Violence in Syria has in recent weeks escalated to full-throated civil war, penetrating the major cities of the capital Damascus and Aleppo, where heavy shelling is a daily occurrence. Clearly this strike at the heart of the nation bodes ill for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and the plight of the embattled leader has encouraged virtually unanimous calls from the West for his departure, either by resignation or forced removal.
It is reflexively easy to seek to add Assad to the list of toppled despots, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya, expanding the euphoric spread of the "Arab Spring;" but in so doing it would be advisable to take a cautionary look at some recent developments, both directly linked to the crisis in Syria, and/or fallout from the earlier regime changes in the Arab world. In this regard, let us review some recent postings from leading U.S. and foreign news sources.
Item: Lebanon. Source: The Wall Street Journal, 8/7/12 (Farnaz Fassihi)
An Ally Holsters Its Weapons: "Mohamad and Sharareh Fouladkar were jolted awake on a recent night when a rocket smashed into their Beirut apartment. Snipers exchanged fire from nearby rooftops. The conflict in Syria had spilled into their neighborhood of Lebanon's capital. Sunni residents loyal to Syria's opposition were battling foes including Shiites who support Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his regime's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah."
Item: Turkey. Source: Financial Times, 8/9/12 (Editorial)
Turkey's Nightmare: "Turkey is watching its deepest fears become reality on its southern border. As Kurdish forces take control of towns across northeast Syria, Ankara faces the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish area emerging, in loose federation with adjacent Iraqi Kurdistan. . . .
Syria's fracture is therefore exposing the fault lines in Turkey's society and the limits of its influence in the region. The West should pay more attention to this side of the Assad regime's disintegration."
[Note: According to the UN High Commission on Refugees [UNHCR], some 5,000 refugees are attempting to cross into Turkey from Syria each day, compared with about 500 earlier in August].
Item: Turkey. Source: The New York Times, 8/4/12 (Jeffrey Gettleman)
As Syria War Roils, Unrest Among Sects Hits Turkey: "As Syria's civil war degenerates into a bloody sectarian showdown between the government's Alawite-dominated troops and the Sunni Muslim majority, tensions are increasing across the border between Turkey's Alawite minority and the Sunni majority here. . . .
The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings."
Item: Iraq. Source: The New York Times, 7/23/12 (Yasir Ghazi and Rod Nordland)
Iraq Insurgents Kill at Least 100 After Declaring New Offensive: "The offensive by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group, left at least 100 people dead, in what Iraqi authorities described as an ambitiously staged sequence of 40 attacks that covered a broad area of the country. The attacks reinforced fears that the civil conflict in Syria, which has become increasingly sectarian in nature, now threatened to spill over [into Iraq].
The attacks followed a declaration by al-Qaeda in Iraq's leader, Aby Bakir al-Baghdadi, drawing parallels between its hostility to the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the predominantly Sunni-led revolt against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose Alawite sect is closely allied to the Shiites."
Item: Iraq. Source: Reuters, 8/2/12 (Patrick Markey)
Analysis: Syria crisis feeds Iraq violence, al-Qaeda revival: "Tuesday's high-profile assault on an anti-terrorism police unit in Baghdad was the latest in a drive by the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda local affiliate, to make good on a pledge to win back ground lost in its war with American troops—its leader has even threatened to strike at the United States. . . .
With Sunni Muslim militants trickling into neighboring Syria to battle President Assad, security experts say al-Qaeda is reaping funds, recruits, and better morale on both sides of the border, reinvigorating it after years of losses to U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies."
Item: Extended Region. Source: Associated Press, 8/7/12 (Bassem Mroue)
In scenarios for a post-Assad Syria, fear of chaos: "'The militarization of the uprising has provided a cover and a space for everyone-whether they are fighting to topple Assad, fighting for a free country, fighting a holy war in the name of God or fighting for a state that implements Islamic law,' said Randa Kassis, a Paris-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.
'This doesn't bode well for the future of Syria,' she said.
While the foreign fighters [from countries including Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Lebanon] share the goal of ousting Assad, they tend to view the fight in terms of a jihad, or holy war, to remove a regime they see as tainted by ties to Shiite Islam and to put in its place a Sunni Islamist rule. . . .
The [Syrian] rebels also count on even more active aid from Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are among the pathways for jihadis joining the Iraq insurgency."
