The Syrian civil war has entered a new, even more complex phase. The EU has lifted its arms embargo but remains divided over what that means, and Russia has announced it will supply the Assad regime with anti-aircraft weaponry, seemingly as a counter move.
Back in 2011, when Assad’s regime tried and failed to quell unrest with brutal violence, the pace of Syria’s descent into the abyss seemed to proceed in chilling slow motion. Now every day brings a new indication that the war is dragging more and more protagonists into the mire.
As in the war that consumed Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, those fighting on the ground are supported by different regional and international patrons. The Qataris and the Saudis are backing the rebels and are less fussed about who receives their arms supplies than the Americans, the British and the French, with whom they share a desire to see President Bashar al-Assad ousted.
EU move clears way to arm Syrian ‘moderates’
The British, who lobbied vigorously for the EU arms embargo to be lifted, say their intent is to enable more “moderate” rebel elements to better defend themselves against the aerial assaults of the Syrian armed forces. They also hope to preserve such moderates from marginalisation by the extremist Sunni Islamist armed groups associated with al-Qaeda, which have proved more skilled and effective in the fighting.
London and Paris also claim that lifting the embargo will send a signal to Assad that the rebels have their support, pressuring him into doing a deal at the international conference to be convened jointly by Washington and Moscow. But it is the so-called “moderate” rebel forces who need persuading to participate in such a conference if Assad participates.
The rebels' reluctance was yet another factor in the Anglo-French decision to aid the moderate cause. But rather than increasing the chances of effective diplomacy at the anticipated conference, lifting the arms embargo could simply galvanise the rebels in their determination to force Assad from power rather than negotiate with him.
In any case, the stance taken by the British and French smacks of partisanship and a desire to enter the fray by proxy. They wish to shift the balance of power in Syria in ways that will better serve their interests than either an accommodation with Assad or the ascendancy of the radical Sunni Islamists ranged against him.
Lessons from Lebanon
This is a high-risk strategy. As it turned out in the Lebanon war, neither a full-scale invasion by Israel, nor direct intervention by US and French forces proved decisive. US and French marines were blown up in their barracks by suicide bombers and then driven out of Beirut.
Opposition to the Israeli occupation led to the emergence of the radical Shia movement Hezbollah, backed by Iran, whose relentless opposition eventually convinced the Israelis to withdraw in 2000.
Hezbollah went on to become a leading player in the Lebanese parliament, having retained its armed militia when the rest of the Lebanese factions disarmed in the 1990s. Hezbollah’s justification for this was to maintain resistance against Israel; the movement took on the Israeli armed forces in the war of 2006 that again devastated Lebanon.
Hezbollah forces are now fighting on the side of the Assad regime inside Syria, claiming to do so in the name of defending that country as well as Lebanon from what they claim are the imperialist, anti-Muslim forces of Israel and its Western allies.
Sectarian civil war?
Hezbollah’s detractors in Lebanon are lending their support to Assad’s opponents across the border in Syria. In effect, the Syrian civil war is turning into a broader conflagration with Shia Muslim groups on one side, linked across Lebanon, through Syria, to Iraq and Iran - and Sunni Arabs on the other, backed by the Arab Gulf states for whom fear of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a prime motivation.
Egypt identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood elements of the Syrian opposition. Turkey is playing host to the Syrian opposition in exile and half a million Syrian refugees. Jordan, which is also sheltering growing numbers of refugees, is providing a base for US and UK forces to train what they consider the moderate elements in the Syrian opposition.
For its part, Moscow still contends that Assad needs to be bolstered rather than ousted, for fear of all the alternatives. To concede this would be a step too far for Washington or London. So while co-operating on convening a new push for a diplomatic solution, these international players are not on the same page.
As if the situation were not already complicated enough, there is the further possibility that Israel will repeat the air strikes it has deployed on at least three occasions already, to attack Hezbollah and impede its access to arms supplied by Iran through Syria.
Israel’s desire to put an end to Iran’s nuclear programme, including, if diplomacy fails, by military attack, has not gone away. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Arab observers are wondering if the real Western agenda is actually to fuel the war in Syria, not end it, as part of a broader strategy to bring down not only Assad, but also Hezbollah and the Iranian regime.
Put this conspiracy theory to Washington or London and they will refute it. Both will claim their strategy is to manipulate the balance of forces to facilitate a political resolution that saves lives and produces a less dictatorial, more inclusive Syrian government. Yet their tactics amount to playing with fire and there is scant reason to believe that such noble aims will prevail.