With Qaddafi's death, world attention turns to Syria

Qaddafi's death emboldened protesters across Syria Friday. While international appetite for intervention is low, the Syrian conflict could intensify as regional actors back particular factions within the country.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters
Protesters carry banners and step on pictures of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after burning them during a protest, organized by Lebanese and Syrians living in Lebanon, in solidarity with Syria's antigovernment protesters, in the port city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Oct. 21.

With the death of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi bringing to an end Libya's nine-month revolution-turned-civil-war, international and regional attention is likely to now focus more squarely on Syria, another Arab country in the grip of anti-regime unrest and violence.

“Yes it will, especially as violence rises and the scale of the human rights offenses grows. This will be especially the case if regional players begin backing different factions in the country,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute and author of a newly published book on the country.

Boosted by the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, protests erupted across Syria after noon prayers Friday. Syrian security forces had killed at least 16 civilians by mid-afternoon, 10 of them in the flashpoint city of Homs, which has emerged in recent weeks as the main hub of anti-regime activity.

“Your turn has come Doctor,” ran a message on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, referring to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. In Taynnah, in the southern Hawran district, demonstrators were filmed chanting "Qaddafi is dead, prepare yourself Bashar."

At least 3,000 people have died since the uprising began in mid-March, according to the United Nations. The civil war in Libya, where rebels supported by NATO tenaciously fought their way to Tripoli, slowly driving back Qaddafi’s forces until the former Libyan leader’s final stand in his hometown of Sirte, made for a dramatic and compelling news story. But the broader impact of the revolution in Libya pales in comparison to the potential ramifications of the uprising in Syria.

Under the leadership of the Assad dynasty for the past 40 years, Syria has secured enduring and powerful alliances. It exerts multiple strands of influence across the region, intersecting with the Middle East’s major fault lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict and rivalry between the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Shiite Iran.

If the Assad regime collapses and a new administration emerges better reflecting the Sunni majority in Syria, it will deliver a blow to Iran, Assad’s closest regional ally, and undermine the so-called “axis of resistance” that unites countries and groups opposed to Israel and Western interests in the Middle East.

Still, despite the rising death toll in Syria, for now there is little international appetite to transfer the NATO support mission in Libya to Syria. Furthermore, the Arab League, which gave an initial green light to NATO for the Libya campaign, is unlikely to sanction a Western intervention in Syria, and Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, are still adamantly opposed to foreign interference in Syria.

However, the confrontation in Syria is slowly evolving into an armed conflict. The Free Syrian Army, composed of defectors from the regular Syrian forces, are thought responsible for a growing number of attacks against security forces, staging roadside ambushes and attempting to carve out enclaves in the north of the country around Idlib and near Homs.

While a descent into armed conflict is widely predicted by analysts, the balance of military power for now will remain with the regime.

That could lead to an intensification of the conflict, further violence, and increased loss of life, with rival regional actors offering greater support to different factions in Syria. With the NATO role in Libya coming to an end, Assad’s beleaguered regime may soon begin to bear the brunt of increased international diplomatic heat in the weeks ahead.

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