Monday, August 27, 2012

The Syrian Powder Keg

     Aleppo is starting to look like someone's Stalingrad.  Photo by: Niklas Meltio

Things are not going well for Bashar Assad.  His army had pushed the rebels out of Damascus and seemed to be forcing a decisive battle in Aleppo on their terms.  Given the Army's heavy weapons and air assets, it should have been a walkover. But more than a month later, the battle for Aleppo continues.  In addition, after having been driven out of Damascus last month, the rebels are not only back, but seem to have shot down a helicopter.  The Syrian Armed Forces are clearly unable to win this war.  The rebels, on the other hand, have taken everything the government has thrown at them and keep advancing.

The usual scenario in these circumstances is a grinding war until the rebels get the upper hand and the government disintegrates as the players rush for the exits.  Without foreign intervention, that's what will happen here.  Unfortunately, the regional players have upped the stakes in this conflict. And the chemical weapons are a wild card inviting intervention from the US, France, Britain and possibly Russia. 

While we have all been paying attention to Israeli threats against Iran and the Egyptian revolution, a regional war has been brewing to the East.  The US invasion of Iraq upset the regional status quo by shoving Iraq (majority Shia) into Iran's outstretched arms.  Iran gained a straight line of allies all the way to the Mediterranean (Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah).

The Saudis thus feel out-flanked by Iran and threatened by Iranian nukes.  They also felt threatened by Shia demonstrations in the North of the Kingdom, the oil part, and were forced (by their reckoning) to stifle a Shia revolution in Bahrain.  So the emerging power blocks are sectarian; Sunni vs. Shia.  Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iran's clients on one side, the USA, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Arabs on the other. Egypt is a wild card and Israel irrelevant.

The war in Syria is acting like a magnifying glass to focus all these issues in one place.  Iran and the Saudis both lack the military for a direct conflict. One invading and/or conquering the other is not possible.  So the temptation to fight by proxy in Syria is attractive.  But very, very dangerous.  Expect an international crisis at some point this fall.