Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Syria's civil war and the geopolitics overtaking it

As Syria's civil war continues to deepen, so does the potential for regional mischief.

Muzaffar Salman/AP
Syrian soldiers investigate the scene after a bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded outside a Damascus hotel where UN observers are staying in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday.

Syria's civil war grinds on. Rebel forces claimed responsibility for a massive bomb blast in Damascus today that they said targeted a meeting of senior officers in Bashar al-Assad's Army. In the past week, rebel forces were routed from some neighborhoods of Aleppo, the country's commercial capital, after a hail of shells killed rebel fighters and civilians alike and left many districts of the city in ruins.

In other parts of Aleppo, the battle rages on, and for good reason. The loss of Syria's largest city would prove catastrophic for Mr. Assad. But the focus there is creating other problems for the regime. Reuters reports that the focus on Aleppo has left the eastern and overwhelmingly Sunni desert province of Deir al-Zor unprotected. Home to most of Syria's oil production and a long border with Iraq, across which fighters and supplies move relatively freely (jihadis flowed into Iraq from the Syrian side during the worst of that country's civil war) it's just the last front in an expanding war. 

Much of the country has been swept up in lawlessness and banditry. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main rebel armed force, operating under the umbrella Syrian National Council, most of the rebel units are autonomous and locally run. Some take care to avoid harming civilians, others are unconcerned, operating out of heavily populated neighborhoods, and still others are indistinguishable from bandits. Government forces are as bad or worse, systematically looting conquered neighborhoods as a form of collective punishment and indulging in the torture for which the country's Baath regime is justly famous.

The United Nations mission in Syria, which began with naive promises and quickly unraveled, is at this point irrelevant to the course of the conflict. Kofi Annan is no longer in charge, and though there's speculation that Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will take his place, today's bomb attack in Damascus was next to a hotel filled with UN staff – a reminder of how dangerous it has become to move around even the capital, let alone the country's full-fledged war zones.

At this point, a diplomatic resolution to the war is almost impossible to imagine. Mr. Assad's regime has absorbed major body blows, including the defection last week of Prime Minister Riad Hijab (a Sunni), but has not come close to cracking. The minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to sees itself as locked into a war of group survival, not just regime survival.

The majority of the Sunni community that most rebel fighters draw from also fear surrender more than a continuing war. The history of Syria under Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez is one of unrelenting state terror for regime opponents.There would be absolutely no reason not to expect mass killings and whole families sent to state security dungeons would follow an abandonment of arms. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-style jihadis have also entered the Syrian mix, much as they established a presence in Iraq during the sectarian civil war that began there after the US-led invasion in 2003. 

So internally, the battle lines within Syria are clearly drawn. And no matter how much anyone might try to wish away the sectarian nature of the conflict, that is the reality. The external component of the war is just as sectarian. 

On one side, there are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, aiding the rebels and hoping for the fall of Assad's regime. On the other, Iran and its local junior partner Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia based in Lebanon. The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies are desperate for a Sunni Islamist order to take root in Syria, both as a black eye for their hated Iranian enemies and as way to spread their own vision of a religiously strict political order across the Arab world. The US is a partner in this effort, albeit a reluctant and nervous one. The US and the Syrian rebellion may see the war as a fight for democracy.

But America's close regional partner Saudi Arabia despises democracy and has far different ambitions, much as it did in Iraq. There, Saudi Arabian interests lost, and a Shiite political order is emerging that is far more in Tehran's orbit than in Riyadh's or Washington's. In Syria, the demographics are far more in favor of Saudi Arabia's interests, and the Kingdom sees an opportunity to reshape the regional balance against Iran.

The Iranians, for their part, are standing firm with Assad. Long gone is the time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were feted on the streets of Arab capitals as symbols of resistance to Israel and US power in the region, never mind that they were Shiites. Today a squalid sectarian view of regional power is more common, with Iran seen as responsible for the death of children and general carnage in Syria much as the US was seen by the so-called Arab street in the middle of the last decade.

Iran is eager for the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria (the Alawite sect is an offshot of Shiite Islam) to stand firm. Iranian government mouthpiece Press TV reports that Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said that Syria has "fallen prey to an axis of evil that centers on Tel Aviv and Washington" and that is also working through Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Iran agrees. The head of Iranian national security Saeed Jalili visited Damascus last week and said, "What is happening in Syria is not a domestic issue, but a conflict between the resistance axis and its enemies in the region and the world.”

Already the risks of a metastasizing sectarian conflict are clear. This week, rebels released a video of a bruised Lebanese man identified as Hassan Selim Meqdad. Mr. Meqdad said in a propaganda video released by his captors that he was a fighter from Hezbollah dispatched to Syria to fight on behalf of Assad. However, Hezbollah denied he was one of their fighters, and his family insists he was in Syria working for a Lebanese bank and has no ties to Hezbollah.

But the response in Lebanon was swift. Meqdad's Shiite clansmen said today they'd seized 20 Syrians and would hold them until he's released. In a propaganda video of their own released to a Lebanese TV station, two of the captives identified themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army.

Average Lebanese, with fresh memories of the horrors of their own civil war, are watching all this with some apprehension. While there is no sign of a major problem inside their country yet, the longer the Syrian war drags on, the greater the chance of spillover there will be. Syria, like Lebanon, hosts many Palestinian refugees, and both a flood of them or of Syrian Sunnis across the border – or perhaps, Alawites in the case of major reversals for the government – will heighten tensions inside the country.

And the complications don't stop there. Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights. Syria, like Turkey and Iraq, hosts its own restive Kurdish population, some of whose members are eager to carve out an enclave for themselves along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan. And while the Sunni Arab states of the region are hoping that the uprising wins, they also have to worry about the establishment of a major jihadi presence in Syria. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups hate the House of Saud almost as much as they hate the "apostate" Alawites.

About the only thing that can be said with certainty about Syria's war at this point is that it won't end soon, and that geopolitical maneuvering will have as much impact on its course as the desires of the country's 20 million people.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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