It is hard to believe that the violence in Syria has gone unabated for over a year. When the Arab Spring first took hold of the Maghreb and parts of the Gulf, Syria was a late arrival. Former President Hafez Al-Assad had laid down a brutal precedent by crushing the 1982 revolt in Hama that some analysts predicted against a Syrian uprising in the birth place of Arab nationalism. However, with the fall of Egyptian stalwart Hosni Mubarak, Syrians came onto the streets, not chanting for revolution but reform. Unfortunately, Hafez’ son, Bashar Al-Assad, took a page from his father’s handbook; the chants were met with bullets and country has been descending down the path of civil war since. Diplomatic efforts at every level – state, regional and international – have failed to string together periods of peace, let alone halt the violence and there is real danger that Syria’s boundaries will be unable to contain the conflict.
A Regional battleground
The battle within Syria is not a game of chess, it is a free-for-all with Assad and his allies pitted against internal and external forces that are also aligned against each other. Following the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was transformed to a regional power game between Sunni and Shiite forces. This contest has now moved westward into Syria making it a new battleground, not only for the competing interests of Shiite and Sunni elements (represented by Iran and the Gulf Principalities of Saudi Arabia and Qatar), but also for regional powers like Turkey and Islamic revivalist working in the name of Al Qaeda.
Despite support from Turkey and the Gulf States, the Syrian opposition have failed to form a united front; with the latest blow coming from the resignation of opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun. Meanwhile, the inextricable link between Syria and Lebanon is in full display in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where heavy clashes have erupted between Alawite supporters of Assad and Sunni Muslims. Fortunately, the tender strings of Lebanese society have not been torn asunder by the continuing violence, at least not yet. Turkey’s patience is also being tested as they are forced to house hundreds of refugees fleeing Syria daily. Furthermore, it seems the damage done to their once amicable relationship might not be restored under Assad’s regime.
At present, there has been little progress stemming from Kofi Annan’s plan, one that if implemented would be akin to a suicide note for the Assad regime according to Al Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem. However, with no power of enforcement, the Annan plan will probably be confined to the UN’s list of failures stored under “at least we tried.”
While inaction at the UN is often blamed on the Russian and Chinese mantra on state sovereignty, recent statements by NATO officials reiterates Western disinterest. There is little material gain for NATO in Syria; a state who’s symbolic importance doesn’t translate into solid numbers. Furthermore, despite professing success in Libya, the organization has seen the limits of military action without post-war support. At the other end there is Afghanistan, a mission that couldn’t end sooner but has yielded little with respect to nation building. Without a clear opposition force and successor to Assad, defeating the Syrian military will be NATO’s easiest task by far.
Another strong repellent is the upcoming U.S. elections this November. Given the country’s economic hardships and decade of prolonged war, any future adventure could be punished at the polls. The Obama administration has talked tough on Syria, particularly through US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it seems that any pivotal decision on Syria would be made after the ballots have been tallied. Furthermore, it is important to note that Syria might become a bargaining chip for Obama in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, an issue that carries more weight for both domestic and foreign audiences.
Meanwhile the struggle for Syria continues unabated. It is the war that nobody wants but given its ability to engulf the entire region, Syria may become a war that is harder to neglect.