Syria’s looming threat to Middle East stability

The United States and its allies, both in the West and the Middle East, have good reason to be concerned over the prolonged crisis in Syria.  After nearly two years of fighting no end to the crisis appears in sight and the cost in human lives, physical displacement and destruction of property has long reached astronomical proportions.

No less troubling for the international community is the fact that the continued escalation of Syria’s internal conflict could have particular implications for stability in the wider Middle East, a customary cauldron of conflict. Not only has the hope ‒ propagated mostly by the Western media ‒ that the regime in Damascus would have fallen domino-fashion, in a manner similar to its counterparts in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli ‒ not materialized, but what is also clear is that the warring groups inside Syria now include fighters whose motives may go way beyond the toppling of the Assad regime. Israel, particularly, is likely to see it that way. Israel apart, Syria’s neighbours, Turkey and Lebanon continue to be affected by the conflict on account of the movement of refugees and through instances of an over-spilling of the fighting.

The protracted nature of the conflict in Syria is, in considerable measure, a reflection of the failure of the United Nations to make a positive difference. That failure has manifested itself at two separate levels. First, the Security Council powers were unable to arrive at consensus that may have allowed them to advance a collective solution in Syria. Secondly, the efforts of the Nigerian former Secretary General Kofi Annan and, afterwards, the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, to function as UN Good Officers in the crisis became overwhelmed by the incremental rise in the intensity of the fighting.

Nor has Washington’s involvement realized any significant positive change in the direction of bringing an end to the conflict. External military intervention to remove the Assad regime from power is clearly not on the cards, not only because there is no superpower consensus on that option but, no less significantly, because the lessons of Iraq are a powerful deterrent to intervention in Syria by the only Western nation with an independent capacity to do so ‒ the United States.

Damascus poses other imponderables for Washington. Not least of these is the fact that the US can neither predict nor control the likely nature of the post-Assad circumstances inside Syria. Excluding weapons, the US may be footing much of the bill for the anti-Assad forces but that does not convert into control over the fighters, a disparate grouping believed to include forces considered by the US to be terrorists.

It was precisely for this reason that while US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that Washington was upping its non-lethal military aid to the anti-Assad forces to US$250 million, the US has said that its aid to the fighters would be channelled through the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Here, it is worth mentioning that if, as has been reported, the crisis in Syria has resulted in the involvement of Islamic militants in the fighting, that is not a development that is likely to escape Israel’s attention.  Indeed, if its track record is anything to go by, Israel may well pursue its own unilateral and preemptive military course of action, without necessarily consulting with Washington against forces which it believes might, in the longer term , pose a threat to its own security.

Up until now the US appears to have been placing its faith in the SNC, an anti-Assad group based in Turkey as a possible successor government in Syria, though last week’s resignation of Moaz Al Khatib as President of the coalition would not have been good news for Washington. If Al Katib appears not to be universally popular even among other influential anti-Assad Syrians – presumably for the reason that he is on record as offering Assad a negotiated settlement – he is believed to be motivated by a desire to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria and is widely considered in the West to be the best option to lead a post-Assad government in Syria.

If the longer-term view is that the fall of President Assad’s regime is inevitable, the power balance inside Syria arising out of internal sectarianism, and the presence of external fighters from the region coupled with the support which it receives from Russia and Iran, may well allow Assad to hold on to power for a while yet. In that context speculation as to who or what might succeed the incumbent Syrian regime is probably premature. Perhaps the more immediate-term consideration is the consequences for stability in the Middle East of a conflict that may have begun with the targeting of the Assad regime but which, even now, may be a harbinger for an escalation of a civil war into a regional crisis.

As it persists, the Syrian crisis may impact on Israeli foreign and military policy in ways which not even Washington can necessarily predict. Even now, the crisis would have put on hold the issue of Israel’s return to Syria of the Golan Heights seized after the June 1967 war. The Washington-based Brookings Institute, has gone even further, suggesting that “if Israel or the U.S. were to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a desperate and beleaguered Assad could conceivably seek to transform his domestic war into another Arab-Israeli war by taking the opportunity to attack Israel on Iran’s behalf.”

If a solution to what is proving to be far more than an isolated domestic crisis in Syria is not found quickly, the consequence for an already conflict-ridden Middle East could another cycle of conflict.

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