While the moral epi-centre of Middle Eastern politics continues to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of the struggle on the ground is still between the old Sunni regimes (supported by the West) and the revolutionary threat seen to be posed by the Shi’ite regime in Iran – which supports its fellow Shi’ite Hizbollah in Lebanon, and which has enjoyed good relations with the Assad family in Syria. However, the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria is pulling in Sunni jihadists and Kurdish fighters from all over the region, in a conflict whose regional significance for the West has little to do with the wellbeing of Syrians. As always, it has much more to do with the isolation of Iran, and the containment of Shi’ite aspirations throughout the Middle East.
In the past few weeks, many international media reports have focused on the potential spillage of the conflict in Syria across the border, into Lebanon – and the implications for Hizbollah if it does so, and Hizbollah’s likely response. That emphasis is hardly surprising, as Joshua Landis has pointed out on his excellent Syria Comment site, given how many of the international correspondents covering the war in Syria happen to be based in Beirut. Yet as Landis cogently explains, Iraq is in far more danger than Lebanon from the long term regional impact of events in Syria.
One reason is pretty obvious, and is rooted in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition. Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein had served as a useful bulwark for the West against Iran – but thanks to the Bush family’s obsession with Saddam, and thanks also to the neo-con determination to pick a symbolic target after 9/11, Saddam was toppled from power, and the genie of Shi’ite aspirations let out of the bottle. Subsequently, and despite all the fond hopes of a diverse, secular and democratic new order emerging in Iraq – remember all those earnest discussions post invasion, about whether a ‘liberated’ Iraq would have a loosely federal structure or a strongly centralized one? – something quite different has emerged. Namely, a virtual Shi’ite dictatorship led by Nouri al-Maliki and subservient to Iran. Instead of liberating Iraq and containing Iran, the US invasion has enabled a tyrannical client regime of Teheran to be installed in Baghdad. Nice work.
In the process of setting up his new tyranny, al-Maliki has made a joke out of those fond hopes of peaceful power sharing with Sunni legislators. Amid terrible bloodshed since 2003, many of the Sunni fighters have been killed or driven out, and Kurdish aspirations have been sidelined. However, those residual Sunni elements from Iraq – and Kurdish fighters from all over the region – have now poured into Syria to fight the Assad regime, and as the New York Times recently pointed out, Iraq is already feeling the blowback.
Here is Landis’ most recent summary:
Al-Qaida is rebuilding in Iraq to contest Shiite power. It probably has the backing of a larger segment of the Sunni community that still chafes from its loss of fortune following the US destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Unlike Lebanon, the various sects of Iraq have not found a modus-vivendi. Relations between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq are becoming more vexed as Kurdistan takes ever more steps to assert its independence from Arab Iraq.
The Sunni-led attempt to depose Assad’s regime is sure to give a big boost to Al-Qaida in Iraq as arms and men flow across the border and find a refuge in Syria. Saudi, Turkish and Qatari support for Syria’s Sunnis is also likely to turbo-charge passions in Iraq, as Sunnis feel empowered to push back against Iranian influence and the Shiite hold on power.
These are the reasons why Iraq is seeing much more spillover from Syria than Lebanon. Of course, there will be pushing and shoving between the sects in Lebanon, especially as the Sunnis grow in confidence and feel that they can tip the scales on the Shiite assertiveness of the last several years. But they have few delusions of being able to rule Lebanon on their own.
Problem being, it took a bloody civil war for Lebanon to recognise the necessity for that pragmatism. Iraq has no similar history, or framework for power sharing. For now, as the anti-Assad rebel forces multiply and splinter into factions some of which the US and its allies would support and some it would abhor – Turkey has its own concerns about Kurdish advances in Syria – the West faces a genuine dilemma. Who should it support among the Syrian opposition, and should it be arming them directly and significantly ? This report by former US State Department deputy Direcrtor of Intelligence Wayne White offers a summary of the tactical problems now facing the West in arming (or refusing to arm) the rebels:
…There is real reason for concern among governments sympathetic to the opposition about arms falling into the wrong hands. It is, after all, difficult to determine who would be the ultimate recipient of munitions assistance once it passes into Syria. In a fluid environment with scores of FSA factions, militant groups might also construct deceptive liaisons to convey false assurances of moderation once they catch wind of selective distribution. Finally, in cities like Aleppo, a number of armed factions appear to be fighting alongside each other and might feel compelled to share munitions for mutual support and protection against regime attacks. The injection of surface-to-air missiles into this conflict is especially risky because they could end up in the hands of terrorist groups and be used against commercial airliners.
That said, anger is increasing among anti-regime elements within Syria over the failure of the West to provide armed assistance. Had arms been supplied to Syrian rebels considerably sooner, the number of Syrians embittered over the lack of tangible support from the outside, the vast extent of destruction wrought mainly by the regime’s aircraft and heavy weapons, and the number of militants arriving from neighboring countries might have been more limited before the fall of the Assad regime (which this writer assumes is highly likely). The palpable rise in anger toward major Western powers for withholding arms could alone render more Syrians toward anti-Western Islamist appeals.
This, in a nutshell, is the US and Western dilemma. Standing by without providing vital arms while the bloodshed continues will probably mean less sympathy and increasing militancy among the rebels over time. After all, more of them (and members of their families) are being killed and maimed because they lack proper arms and sufficient ammunition.
On the other hand, if the rebels gain access to considerable more arms (meaning militants too in many cases), anti-Western anger would likely abate. But the conflict has already gone on long enough to produce a problematic post-Assad scenario featuring more robust militias competing for power, along with perhaps even more ugly sectarian score-settling against Alawite and Christian minorities that have been supporting the regime. In fact, the great amount of infrastructure, commercial establishments and all manner of housing already destroyed by regime firepower will likely be the source of a potentially profound economic crisis that would generate a heavy measure of frustration, anger and recrimination over some years even after the fall of the regime.
No easy way out here. Longer term, the West might like to think it could swap one Sunni regime (Iraq under Saddam) for a new Sunni one in Syria in order to fence in Iran. Yet even if and when the Assad regime does eventually fall, the emergence of a militant Sunni regime in Damascus will almost certainly mean that the focus would then shift back to Iraq – and to the ongoing Sunni struggle against the al-Maliki regime in Baghdad, which would be rejoined with fresh intensity. At the same time….once Assad falls, there will be a resurgence of Kurdish aspirations across Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Truly, there isn’t much light at the end of this particular tunnel.