Item: Syria. Source: The New York Times, 8/9/12 (Damien Cave)
Crime Wave Engulfs Syria as Its Cities Reel From War: "The consequences of the war here have become familiar: neighborhoods shelled, civilians killed and refugees departed. But in the background, many Syrians describe something else that has them cowering with fear: a wave of lawlessness not unlike the crime wave Iraq experienced during the conflict there.
From Dara'a, near the Jordanian border, to Homs, Damascus and here in Syria's commercial capital [Aleppo] the fighting has essentially collapsed much of the civilian state. Even in neighborhoods where skirmishes are rare, residents say thieves prey on the weak, and police stations no longer function because the officers have fled."
A truly grim agglomeration: Syria in outright civil war; an estimated 200,000 refugees fled to neighboring countries—75,000 to Turkey alone; some 1.2 million internally displaced people in Syria, and an additional 2.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNHCR reports; spillover effects threatening dangerous destabilization from Turkey to Iraq to Lebanon; a reenergizing of al-Qaeda.
Nor is the ripple effect from Syria the only red alert in terms of extremist muscle-flexing: the list includes fatal attacks by radical Islamists on moderate clerics in Russia's majority Muslim republic of Tatarstan; the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers along the border with Gaza and Israel; the razing of sacred Sufi shrines by Libyan Salafists; and unrest among Muslim populations across the African continent, from Nigeria through Mali to, most recently, Kenya.
All this would seem to cry out for caution, for an avoidance of triumphalism or overreach on the part of the West as it contemplates an outcome for Syria and its extended neighboring region post-Assad.
There is, however, a growing drumbeat—in Congress and in the supposedly "responsible" media—for the United States to follow the dangerous path of regime change through military intervention. As the scholars Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett recently reported in their Race for Iran blog (8/13/12), senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham have argued that "the risks of inaction in Syria now outweigh the downsides of American military involvement."
The Leveretts go on to quote at length an article in the prestigious journal Foreign Policy by Robert Haddick (8/10/12), who advocates intervention of a different stripe:
"Rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria's civil war, something largely beyond Washington's control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America's diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region. Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America's Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future"
Well, our "Sunni allies," the Saudis and Bahrainis (whose repressive practices we choose to ignore) are players to be sure; they are arming the Syrian Liberation Army opposition. And while from all that we have documented above it seems, to say the least, rash to have a dog in this particular fight, Haddick goes on to explain the rationale behind the "bolster[ing] critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities":
"The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America's Sunni allies on the West side of the Persian Gulf . . . the Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition. The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that. . . . Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran."
The conclusion is obvious: the road to Iran passes through Syria, and never mind the consequences! And while Haddick's policy prescriptions (and those of the senatorial troika) are not (yet) those of the administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, based on meetings she had in Ankara in early August, the United States and Turkey were discussing "various options" for support of the opposition groups engaged in trying to overthrow President Assad, including the imposition of a "no-fly zone" over rebel-held territory in Syria. If Russia, China and others are skeptical in this, it is worth remembering that the NATO intervention in Libya was preceded by a UN no-fly zone resolution.
Two things are certain: the situation in Syria is a ghastly one; and cooler heads must surely be encouraged to prevail, through a political rather than military resolution, if at all possible. It is in that conviction that a recent possible breakthrough is to be welcomed.
In the mid-August emergency meeting on Syria convened in Mecca by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Egypt's newly elected president, Mohamad Morsi, called for the creation of a regional contact group on Syria, to include as forming members Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—the aim being to develop a politically-based, nonviolent resolution. At the time of writing, Morsi plans to visit Tehran in the next few days for the meeting of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement [NAM].
It is not clear to what extent, if any, the inchoate Morsi proposal will be taken up at NAM; it is even less clear that the Saudis and Turks will embrace it. It is, however, enormously significant, in the context of the tragic events in the Muslim world that stem from the lethal Sunni-Shia acrimony, that the head of a major Sunni nation is paying even a brief visit to the major Shia state—the first such by an Egyptian president in 30 years.
And the ultimate question surely is: Which is preferable—the prospect of a Muslim solution to a Muslim state's crisis, or exploitation of this crisis as part of a zero-sum contest between the United States and Iran, with potentially disastrous consequences well beyond Syria?