The Global Dangers of Syria's Looming Civil War

As violence worsens, neighboring countries, and perhaps even the U.S., could get drawn in.

Homs Feb13 p.jpg

Syrian tanks are seen in Bab Amro near the city of Homs / Reuters

Many more wars have resulted from miscalculation than deliberate planning, and mounting blunders in recent weeks have significantly raised the likelihood that violence in Syria will continue to escalate, drawing the United States and its allies ever closer to direct involvement in another bloody conflict. The crisis is already careening toward the one red-line that could make direct outside intervention all but inevitable: an all-out civil war that ignites in the heart of the Middle East, and threatens to spread along the region's already smoldering ethnic and sectarian divides.

"What gets lost in all the talk of Syria being like Libya is that it's located at the very epicenter of inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli politics," said Aram Nerguizian, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Already, the Syrian crisis has prompted regional actors to take sides in what could easily shape up as a proxy war, he noted, with majority Sunni states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states lining up behind the mostly Sunni Syrian opposition, and Shiite majority Iran and Iraq backing the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam. 

"We're a far cry from last year when this started as a peaceful opposition movement, and as the crisis has become more violent and complex, the risks of a proxy war that breaks Syria apart and destabilizes the entire region has grown significantly," Nerguizian said. "When you consider the history of neighboring nations where civil wars led to the loss of power for minorities - specifically, Lebanon in the 1980s and Iraq more recently - it doesn't bode well for Syria."

And yet miscalculations on all sides have arguably worsened the crisis. In recently pressing for another U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing tougher sanctions on Syria, the Obama administration hoped to shame Russia and China into backing the measure in light of the Arab League's support and Assad's bloodletting, just as it had won Security Council approval for NATO's campaign in Libya last year. U.S. officials underestimated both Moscow's and Beijing's pique at feeling duped into supporting what clearly became a regime-change campaign in Libya, however, and the degree to which both Russia and China fear the kind of "people power revolutions" that have typified the Arab Spring.

Interpreting Russia's veto, in particular, as a green light, Assad has moved aggressively to try to crush the rebellion, training the Syrian army's artillery and even airpower on rebel strongholds such as Homs; opposition officials have said that as many as 750 Syrians have died in the bombardment in the past week alone. Assad's regime has also unleashed paramilitary militias against opposition forces.

The fractured Syrian opposition based its initial pledge of nonviolence on the assumption that the regime's brutality would eventually cause Syrian security forces to abandon Assad, but only about 10 percent of the army has defected. The opposition groups also underestimated Assad's ability to stoke sectarian fears among minority Alawites, Christians, and Kurds inside Syria. Moreover, after closely watching events in Libya, opposition figures believed they could count on Western military help--but it has not been forthcoming.

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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