Syria and Other Wars Without End

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Turkey, Jordan, and Iran are weighing their involvement in Syria. What happens when a civil war goes international?

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Anti-regime protesters near Homs pray next to the bodies of civilians killed in recent clashes / Reuters

Syria is in the early stages of what every indication suggests could become a long, cruel, and bloody civil war. In the early hours last Wednesday morning, the Free Syrian Army attacked an intelligence facility in Damascus, the first large-scale military action against the regime. A Lebanese newspaper reported an attack against the Baath Party headquarters in Damascus on Sunday. On Monday, Syrian soldiers fired on buses of Turkish pilgrims in Homs. Turkey is being drawn in more and more each day -- the government in Ankara has been discussing establishing a haven for Syrian dissidents along its border since at least mid-October, but now Jordan is reportedly considering joining Turkey in creating a haven along their border with Syria as well. All of this follows closely on the heels of the historic Arab League decision to suspend Syria's membership. As Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Middle East Center, pointed out at the Middle East Institute's annual conference on November 17, the League's decision was almost certainly not taken out of concern for the Syrian people; rather, the Arab states are betting on the fall of the Assad regime.

Regional leaders are no doubt planning how best to respond to -- and capitalize on -- a Syrian civil war, should one start, even as the Free Syrian Army is launching its first attacks on Damascus. If it does, other Middle East states will have strong incentives to get involved, which would likely transform not just the Syrian conflict but the regional politics in which Syria plays such a large role. In internal conflicts such as Syria's, alliances between domestic factions and foreign countries can expand the conflict, generate financial incentives to perpetuate war, and change the meaning of the conflict, which allows the initial grievances and tensions that provoked fighting in the first place to linger until violence returns years, sometimes decades, after the nominal end of the war.

Many analysts have discussed Libya's recent war as an exceptional case. One of the reasons for this was that the circumstances lent themselves to a foreign military intervention without the commitment of ground forces. With NATO support, the Libyan rebels possessed overwhelming force and were able to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in eight months -- even with this superior military power, the conflict lasted several times longer than initial estimates. There are no prospects for similar commitments of military assistance in Syria; havens along the Turkish and Jordanian borders could prolong a war, perhaps indefinitely, but wouldn't be decisive in that way that NATO air strikes were.

The effects of a long, internationalized Syrian civil war would be dire. Weak factions like the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council (which has remained non-violent so far), and an Assad regime wracked by sanctions would likely become reliant on foreign backers. Turkey seems eager to assist the rebels and they may be joined quietly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar; Iran has bound its interests to Assad. These dependency relationships -- and inflows of foreign wealth -- would create incentives in the leadership of the Syrian factions to prolong the conflict. Historically, groups have also taken advantage of the instability of civil war to engage in smuggling, arms trading, and protection rackets, creating an entire black market industry that's invested in continued violence. For the warlords of domestic conflicts, civil war is good business.

Countries tend to get involved in nearby domestic conflicts quickly: Turkey's potential intervention has been under discussion for less than two months. But countries often move too quickly when they see an opportunity to further their national interests -- say, by removing a long-unfriendly regime -- and their haste leaves less time for planning. The countries that commit to protect a small rebel force or Syria's faltering regime would be mired with bad options: withdraw early or continue sinking money into an interminable conflict. This was the case in Syria's own intervention in Lebanon, which started in 1976. Only months into their intervention in that civil war, Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia relayed to Washington that "[Syrian President Hafez] Assad wants to find [a] way out. They are already 'embarrassed' by [the] rising level of effort required of them." But Syria could not withdraw, and the intervention lasted almost the entirety of the 15-year-long war.

The Lebanon analogy is a scary one, both for the precedent it sets and how apt it seems. The Syrian opposition has struggled to demonstrate even minimal cohesion, and while it has garnered support among the oppressed Sunni population in anti-regime towns like Hama and Homs, many other ethnic and religious groups are still standing with the regime, either in genuine support, fear of Assad, or fear of what may follow. This situation promotes the sort of proliferation of factions and paramilitary organizations that occurred in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to a complicated war with a shifting set of rivalries and alliances. The first glimpses of this are already evident in Homs, where militias are engaging in escalating campaigns of sectarian violence.

The greatest hazard of an intervention in Syria, though, is that it will create a war without a foreseeable end. The imbalance of power between a patron country and the domestic faction (or factions) it supports allows the country to impose its interests on the group it supports. Though intervening countries might support Syrian factions with similar interests, their interests will never be identical. As a result, interventions often cause the meanings of wars to change. Conflicts about domestic governance are misappropriated by foreign countries to become proxy wars: the Lebanese civil war's character changed from a conflict of domestic sectarian identities to international influence (and the resulting Lebanese government remained under the stewardship of Damascus for another 15 years).

These proxy wars have the appearance of a resolution. Accords are signed and foreign powers withdraw, but these actions reflect the interests of the intervening countries that have come to define the war. The domestic grievances that provoked the conflict still remain. Lebanon is still wracked with periodic violence. In the summer I spent there in 2009, when speculation about an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was raising concerns about another war between Hezbollah and Israel and the prospect of indictments for the assassination of Rafik Hariri was increasing sectarian tensions, everyone I spoke to who could remember the civil war told me that it never ended, that it was only postponed.

It is a tragedy of Syria -- one of its many tragedies -- that the internationalization of its civil war seems inevitable. Iran's interests are too closely bound to Damascus to not be involved in the growing conflict. It is increasingly unlikely that Turkey will be able to avoid an entanglement as well. The Arab states would play overt and clandestine roles, financing and arming militias as it suits their needs. In time, the Syrian civil war would become not about governance by Alawites or Sunnis, or about democracy versus authoritarianism, but about influence from Iran or Turkey or Saudi Arabia, a war over the regional balance of power. If this happens, it would happen at the expense of the Syrian people. The Syrian civil war would become another war without end.

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J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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