The big question being asked by many in the international, especially American, media is whether the United States will now respond and engage militarily in Syria, due to the reports of the use of chemical weapons there. I suspect both parts of that question are the wrong issues to focus on, for neither chemical weapons use nor prospective American involvement strike me as the most significant elements of the Syria conflict that should grab our attention.
The Syria conflict has certainly crossed a significant red line, but not the one that President Barack Obama has defined in terms of the use of chemical weapons. The red line that has now been breached is the active, direct participation of neighboring powers in Syria’s 2-year-old war. The key words here are “active” and “direct,” because neighbors have been fighting each other in Syria and Lebanon through proxy parties for decades.
This should trigger our acknowledgment of bigger-picture worries of the worst-case scenario that is slowly taking shape before our eyes: As the civil war in Syria increasingly settles down into a vicious sectarian barbarism fest with a growing element of Al-Qaeda-like militants, neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan are feeling the intense pressures of refugee flows and are starting to panic; others, such as Hezbollah and Israel, are directly participating in aspects of the war; and, those who are arming and funding the parties – Iran, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – are beginning to talk about how they will react to all this.
The big fear now is that the world’s biggest proxy war of the past century is dangerously approaching shedding its proxy status and morphing into direct combat that involves the U.S., Iran, Syria’s government and opposition forces, Israel, Hezbollah, Russia, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to name only the main potential antagonists.
The immediately dramatic elements in this picture are that Hezbollah declared last week that it would continue to fight inside Syria (to protect Lebanese Shiites there and defend Shiite shrines, it says), and Israel has actively entered into the fighting, with its two consecutive airstrikes against targets inside Syria in the past week (to prevent the transfer of advanced missiles from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah, it says). One of my rules of thumb of observing which way the wind blows in the Middle East is now in active operative mode: When Hezbollah and Israel are both actively fighting in the same third country, and Iran and the United States are both actively warning about their determination to act to protect their allies and their interests in that same third country, it is time to make another pot of coffee and make sure you have plenty of fresh batteries at home for your transistor radio.
The slow and continuing escalation in the fighting in and around Syria should come as no surprise. Largely due to the wily ways of the late President Hafez Assad, Syria has played a pivotal regional and global strategic role for over half a century, in both constructive and destructive ways. Today, this web of Syrian connections has simply been transposed into the realm of active warfare, as Syria’s same multiple regional and global partners and linkages now engage in proxy fighting – and bursts of direct warfare – inside Syria, instead of diplomacy and strategic bargaining via Syria.
Recent history suggests that countries such as the U.S., Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are perfectly willing to engage in savage, destructive warfare through proxies in third countries (for instance Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, for starters), and we can now add Syria to that list. The likelihood is high that we will continue to witness episodic military action inside Syria by regional players. The main dangers now are that some of those actors (Iran, Israel, Hezbollah and the U.S. are the main candidates) might decide to take on each other, Syria could collapse into a Somalia-like ruined state, and Al-Qaeda-like militant-terrorist groups now fighting Assad under the banner of the Syrian uprising might gain strong footholds inside parts of the country.
There will be plenty of time for hand-wringing and blame in due course, but this might be a good time to remember a few things so that we can avoid acting like idiots and going through this scenario again a few years down the road: If we had resolved the Palestine-Israeli conflict in the 1980s, many of these regional tensions would not exist. If the Soviets, Europeans and Americans had not actively supported Arab autocrats for half a century, many of these regional actors would never have been able to achieve their current status. If the Soviets had not invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Anglo-American-led combination had not attacked Iraq in 2003, the appeal and reach of Salafist militants probably would not have attained their current levels.
So what the U.S. might do in response to chemical weapons use in Syria strikes me as pretty marginal in a much larger and older problem– that of thugs in power, and bullies supporting them from abroad.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.