Syrian civil unrest between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels now in its fourth year has settled into irksome stalemate with thousand lives lost. The turmoil has engulfed the entire region beyond humanitarian costs. Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders destabilizing Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan while refugees have made frontier areas of these countries ungovernable.
Because of Assad’s murderous reign, a revolution was the only hope for Syrians but the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality arresting protesters and torturing some to death. This was during Arab uprisings that spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state.
Armed rebel groups emerged harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Then Assad pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rose up. Rebel areas had to suffer under constant strafing and sniper fire without access to water, healthcare and electricity.
Ironically, Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open hence; Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups are being accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing that is now 200,000 deaths according to United Nations estimate that some observers consider an undercount.
The regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; Syria occupies a significant strategic location and the strongest rebel coalition - the Nusra Front, is an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Hence, all these concerns pundits would suggest that it’s only a question of when not if the US gets drawn in fully. Syria’s current trajectory is of a collapsed state and a humanitarian catastrophe that has overwhelmed at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 21.5 million Syrians.
Intervention is always risky and in Syria, it is riskier than elsewhere since it can dramatically escalate life loss and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration given the regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran.
Still yet there is a flip side to the risks that this war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies given that Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the US and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias.
Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side by sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive intervention target, then it does to the politics and position of the combatants. Currently, jihadist groups will establish themselves as the most effective rebel fighters and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion with new leaders emerging and falling every week leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support.
While one would expect Western powers to guide this conflict to stalemate by helping one side, these secondary players (US/Russia) only see national interests clearly standing in their way. In policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik when states encourage war, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals or to keep colonized nations compliant. For instance, during Cold War, the US fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union. However, in the Syrian case, it is fallacious to pretend that the prolonging the skirmish is serving greater goal.
The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the jihadists. That could take years but the fear is that Assad will fall and open the way to a four- or seven-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
This is budding unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. In his famous book: The Great Game, by Hopkirk Peter (1992), a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. The Syrian turmoil is a modern incarnation of the same contest with Russia/US seeking their national interest at the expense of Syrians masses.
By Okwaro Oscar Plato
The author firstname.lastname@example.org is an analyst with Gravio Africa Consulting. The views are his own.