On the verge ofregional war


Yesterday’s agreement between the US and Russia to press for new Syrian peace talks, although in the diplomatic pipeline for a while, is also a measure of the growing alarm many feel about the internationalisation of the conflict. The Israeli raids on Friday and Saturday have added a new dimension to what many fear increasingly is becoming a proxy regional war between Sunni and Shia powers and movements, encouraged in turn by the great powers, and escalated now further by allegations that chemical weapons have been used. Since fighting erupted in March 2011, more than 70,000 Syrian civilians are now estimated to have died in the conflict.

The fighting may be as yet confined to Syria’s borders, but already resources in terms of materiel and combattants are flowing to both sides from a wide variety of international sources. And there are clear dangers that as Israel and Hezbollah, now opnly supporting the regime militarily as well as politically, deepen their involvement, the chances grow of a miscalculation or mistake that could spark direct conflict or a regional conflagration.

Israel insists that its raids were self-defence: not an attempt to bolster Syrian rebels but to take out long-range rockets being supplied to Hezbollah for use in Lebanon against it. Netanyahu has clearly calculated that Syria, its threats and bluster about an “act of war” notwithstanding, will not retaliate because it can not afford to open up another front.

It suits Assad’s government to pretend that the attacks are part of an attempt to bolster rebel forces which it tries to portray simultaneously as Islamist extremists and Israeli stooges. But, in truth, it is likely to behave as if the two conflicts are not related. Further Israeli air strikes could, however, force Assad - or Hezbollah or Iran - to respond, precipitating a confrontation that could draw in the US and even Europe.

The uncertainty added by the Israeli raids, although sanctioned in advance by the US, complicates President Obama’s predicament by adding to growing pressures on a deeply reluctant Administration to commit to assisting rebels. The White House has been backtracking frantically on Obama’s earlier characterisation of use of chemical weapons as a “red line” issue with its implication that clear evidence of their use would have to precipitate further US engagement.

All of which makes the opening of a new diplomatic initiative with the Russians most timely. The challenge, however, will be to get either side to participate. Last June in Geneva, Washington and Moscow agreed on the need for a transitional government in Syria but left open the question of whether Assad would be excluded. Diplomacy in the form of the UN has foundered since then, and opposition forces remain deeply hostile even to talking about a deal in which Assad would remain in place.