A tweet I just read which noted the multiple proxy conflicts playing out in the midst of the Syrian civil war, made me realize just how many different parties and powers are facing off against each other there. Some are using proxies. Some represent their interests directly.
First, we have Assad and his allies: Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. Then we have the Syrian rebels and their allies: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Let’s not leave out Israel which has no bone to pick with Assad, but which opposes Iran and Hezbollah. That makes Israel, a party with a major military presence, a wild card. Despite its false protestations to the contrary, it has intervened in the war, though only to interdict weapons shipments from Iran to Hezbollah. But to muddy the waters a bit, it has also attacked advanced Russian arms being shipped via Syria, possibly to Hezbollah.
Israel has warned Assad that it would punish him severely if he attacks it in retaliation for IAF air attacks on these weapons shipments. Israeli military sources have gone so far as to threaten to overturn his rule. This is, of course, nonsense, what would Israel do? Get rid of Assad and replace him with whom, with what? The Syrian Chalabi? The Syrian Falangist? How many allies does Israel think it has among the Syrian opposition? Of course, it could buy somebody off as it did with the South Lebanon Army, which served as Israel’s proxy in that country for a decade or more. But that’s both an expensive proposition, and even less likely to work now than it did then in southern Lebanon.
The truth for Israel is that Assad is their man. A guy made in its image. Like Mubarak. He maintained the peace in Sinai for decades. He embargoed Hamas in Gaza. He did Israel’s bidding without too much prompting.
Assad too holds back the Furies. Up till now, he maintained a stable, relatively peaceful border in the Golan. He was predictable and quiescent, except for his little nuclear escapade with the North Koreans. So what will come after? Le deluge. The Nusra Front, Al Qaeda, Alawites, Sunnis. All fighting for their slice of the territorial pie. That could leave the country in a mess, much as Lebanon was during and long after its own civil war. In such a situation, Syria poses a grave threat to Israel. Instability could easily lead to development of a native Hezbollah style opposition.
On the other hand, Israel could play off the protagonists one against the other as it did between Fatah and Hamas after the latter first began; or as it did between the Maronites, Shiites, and Sunnis in Lebanon. As long as there is a reasonable balance of power in Syria, and one ethnic group doesn’t overpower others, the resulting stalemate might force them to fight each other rather than Israel. That’s why Daniel Pipes, in typically diabolical fashion for him, suggests that Israel support whichever side appears to be losing. In his mind, the more the animals slaughter each other the less they’ll slaughter Jews.
Complicating this further are the various proxy standoffs among the parties: Russia against the U.S. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Alawite Assad, who is backed by the Shiite Iranians. It’s enough to make one dizzy. But the end result of all of this ethnic fragmentation is an exceedingly dangerous situation. Already 80,000 have died, 1.5-million are refugees. In other similar ethnic wars in Rwanda, Serbia-Kosovo, Congo hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered. Unless all parties aren’t exceedingly careful, this could be Syria’s future.
If you layer over this the larger war playing out between Israel and Iran, including their respective backers, the U.S. and Russia (again), this is a very high stakes game. But unlike poker, there may be no winners.
A further instructive historical example might be the Spanish Civil War, in which Nazi Germany used Franco as its proxy while Soviet Russia and the international left used the Loyalists as their proxy. In that conflict, the Nazis especially tested out their latest weapons systems, which would go on to “productive” use in the greater war that followed. As that Civil War was a rehearsal for World War II, might Syria be a rehearsal for an even greater regional conflict to follow? Let’s also not forget that this War presaged one of the greatest crimes in history, the Holocaust. I don’t believe it can come anywhere near that in the Syrian conflict. But the danger exists.