The Syrian crisis had many tangents from the get go. It was never going to be like Iraq and Libya. For one, Syria is Iran’s closest ally, whose fall may isolate the country in a way the sanctions have never been able to. Moreover, Assad’s regime has been important to the balance of power in Lebanon. Then there are concerns regarding Syria’s chemical weapons that could fall in the hands of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah linked militants, and then be used against Israel.
However, 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 like never before. Nonetheless, Western forces are preparing contingencies for the apocalyptic inter-radical conflict looming in Syria.
There are two versions on how the war against terror is progressing. One of them asserts most of AQ leadership has been eliminated, and the organization is gasping to survive. Moreover, its capacity has been degraded to such an extent that it no longer poses any danger of launching a 9/11 style attack.
The second version contends that although AQ may be under pressure, the threat has now spread to North Africa and Middle East as well, and other peripheral religious and jihadi groups have adopted its ideology. So while US is withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq militarily, the threat has just shifted around.
Associated with this discussion is the consideration for the threat perception of Israel, which has been adrift since the arrival of Arab Spring in the region. Religious, conservative and nationalistic forces are resurgent in the Arab revolt inflicted areas, and it cannot sit by ideally as Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. This raises the question of how then would Israel and the West deal with the rapidly changing security environment of the region.
This is where the Syrian situation fits in. There is now a growing likelihood that Syria is truly heading towards a meltdown that would involve a confrontation between Shiite Hezbollah fighters 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, and Saudi Arabia is likely to follow suite, if such a nightmarish confrontation fully transpires. On the other hand, Hezbollah is being backed by Iran. This scenario is likely to pull extremists and jihadist elements from across the region, and is likely to spill over.
On April 30th, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned of revenge if the shrine named after the grand daughter of Prophet Muhammad, 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.
The scenario could not get any better: religious zealous fighting each other out to death and presenting a dramatic end to the war against terror. The danger is that 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.
There are indications that Western nations are preparing for these types of circumstances.
US Special Forces are already present in Jordan and there are reports Obama is getting ready to allow lethal weapons for Syrian opposition fighters, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Furthermore, on April 29th, UK based defense and security affairs related think tank, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), presented a ‘Return to East of Suez’ policy brief. This paper suggests that Britain is considering placing its land, sea, and air forces across the Middle East, for just the type of contingencies discussed above. The brief does not envision a full-scale deployment, but more of a touch and go type operations. According to the report, these missions could be in support of American and European operations, but could be conducted independently as well.