Syrian Army. Meanwhile, arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are bolstering anti-regime rebels.
The big picture is that Syrian society is collapsing, resulting in a clash of ethnic, religious, and nationalist interests. The scorecard of players just goes on, complicating the calculations for a solution.
This complexity, however, should not be mesmerizing. The simple fact remains that the great hope of millions of Syrians in 2011 was simply to join the Arab Spring. They wanted civil rights, freedom, and democracy for their country – through peaceful protests.
This spontaneous movement toward universal ideals, however, drove the threatened regime of President Bashar al-Assad to react with violence – out of fear of presumed vengeance against its ruling Alawite minority if it lost power. This sparked a civil war that is now leaving a void – in political power, social order, and basic human values. Massacres mark the Syrian landscape, leaving 80,000 dead and millions more in exile.
The chasm of inhumanity has led to the vortex of narrow, outside interests competing with each other or defending themselves.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do human societies. Syria and its neighbors today represent a struggle to find rules and principles for sustaining healthy relationships. Yet the ancient ways of holding a society together – by clans, tribes, ethnicity, or religion – have proved difficult to sustain over the centuries. The best social glue for a people with shared geography and history is to live by democratic ideals. These include the dignity of the individual, a freedom to worship, and an ability to elect one’s leaders.
If the West or UN were to act in Syria, it must be to bring those ideals into the current void. Merely fixing Syria by cutting a deal between competing sectarian and ethnic interests would be old-fashioned power-balancing. This can only be temporary, as Lebanon has often shown.
Europe discovered after its centuries of wars over religion, ethnic tensions, and acute nationalism that its continental mass can remain harmonious mainly through shared ideals of democracy. The same is true for a marriage, which can’t be sustained by a simplistic balancing of self-interests but relies on its partners sharing a common, higher purpose.
Israel’s attacks may have been justified. But its actions, as well as the use of chemical weapons within Syria, are a wake-up call for those nations with democratic ideals to find a way to extend those ideals into Syria’s current void. Let’s not forget what millions of Syrians demanded in the streets two years ago.