The Syrian Civil War has been stalemated for over twelve months, with no hope in sight for a political process leading to a solution. The spillover from this Syrian conflagration has now put in jeopardy the future of all its neighbors. Lebanon and Iraq are certainly teetering on the brink, but Jordan, Turkey and even Israel have hardly been immune from the fallout. With major elections due in the most politically unstable nation states (Iraq and Lebanon), the continued flow of tens of thousands of refugees into Jordan, the movement of weapons in nearly all directions, the flow of foreign fighters and the incredible amounts of money into the conflict, is it any wonder that this complicated mix has engendered the possibility of a long war of attrition (perhaps ten years or longer) leading to failed states and their potential dismemberment?
What has always been known to be true — that the Syrian Civil War which first began as a protest movement then morphed into a regional proxy war — now risks being altered once again. This time, however, the consequences could become catastrophic for all involved. Unlike the war of attrition scenario, now two major armies from outside Syria sit poised to alter the balance of power (Lebanon and Israel), while a third army (Iraq) and perhaps even a fourth (Iran) would hardly be expected to stand idly by if such an intervention were to occur.
Enter the French. Recently, Saudi Arabia and France initialed a three billion dollar military package to upgrade the scope and firepower of the Lebanese Army. This far-reaching deal does not come without lengthy strings attached. Since the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, Hezbollah (the pro-Iranian Shiite terrorist organization) has enjoyed a freedom of action unparalleled by any non-state militia anywhere in the world. This even included its direct intervention into the Syrian Civil War. For the better part of a year, Hezbollah has weighed in on the side of Assad, and it has become a significant player in propping up what had been essentially a weak Alawi government and an army that couldn’t even trust its many Sunni brigades. Along with Iranian advisers, Shiite Iraqi mercenaries, Alawi civilian militias and almost seven thousand experienced Hezbollah troops, Assad has hung on to power. Remember, only sixteen months ago most of the Western think-tank experts had, for all practical purposes, written Assad off.
With the ground stalemated in Syria, perhaps the Saudis now figure that the Lebanese army could be used as an interdiction force capable of preventing or limiting Hezbollah’s freedom of action. This could have a devastating effect on the ability of Assad to maintain his access from Damascus to the Alawi Mediterranean coast. Whatever the military thought process, the mere political alteration of the Taif Agreement could have severe repercussions for the fragile Lebanese polity. The sectarian divisions within the country (like Syria and Iraq) have already been strained to the maximum, given the influx of nearly 1.3 million refugees escaping the war. Assad’s natural inclination would be for an immediate call for help. So too would be Nasrallah’s (Hezbollah’s leader).
Iran could provide more Revolutionary Guards, but with an economy mired in sanctions and a restive public already calling the Republic’s Syrian policy a financial black hole, Rouhani certainly wouldn’t be in favor of such a move. But the choice is surely not his anyway. Only the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could make that kind of decision. The prospect of a Lebanese Army-Hezbollah clash might not be a game changer, but it certainly would aid the opposition. It certainly might enhance their ability to regain the partial initiative. All along, Assad’s problem has been his lack of manpower. That’s why his recent boast that he is somehow “winning the war” should not be taken seriously. Assad’s only hope is to control the south and the crucial routes through Homs and Hama leading to the vital Alawi coast. In other words, at best he could control a rump state in a perpetual state of war. However, even with this divided and stalemated scenario, Assad risks a discontented base and army. Perhaps the Syrian dictator’s recent boast was a Freudian slip. A long war of attrition could be his personal undoing. So how will the astute Saudi maneuver with the French military equipment be countered by Assad’s Iranian ally?
