Syrian civil war contains seeds of enduring regional conflict

Analysis: The international community must act to dampen rising tensions

Mourners carry the body of a 17-year-old boy, in Hermel, Lebanon, on Tuesday. The boy was killed in a rocket attack on the village, which is near the Syrian border. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

Mourners carry the body of a 17-year-old boy, in Hermel, Lebanon, on Tuesday. The boy was killed in a rocket attack on the village, which is near the Syrian border. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

Thu, May 30, 2013, 01:00

The increasingly bitter warfare within Syria is a proxy for regional and international rivalries. Thus far, the EU and its Nato member states have provided political support to the insurgency.

The EU’s decision this week not to renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition may allow Nato members such as France and Britain give material support to the rebels.

Russia – whose only Mediterranean naval base is located in the Syrian port of Tartus – has responded to this potential escalation by confirming that it will supply the Assad regime with state-of-the-art S300 anti-aircraft missiles.

Hot on the heels of this, Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalov, has threatened to target any Russian shipments of arms to Syria. Yaalov has stated that anti-aircraft missiles represent a direct threat to Israeli security. Israel successfully blocked the sale of such missiles to Iran by the Russians in 2010.

In a rare, thinly veiled threat to Moscow, Tel Aviv has warned the Russians that if the S300 missile system is supplied to the Syrian regime – and its ally Hizbullah – Israel would “know how to act”. Such action would likely involve air or missile strikes – similar to Israel’s pre-emptive airstrikes on weapon sites in Damascus earlier this month.

An incident such as this – particularly if it targeted Russian air or maritime assets – would have the potential to draw Israel into a confrontation with Russia.

Israeli fears
Israel is particularly sensitive to the proliferation of missile technology along its borders and sees it as part of an Iranian-led Shia/Sunni arms race – a feature of an intense and bitter power struggle between Shia and Sunni interests throughout the region. This enmity between Gulf states, such as Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, Jordan and the Shia regime in Tehran, is a further destabilising factor for broader Middle East security.

Israeli analysts see the Syrian war as an acid test of Iran’s ambitions to be the pre-eminent Shia powerbroker in the Arab and Muslim world.

Already this month, Islamist insurgents within Syria – such as the Abdul Qader al-Husseini Brigade – have fired missiles into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In response, Israel has issued an unequivocal threat. In a statement this month, it warned: “If Syrian president Assad reacts by attacking Israel or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”

With Israel already partially sucked into the Syrian conflict, there is a danger of further escalation. While it has the air and ground capabilities to cripple Assad’s regime, it knows full well that Tehran would use such an action as a pretext to incite Hizbullah attacks on Israel from south Lebanon. Israeli sources have indicated to The Irish Times that Israel has built such contingencies into its planning and is prepared – if necessary – for a war “of indefinite duration” against Hizbullah and Tehran.

Turkish tensions
Meanwhile, over the border in Turkey, tensions are escalating between Turkish prime minister Erdogan and the Assad regime.

Increasing attacks by Syrian troops on Sunni Muslim rebels along the border with Turkey and within Turkey proper have prompted a mobilisation of Turkey’s significant military assets. Turkey has one of the largest standing armies in Nato, with one million troops.

Following authorisation from the Turkish parliament for expeditionary military action within Syria – similar to Turkish military interventions in Iraq during the war there – the Turkish army has the ability to mobilise and deploy a full battle group of 50,000 troops with a significant air assault capability to Syria within 72 hours.

Turkey, whose population is 80 per cent Sunni Muslim, is also exercised by recent allegations of mass killings and ethnic cleansing-style attacks on Sunni civilians in towns such as Baida and Ras al-Nabaa in Assad’s Shia Alawite heartland. More than 200,000 Syrian refugees – mostly Sunni – have fled to Turkey in the last two years.

A similar number have also fled into Lebanon. In addition to this influx, Lebanon has become further destabilised by Hizbullah’s involvement in the Syrian war. Hizbullah has now sent its Shia troops over the border to assist Assad’s forces in the battle for Qusayr. Observers fear that Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria may lead to heightened internecine strife between Sunni and Shia communities in Beirut and northern Lebanon, and reignite the Lebanese civil war.

Syrian opposition factions
Within Syria itself, the fragmented opposition groups and Free Syrian Army is increasingly dominated by Islamist, Sunni Muslim factions. Raqqa, in the east, is the only provincial capital held by rebels. Ahrar Sham and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – al-Qaeda-style groups – have effectively usurped the FSA’s authority here and are in control of the city. Backed by wealthy Sunni states such as Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the opposition in Syria is being slowly subsumed by Sunni jihadis and Islamist extremists.

The Syrian conflict – an erstwhile phenomenon of the Arab Spring – contains the seeds for an enduring regional conflict. It behoves the international community to seek to de-escalate the war.

Tom Clonan is Irish Times security analyst