SYRIAN CONFLICT POSES THE RISK OF WIDER STRIFE
By Steven Erlanger
New York Times
February 26, 2012 (posted Feb. 25)
PARIS -- More than a year after it began, the Arab awakening has had its seasons. After a world-shaking spring, then on through summer, autumn, and winter, one country after another -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen -- has toppled autocrats, with varying amounts of blood. Some governments have stamped out revolts, like Bahrain. Others have tried modest reforms, like Morocco, or idled on the sidelines (think Algeria and Saudi Arabia).
Now it is nearly spring again, and there is Syria.
As the dead pile up and diplomacy fails to stem the violence, it is clear that this conflict is unique in significant ways, difficult to predict, and far riskier to the world. Unlike Libya, Syria is of strategic importance, sitting at the center of ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.
“Syria is almost the only country where the so-called Arab Spring could change the geostrategic concept of the region,” said Olivier Roy, a French historian of the Middle East. He offered as a counterexample Egypt and Tunisia, where new leaders seemed to be keeping similar alliances and geopolitical positions. “But in Syria,” Mr. Roy said, “if the regime is toppled, we have a totally new landscape.”
Many consider the conflict another inevitable revolution that will eventually overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But in the months since Syrians revolted -- and as Mr. Assad has unleashed his army against them -- the country has already become a proxy fight for larger powers in the region and beyond.
For decades, Syria was the linchpin of the old security order in the Middle East. It allowed the Russians and Iranians to extend their influence even as successive Assad governments provided predictability for Washington and a stable border for Israel, despite support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
But the burgeoning civil war in Syria has upset that paradigm, placing the Russians and Americans and their respective allies on opposite sides. It is a conflict that has sharply escalated sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations. And it has left Israel hopeful that an enemy will fall, but deeply concerned about who might take control of his arsenal.
“What makes Syria so much more complicated than Libya is that the strategic issues are as prominent as the moral ones,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and until recently the director of policy planning at the State Department.
“Syria couldn’t be more strategically located, and the prospect of letting a full-fledged civil war erupt is incredibly dangerous,” she said, adding that it would become a proxy war between the gulf states and Saudi Arabia against Iran . “And then Israel is in there, too.”
Washington is keenly aware of the larger forces at play and of the dangers of another military intervention in an Arab country.
“It’s an arena right now for all of the various interests to play out,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview on CNN. “Turkey clearly has an interest, a very important interest. Russia has a very important interest. Iran has an interest.”
For Russia, the fall of Mr. Assad, an ally and arms customer, would further diminish its influence in the region. If Mr. Assad goes, any new government will note Russia’s support for him, including a steady supply of weapons. Arabs across the region, who are demanding their rights and freedoms, may resent it, too.
“Even switching sides at this point won’t help,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russia scholar with the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally financed research group based in Virginia.
For the United States, the conflict is a bundle of risks and contradictions that has made Washington’s stance -- frustrating those who favor a more robust intervention -- far more cautious than it was in Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called any comparison of Syria to Libya a “false analogy.” In the largest sense, Libya could be seen as a strategic sideshow, on the edge of the Arab awakening, while Syria is quite clearly at center stage. Mr. Assad’s crackdown, which has killed at least 6,000 civilians, has seized international attention and presented a vexing moral dilemma about intervention.
If the responsibility to protect civilians is a legitimate new part of international law, why would it apply to Libya and not to Syria? Why shouldn’t the world intervene in what is already a one-sided civil war? Without a robust intervention, what happens to the momentum and principles of the Arab Spring? Will Western calls for democracy and equal rights suffer and help radical Islamists rise to power?
For Washington, Europe, and the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the gulf, the impact on Iran is as important as the fate of Mr. Assad. Syria is one of Iran’s closest allies. It was nearly alone in supporting Iran, not Iraq, in their war in the 1980s. Syria is Iran’s main conduit to supply aid and weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
Mr. Assad’s fall would be a major defeat for Iran, so it is giving his government money, arms, and advice, say intelligence officials of two Western countries.
The United States and Europe -- with tenuous Russian and Chinese support -- have isolated Iran economically and diplomatically to try to forestall Tehran from being able to build a nuclear weapon. The conflict in Syria complicates that delicate diplomacy, but a new Syrian government could be a greater blow to Iranian influence than any sanction the West has mustered so far. It could also revive democratic protests in Iran.
But the administration is ruling out direct military intervention in this conflict. After a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a limited intervention in Libya that was harshly criticized by Republicans, President Obama wants no new military adventure in an election year. Nor does the Pentagon, especially given Syria’s integrated air defense system, supplied by Russia.
