The Syrian revolution is entering its third year. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been injured, 1 million are now refugees, and a generation has been lost to violence. However, the worst is yet to come. If the Assad regime does not fall soon, the conflict will spread to the entire region, from Basra on the banks of the Gulf to Beirut on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Britain and France have expressed their intention to arm the Syrian resistance and want to lift the European arms embargo. However, many in the Syrian opposition believe this is not sufficient unless it is part of a clear strategy to overthrow the Assad regime.
The western approach, led by the US, has so far achieved only a stalemate between the rebels and the regime. The regime’s recent use of Scud missiles, and the continued supply of arms from Russia and Iran, have tipped the balance between the rebels and the regime in the regime’s favour. Seen in this light, the latest move by the British and French is simply an attempt to rebalance the conflict, and is part of a wider western strategy to use stalemate to force both sides to achieve a peaceful settlement. This will not put an end to the violence, nor will it lead to a settlement any time soon. Indeed, the third year of the Syrian revolution will now almost certainly see a shift in the crisis: it is set to become a cross-border conflict posing the greatest challenge to the region’s stability since its current borders were drawn after the first world war.
The crisis may spill over into Lebanon first. It borders Syria, and its internal political players are already involved in the crisis; when Hezbollah supported the Assad regime politically and logistically, other Lebanese parties lent their support to the revolutionaries. After two years of pulling and tugging, this has resulted in heightened levels of tension and polarisation in Lebanon.
The more lethal development, however, would be for the conflict to reach Iraq. We have started to see indications of this, including political conflict between the Shia regime of Nouri al-Maliki, which is supportive of the Assad regime, the Sunni-dominated provinces, and the Kurdish region of Iraq. Moreover, the protests that have gone on for three months in the Sunni areas have reached a dead end, as Maliki has not responded to their demands. This has led to another round of bloody violence, to which the Syrian crisis will be a natural extension.
Iraq, which has not yet recovered from the wounds of the civil war that tore it apart after the US invasion, would take the sectarian conflict in the area to unprecedented levels. It would also pull neighbouring countries, such as Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, into the conflict as the fight over Iraq will be not only for its oil resources, but for the true soul of the Middle East. What happens there would determine the balance of regional power and redraw the political map.
Can this scenario be avoided? It depends on how the regional and international forces act in the coming months. The US must redirect its priorities to allow the rebels to overthrow the regime. Although direct military intervention is not welcome, the west should not prohibit supplies of weapons to the revolutionaries.
The US has justified such prohibition in various ways: the fear of post-Assad chaos; the possibility of Islamists rising to power; the fact that Syria is a neighbour of Israel and that weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists. But that hesitation has been disastrous for the US’s objectives. Because of its fear of potential terrorism, it failed to bring down the Syrian regime at a time when the revolution was completely removed from the influence of al-Qaida or any other jihadist groups. US hesitation drove the revolution to become what the US feared most: it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Syrian regime’s sense of relative security led to the acceleration of the violence against civilians. In response to this, and in the face of international reluctance to supply arms to the moderate Free Syrian Army, jihadist elements increased. We are now faced with the emergence of groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which the US recently added to the list of terrorist groups. This was a mistake, as it distracted the international community and regional powers from the priority of overthrowing the regime, and directed it instead to fight the jihadists. Meanwhile, the al-Nusra Front benefited from its American classification and has become more powerful.
The absence of a clear strategy to deal with the Syrian crisis has sent conflicting messages to the region’s countries. Some, fearing the “Islamic danger”, have armed smaller secular groups, even though most of the effective groups in the arena are mainstream Islamists, and there are now conflicting opinions about who should be supplied with arms, and who should be contained. So far the efforts of the international community have strengthened Assad’s hand, sown confusion, and driven the revolutionaries towards extremism.
Wadah Khanfar is a former director general of the al-Jazeera television network.