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The Syrian conflict threatens to widen from Basra to Beirut

January 24, 2014 at 9:50 am

For the past 27 months Syria has witnessed blood, destruction, bravery and patience. The Syrians took to the streets, as did their brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and called for freedom, dignity and an end to tyrannical rule and suppression. They went out as a peaceful popular movement, for which they were envied.

However, the regime decided to confront peaceful protest with brutality so the revolution shifted gradually in response to death and the violation of dignity and sanctities, to a war. In the beginning, the Syrian revolution, like the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, represented the crisis of a regime rejecting reform, the demands of the people and the realisation of the fact that there have been great changes in the Arab political and social environments. However, the internal Syrian crisis has turned into a regional crisis is now also an international issue. The following are some signs which suggest that the battle for Syria is about to turn into a war more bitter, harsh and painful than has been witnessed in the past 27 months.

In their early stages, the calculations of regional and international intervention were made based on the presumption that the regime would be able to defeat its own people within a short time; or that the revolution would be able to overthrow the regime in a few months once it had spread across Syria. Neither Iran nor Russia on one side, nor Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the other, imagined that the Syrian crisis would last this long, or that it would become so complex. There are limits to the suppression that a modern regime can impose on its people, even when it decides to challenge them with steel and fire. In Syria, the Assad regime clearly opted to abandon limits and boundaries, regardless of the casualties. The regime also disregarded what such oppression and destruction would do to its own legitimacy. On the other hand, the effectiveness of sectarian bias preserved the relative unity of the army.

Obviously the conflict in Syria is lasting longer than anyone anticipated, with officials at all levels committing crimes against their own people. The involvement of regional and international parties is deep and it has become difficult for them to back down.

Foreign aid has played a major role in prolonging and complicating the conflict despite its asymmetric nature. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia provide arms and support to the regime, preserving its security and providing a political shield internationally. Turkey and Arab countries sympathising with the revolution were hesitant to provide funds and weapons until spring 2012. Nevertheless, this limited support for the opposition groups played a major role in keeping the people’s hopes alive.

The exhaustion experienced by the army, as well as its inability to protect its bases, especially in rural areas, pushed the regime and its allies to involve Hezbollah in the fighting. What started out as indirect and limited intervention along the border has turned into full-fledged involvement.

The problem with Hezbollah’s involvement, Iran’s unlimited support and Iraq’s overt and covert backing is that it is sectarian, and openly so, despite claims to the contrary. Speeches and actions on the ground, as well as the involvement of Shia from various countries all reveal a strong sectarian flavour to the conflict. This threatens to expand it beyond the borders of Syria into Lebanon and Iraq, and maybe even the Gulf. Lebanon in particular is prone to upheaval where political differences in the country match those of a sectarian nature.

There have been two regional attempts to solve the crisis. The first was a series of meetings between Turkey and Iran in 2011, followed by last year’s Egyptian initiative. Both failed. Many have now switched their hopes to a second Geneva conference as proposed at a US-Russia meeting in May, although the fine details of how such a conference might work, who will attend and within what framework it will function were not discussed.

Moreover, there is a dispute over Iran’s participation and another over Europe’s role, as well as disagreement about what President Assad’s role would be in the transitional stage and what the opposing Syrian delegations will look like. Geneva 2, therefore, may not even happen but, if it does, it is not known who will monitor the implementation of its recommendations, if any.

While all of this indecision is playing out, the parties to the conflict are seeking to impose facts on the ground in advance of talks. Efforts are being made to reinforce the military capabilities of the revolutionaries instead of seeking to impose a ceasefire as suggested by the US and Russia as part of the Geneva process. Paradoxically, the announcement of Geneva 2 has been followed by an unprecedented escalation of the fighting, violence and suffering of the Syrian people.

What does this all mean? Syria has become the longest in the series of Arab revolutions and their greatest test. The number of foreign interventions and the diversity of the opposition forces also make it the most complex. Its expansion into neighbouring countries cannot be discounted.

Ever since the Middle East was carved up by the occupying powers in the wake of the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Syria has been regarded as a key to the Arab and Islamic Middle East. The fear today is that Syria will be restored to its original geopolitical status and inflame the entire Middle East, from Basra to Beirut.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.