Not least, American officials point out the murky nature and incoherence of the armed opposition to Mr. Assad and note that the Free Syrian Army, formed by exiled Syrian Army officers, defectors, and militias, does not control significant territory in Syria where arms could be supplied.
For now, the administration has no intention to arm Syrian opposition groups, despite public advocacy by two senior Republican senators for such a course. Some light weapons are getting to the rebels, mostly through Jordan and Lebanon, but not enough to make a significant difference.
Pentagon officials said planners had been asked to look at a range of military options for Syria, but they anticipated no American involvement. Of course, they said the same for Libya, until the White House changed course.
Of the many combustible dynamics involved in the crisis in Syria, the Sunni-Shiite schism is one of the most potent. Mr. Assad’s government is dominated by the minority Alawites, whose sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Iranians are Shiites, as are the leaders in Iraq. The Saudis and most of the gulf states are Sunnis. So are many extremist groups, like Al Qaeda, which view the conflict with their own, complicating agendas.
There is some evidence that Sunni radicals are turning their attention to Syria, with weapons and fighters trickling across the border from Iraq and Al Qaeda’s leaders calling for jihad in Syria.
But there is reason for skepticism, too, as “Al Qaeda” has become a kind of phantom cited by almost anyone -- the Assad government to bolster claims that its opponents are terrorists, Washington as another reason to shun deeper entanglement.
The central issue is how to speed up what many now regard as the inevitable collapse of the Assad government without plunging the society into a civil war, said Volker Perthes, a German scholar of the region who runs the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Arming the rebels and bringing about a civil war will prolong the regime,” Mr. Perthes said. “A real war is what Assad really wants, because it would allow him to overcome the reluctance of the great majority of the armed forces to fight.”
A real war would also be messy. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, fears the growing instability and sectarian bloodshed. It worries about more refugees spilling over the border, having already accepted thousands. Israel, too, fears chaos. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the idea that the Arab Spring will produce governments any kinder to Israel than the dictators who could at least enforce order.
As Syria slips deeper into turmoil, an alternative to Mr. Assad is not ready. The Syrian National Council is still trying to broaden its representation, establish its credibility inside the country, and improve links with the independent Free Syrian Army. The Arab League and Western nations, like the United States and France, want to help, much as they helped to sell the Libyan Transitional National Council as an alternative government to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive board of the Syrian National Council, said that with the upsurge in deaths in Idlib and Homs, including those of at least two Western journalists and a Syrian blogger, the council’s view was shifting toward encouraging foreign intervention, as painful as that might be. “We are really close to seeing that military intervention may well be the only solution,” she said. “There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war.”
Indeed, the more blood that is spilled, the less likely that all parties will be able to coexist once the violence finally stops.
Ms. Kodmani said a “Yemen” model, whereby the Assads leave Syria and give up power to trusted elements in the current government, was already unacceptable, because military units under government control had killed civilians. “The other crucial difference is that Yemen took six months and had 1,200 dead,” she said, a toll already surpassed in Syria. “We can’t live with another six months at this pace of repression and killing.”
Even so, foreign military intervention seems unlikely. Russia, stung in Libya, has said it would veto any United Nations Security Council resolution mandating force.
On Friday, in Tunis, countries referring to themselves as the “Friends of Syria” -- minus Russia and China -- met with the Syrian National Council to discuss what the White House calls “further steps” and “additional options” against the Assad government, including calls for an immediate cease-fire, the provision of humanitarian aid and a United Nations peacekeeping force.
The Syrian government is in no mood to surrender. While there are signs of disintegration of central control, with only a minority in the armed forces willing to shoot unarmed citizens, for the most part, the military and security forces have not broken.
Sanctions are badly hurting the business class that supports the government. A senior Syrian security official recently moved his family out of the country, while a member of the large Assad family transferred funds abroad, a senior Obama administration official said.
But the longer Mr. Assad holds on to power, the more people will die. That is bound to make any political transition a bloody one, with a higher risk of revenge killings and attacks against those minorities, including Alawites and Christians, who have supported the government.
“The window for a peaceful transition is closing,” the senior administration official said. “It’s now more a question of what happens after he falls. Can he fall fast enough that grievances won’t fester?”
--Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango from Baghdad; Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem; Michael Wines from Beijing; David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow; Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler from Washington; Adam Nossiter from Dakar, Senegal; John F. Burns from London; Nicholas Kulish from Berlin; and Dan Bilefsky and Scott Sayare from Paris.
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