The brutal and bloody civil war in Syria, which has been going on for well over two years, appears about to be cranked up to new levels of brutality. An arms embargo imposed by the European Union expired just days ago, freeing EU members to send arms to whichever faction opposing the Government of Bashar al-Assad that they choose. But Russia, Syria's long-time ally, has sent the first shipment of a sophisticated air defence system to the beleaguered regime. Moscow says this will inject an element of stability into the increasingly unstable region.
Assad announced the arms shipment in an interview broadcast some days ago, saying more of the missiles will arrive soon. The United States, France and Israel have called on Russia to stop the delivery, which complicates efforts to arrange a peace conference between Assad's Government and his opponents, who want him to go. Ironically, the two main parties in that effort are Russia and the US.
The uprising in Syria began early in 2011, when various factions opposed to Assad took their cue from a series of successful protests in Tunisia which overthrew a long-entrenched regime. They have many grievances going back over the forty-odd years of rule by the Assad family — unemployment, corruption, lack of political freedom, and violence by one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East.
Other factors make the conflict even more fraught with difficulties. Syria, which is located at the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, is lodged between Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, all of which have serious concerns of their own. A hop, skip and jump away is Iran. Syria is a pivotal country in the Arab world with a strongly independent foreign policy and is closely allied with Russia and Iran. It has been in a constant state of conflict with Israel since that state was founded in 1948 and sponsors several Palestinian groups hostile to Israel, which occupies part of its territory — the Golan Heights — after capturing it during the six-day war of 1967.
Although religion isn't central to the regime's ideology, it does employ differences among Syria's various religious groups to remain in power. Assad and his generals come mainly from the small Alawite sect, an offshoot of the Shiites, together with some Christians and Druze — an obscure minority religion. The majority of the population are Sunni, and Assad also manipulates various ethnic groups — the Kurds and Armenians in particular — to keep everyone off balance.
Outsiders drawn to influential Syria
Because of Syria's strategic importance, outside forces are competing for influence and both the Government and the Opposition are tapping into these sources for military and diplomatic support. In addition to Iran and Russia, Syria can count on the Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah, as well as Iraq and China. But regional governments are concerned about Iran's considerable sway over the regime and tend to side with the opposition. So the rebels can rely on help from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who calculate that whoever emerges to replace Assad will not likely be friendly with the regime in Tehran. This consideration is central to American and European support for the opposing forces.
Watching nervously from the sidelines, as always, is Israel,which is concerned that the new Russian equipment — the S-300 missiles — could reach deep into its territory and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv. Israel is also wary of any weapons Syria supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has already sent its warplanes, on three occasions recently, to strike at targets in Damascus, provoking an angry reaction from the Syrian capital.
Because of its military prowess — supported lavishly by the United States — Israel has kept control of the Golan Heights for more than 45 years, while the Syrians, under Bashir and his father Hafez, have kept the border quiet. But in the interview this week Bashir said: "The Syrian Government will not stand in the way of any Syrian groups that want to wage a war of resistance to liberate the Golan." Hezbollah says it is willing to support anyone who chooses to launch operations in that area.
While even Assad is willing to go to Geneva to take part in any peace talks the US, Russia and the others may be able to cobble together, the opposition is all over the place. At a meeting in Istanbul this week, delegates couldn't agree on what to have for lunch. The largely political opposition has always had difficulty agreeing on how to go about things and, in fact, the coalition was formed only after extreme pressure last year. Since then it has been under considerable pressure, from both inside and outside, to broaden its membership to more effectively reflect those Syrians who oppose the regime.
Here's another complication: Any government that decides to send arms to the rebels would be in breach of EU rules. A legal analysis commissioned by the British Labour Party notes that the rebels have committed war crimes, that breaking the embargo would prolong the conflict, and the rebels could even use such weapons against Israel.
What's to be done about Assad?
The rebels — no matter their religious or political background — are definite about their main demand: Assad must go. They cannot see a new government, even a transitional one, with Bashir al-Assad in charge. A year ago a meeting of world powers in Geneva agreed that there should be a transitional government containing representatives of both the regime and the opposition, but the agreement they produced — the "Geneva Statement" — avoids the question of Assad's departure.
The new American Secretary of State John Kerry says Assad has no place in the transition. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, says outsiders can't impose the question of Assad's presidency as a precondition for peace talks. So those big powers fall on opposite sides of the conflict — the Russians arming the regime, while the US feeds support to the opposition through its regional allies.
Since the conflict began, more than 80,000 Syrians have been killed, many of them in the most horrible ways. Both the regime and the rebels have to share blame for the brutality of the fighting, but that's war. It's not a tea party, as Mar Zedong famously noted. Many people around the world look on in increasing horror and call on their government to do something to stop the slaughter. Pressure is mounting in several places to send in forces to help cut the whole thing short. But western governments, fresh from the long, gruelling, bloody, costly, and indecisive fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere, are wary about putting their boots on the ground in a new place where the outcome could turn out to be a dog's breakfast.
And they have to consider the outcome, whichever way it's achieved: Militant Islamist groups taking their cue from al-Qaeda, such as the Al Busra Front, have firmly established themselves in parts of Syria. They answer to no one, and their only aim is to establish an Islamic state. Such people are not inclined to accept negotiated deals between the government and the political opposition. We only have to look next door at Iraq, where small, well-financed extremist groups can continue to make life miserable for the majority for years after the big fight ends.