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.

"Frankly, when we formed the Syrian National Council last October there was no consensus for asking for Western military intervention, but the intransigence and viciousness of the Assad regime has forced us to seek any solution that will stop the killing," said Khalib Saleh, a member of the council. Council officials are now asking the Obama administration and its allies for far more robust support, including establishing safe havens for refugees in northern Syria protected by Western forces; arming and equipping the Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors from the Syrian army that the opposition estimates at 25,000-35,000 strong; and even establishing a "no-fly" zone enforced by Western airpower. "Our sense is the Obama administration is still focused on trying to apply more diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad, and to convince the Russians to change their minds. While there's no question that the sanctions have put a death squeeze on the Syrian economy, however, at this rate by the time sanctions succeed tens of thousands of more Syrians may be killed."

In order to deepen Syria's isolation, the Obama administration and many European and Middle Eastern allies have recently formed the "Friends of Syria," a loose coalition of countries willing to support increased economic and diplomatic sanctions even absent a U.N. Security Council resolution.  In the meantime, however, Assad seems determined to take a page from his father's playbook -- repeating Hafez al-Assad's massacre in the rebellious town of Hama in 1982 that left an estimated 10,000 dead -- in attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all.

If he succeeds, Assad will write a bloody postscript to the Arab Spring. Just as likely, such wanton bloodshed could cause additional defections from the Syrian army, renew the cycle of violence, and push Syria closer to a civil war that inflames the passions of the entire region --at which point Washington may no longer have the option of standing on the sidelines.

Fred Wehrey is a senior Middle East analyst with Rand and a co-author of Arab Spring, Persian Winter: Will Iran Emerge the Winner from the Arab Revolts? "There's no question that with Russia's veto in the U.N. Security Council and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, we are entering a new and bloody chapter in the Syrian crisis," he said. "Assad clearly feels emboldened to escalate the intensity and scope of his campaign to put down the rebellion; and with the great powers paralyzed on the U.N. Security Council, regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are now likely to start more forcefully backing different factions. Given the fractured, sectarian nature of the Syrian population, that could plunge the country deeper into a civil war that has the danger of spilling over into the wider region. Just think of the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, and then magnify it 10 times."