Enter al Maliki. Surely the Iraqi Shiite prime minister might be able to put a little more skin in the game. Iranian pressure on Iraq and its Shiite majority population has worked in the past. Already thousands of Shiites from Iraq have poured into the Syrian mix, aiding and abetting the militia networks that have now taken over the bulk of Assad’s fighting. But just like Lebanon, the negative repercussions for Iraq have only worked to destabilize an already unstable situation. The sectarian death toll in Iraq has once again approached civil war levels. But the Iraqi political situation is not hopeless. Al Maliki has been losing support. Depending on the outcome of the April 30 elections and the near certainty of a long process of coalition building, Iran’s Shiite puppet, al Maliki, might not necessarily win. Both the current Iraqi prime minister and the Iranian supreme leader are not without their detractors from among the Iraqi-based Shiite clergy. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has emerged as a vital voice in the upcoming election. Throughout vast expanses of the Shiite Islamic community, many of the faithful follow the advice of this widely-respected Ayatollah. On April 30, the negative scenario by which Iraq continues to fall apart might be stymied by a public anxious for change and hopeful of reconciliation. But time will tell. Iraq could go either way.
Then there are Turkey and Jordan. A long war of attrition in Syria cannot be in their respective long-term interests. Turkey has a simmering Kurdish problem, and the prospect of a fragmented failed state to its south can only cause the restive Kurdish population further secessionist yearnings. The same is true of the Alevis. This Shiite sectarian group comprises over fifteen percent of the Turkish citizenry, or nearly eleven million people. If they were to decide to move politically in the same direction as the Kurds, Turkey itself could be thrown into chaos.
Similarly, Jordan could be terribly effected by Syrian dismemberment and a long war of attrition. This could alter severely the delicate balance within Jordanian polity. The linkage of Sunni Islamic extremists with refugees and Palestinians could be a recipe for Hashemite disaster. Jordan requires regional stability in order to survive in the future. The past king was a master at survival, a true genius. But a future Levant that could be mired in a toxic environment of poor economic performance and fractured nation states cannot bode very well for Jordan’s ancient ruling family. Jordan will eventually have to become a true constitutional monarchy, modeled after those nations whose king is the head of state but not the head of government.
Finally comes the question of Israel. Israel is not a party to the present situation in Syria. But Iran and Hezbollah are. Depending on the outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, Israel could become involved in a hurry. Time is running very short. If the negotiations are unsuccessful, Israel would have to decide whether or not to live with the Iranian nuclear program. If the answer is war, Israel will be militarily engaged with Hezbollah. This will certainly alter the balance of forces within the Syrian Civil War.
However, if the Iranian nuclear negotiations are successful (by Israel’s criteria) then the sanctions against Iran will be totally lifted, and the oil money will start to flow. Assad’s future then might look very bright as men and material flood into Syria. Presently, the absence of any linkage between the nuclear negotiations and the regional repercussions of a successful outcome to those negotiations have both the Sunni Arab states and Israel quite nervous. Iran as regional hegemonic power is not the kind of neighborhood that anyone wants to live in. But Iran cannot be a hegemonic power with Israel in possession of a nuclear arsenal. The GCC is another matter altogether. Saudi Arabia and other non-nuclear states might take notice of Israel’s unique position. These states (especially Saudi Arabia) might decide that to possess their own nuclear arsenals are the correct way to proceed (no one in the region is now sure that the US has their back). Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are close allies. Pakistan is a nuclear power, which borders Iran from the southeast. Iran could very easily find itself the odd man out, squeezed by nuclear weapons — from the north (by Russia), the west (by Israel), the east (by Pakistan) and the south (by Saudi Arabia). Is it any wonder why Iran has a nuclear program?
From a multitude of alternative scenarios, the future of the nation-state system in the Middle East appears bleak. The region is either headed toward dismemberment, a vast regional war or nuclear proliferation. The current P5+1 negotiations are flawed. It is unclear whether the political establishments in these six countries perceive the true nature of the problem — that without a sustainable regional balance of power or its peaceful equivalent, war or nuclear proliferation are inevitable. Here’s a hint: Only a Grand Bargain with a Zone of Peace and a nuclear-weapons-free zone will suffice.