The conflict in Afghanistan is unique in many respects but there is one obvious peculiarity. The coalition there is truly global in nature. The Taliban never had any formal state sponsor supplying sophisticated weaponry. During the Afghan jihad of the 80s, it was the stinger missile that made it impossible for the Russians to keep relying on air power, and this turned the tide of the war.
Overtime, the war against terror progressed and shifted to various other fronts in the Middle East and North Africa. As the war evolved the use of violence, towards whatever end, was outlawed within the realms of international law. In other words, a terrorist was no longer a freedom fighter for anyone. This obviously had far reaching consequences.
Now, the situation of Syria appears to have merged the fight against extremism and Arab Spring with the regional and global tussles for a new order. This may involve Shiite and Sunni radicals fighting each other out for supremacy in the Middle East.
Evolution of the War on Terror
Nations of the region that had chronic insurgencies to deal with used the ‘card blanche’ of terrorism to suppress these movements. Then there were the autocratic Arab governments with a track record of poor governance and human rights violations, and they too exploited the war to garner western support and legitimacy. This dynamic played no less a role in stimulating the Arab awakening. Meanwhile, a perception began to emerge that NATO is shaping the new world order under the garb of war against terror. This has gradually unnerved both Russia and China, despite their own challenges with extremists.
The rules of the game have begun to decisively change in case of Syria, which had many tangents from the get go. The nature of the beast there was never like Iraq and Libya. For one, Syria is Iran’s closest ally, whose fall may isolate Iran in a way the sanctions have never been able to. Moreover, Assad’s regime has been important to the balance of power in Lebanon, and by consequence the Middle East peace process. Then there are concerns regarding Syria’s chemical weapons that could fall in the hands of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, or militants linked to it, and then used against Israel. In this regard, Syria is similar to Iraq; the scare of weapons of mass destruction was one of key pretexts for the second Gulf War.
The Issue of State Sponsorship
The most important difference in case of Syria is the formal state sponsorship of various groups involved. For example, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and western powers are supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to topple the Assad regime. FSA’s complex relationship with AQ linked Sunni extremists, means that some weapons are ending up with groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These radicals are proving to be the most effective on the ground, and are well supplied through their own links in the Arab world.
Now that President Obama and other European nations are contemplating supplying arms directly to the Syrian opposition forces, Russia is conveying that it means to do the same, and may already be doing it, in support of the Assad regime.
Obviously, what is occurring in Syria is of serious concern for Israel. It does not want Syrian chemical weapons and missiles to fall in the hands of Hezbollah or AQ linked factions. On the other hand, the West has its own dilemma; it cannot allow the Sunni or Shiite radicals to dominate the post Assad scenario at the cost of nationalist opposition forces.
Reportedly, the meeting between PM Netanyahu and President Putin, held in Sochi on May 14, did not go well. Russia warned Israel against any more air strikes in Syria. Meanwhile, PM Netanyahu attempted to convince Putin to not sell its sophisticated S-300 air defense system to Syria.
With no easy solution, heightened diplomacy is once again being witnessed between Russia, UK and US, with a proposed international conference in a month seeking a political solution. The differences over if Assad should stay or go, remain. With Turkey being dragged in and Israel warning of more strikes inside Syria, the region is at the precipice of a wider war.
The Proxy War
The Syrian response to a direct state intervention, such as continued Israeli air raids, is likely to come from its /proxies. On the other hand, Israel has threatened more strikes and going after the Assad regime, which it claims to have not done so far, if Syria deploys its proxies or provides sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.
There is now a growing likelihood that Syria is truly heading towards a state meltdown that would involve a confrontation between Shiite Hezbollah fighters, fighting in support of Assad regime, and Sunni AQ linked extremists, such as Jabhat al Nusra. The group recently claimed allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri and agreed to a merger with AQ in Iraq. Qatar in particular is being blamed for providing support to the Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria to topple Assad from power. The scenario is likely to pull extremists and jihadist elements from across the region.
On April 30th, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned of revenge if the shrine named after the grand daughter of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Sayida Zeinab, was to be desecrated. “If the shrine is destroyed things will get out of control,” Nasrallah commented. He also assured Assad of his support and that Hezbolllah will not let Syria fall to Israel, US or the Islamic radicals.
From the western and Israeli perspective in particular, the chaos in Syria provides a bizarre yet dangerous opportunity. It could end the war against terror or insinuate it even more. The scenario could not get any better: religious zealous fighting each other out to death and leading to a dramatic end to the war against terror. The reality being, one or the other type of radical, Shiite or Sunni, is likely to prevail, while posing the question of where do matters go from there. Nonetheless, the Syrian conflict has now morphed with the regional and global tussles to shape a new order in the Middle East.