Syria's civil war: the 5 new issues in the conflict
Fractured opposition and role of Iran and Russia are influencing ongoing strife
Syrian rebels have long accused the government they are fighting of using chemical weapons, and this week the claims intensified, as pictures of lifeless children, purported victims of another deadly attack, were spread around the world.
For its part, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been steadfast in its denial of these allegations, putting the blame instead on those same rebels who launched their assault in March 2011. Syrian government officials also say these latest accusations against the regime are illogical, with the supposed attack coming only days after UN inspectors were allowed into the country.
Since the conflict began more than two years ago, it has taken a devastating human toll, with the UN estimating that more than 100,000 people have been killed. Refugees are streaming out of Syria, with estimates suggesting that at least 1.9 million have fled. Another 4.25 million are displaced within the country's borders.
The conflict — now labelled a civil war by the International Red Cross — had at its heart the desire to depose one of the Mideast's most repressive regimes. But the continued unrest has served to magnify many other issues at play in the conflict, both within Syria's borders and the international community.
The opposition is fractured
From the outside, it might be easy to consider the Syrian conflict a story of emboldened Sunni rebels coming from a common position to take on and thrust off a repressive Shia-backed regime, but it's not that simple.
"One of the key things is the fracturing nature of the opposition," says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.
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That fracturing has been around since the beginning of the conflict. "But we're seeing increasing cases of infighting," Lamrani said in an interview from Tanjir.
Such infighting "really damages the goal of toppling the Assad regime, and actually is another major reason he and his regime have made sort of a comeback in recent times."
Lamrani notes that there is a "pretty divided landscape" when it comes to ethnic diversity and demographics in the country.
"A lot of the minorities within Syria, not necessarily just because they like the government, but because they fear the opposition, have gradually sided more and more with the regime. So we have a lot of the Christian groups, a lot of the Druze groups, and the Alawites themselves … those are siding with the government."
The opposition is primarily Sunni, the majority Muslim group in Syria, but even that is a generalization that could fall short of reality.
"You do have small, small groups of Christians, Druze and even in amongst the Free Syrian Army a few Alawites," says Lamrani.
On the other end of the opposition spectrum are more extreme jihadist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda.
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Much of the opposition fracturing is a result of differing ideologies, Lamrani suggests.
Some are radical Sunni extremists while others are secular groups that don't consider religion a driving force for their involvement in the conflict.
"You have these groups fighting alongside each other against the regime, and on other days they turn their guns against each other," Lamrani says. "So it's not completely fractured yet, but there are some serious signs out there."
The U.S. position
U.S. President Barack Obama has faced strong criticism at home and abroad for his country's cautious approach to involvement in the Syrian conflict.
But he was steadfast in his view Friday, suggesting on CNN that while the U.S. is still "the one indispensable nation" in the world, that doesn't mean it should get involved everywhere instantly.
Lamrani says the U.S. finds itself in a difficult position because while it is very much opposed to the Assad regime, it remains careful about backing the opposition, with a fear that weapons the U.S. might offer would fall into the wrong hands.
There's also the question of whether the U.S. might intervene by enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria where the opposition forces might be able to become entrenched; or by targeted air strikes or a ground invasion, but Lamrani doesn't consider such options likely.
"None of those are really under serious discussion at this point because after the wars in the Middle East — Iraq and Afghanistan — there's simply very little political backing or domestic backing for such a military intervention in the region."
Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line," but the U.S. response to confirmed attacks earlier this year has so far been minimal.
After this week's allegations of a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Obama said it was a "big event of grave concern" that sped up consideration of a U.S. response. But the president stayed cautious, noting he would be looking for international backing for any action.
If, however, definitive proof of chemical weapons emerges, things could change, suggests Houchang Hassan-Yari, a politics professor at Royal Military College and a researcher at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"If it's established that those weapons are supposed to be in the hands of the [Syrian] government, then we can expect a more forceful reaction from some countries, [such as] France, forcing the Americans to do something … and so forth," he said.
"If nothing happens in that regard, we'll see more bloodshed, more killing and continuation of the current situation."
The role of Russia
The violence and confrontation may be unfolding within the geographic borders of Syria, but it really isn't just a local conflict.
"It has ramifications on the regional level," says Lamrani. "It has ramificiations on the global level."
And one of the biggest external players is Russia.
"So many UN Security Council resolutions have been voted down because of Russia, because of Russian diplomatic backing for the regime, and that is unlikely to stop any time soon," says Lamrani.
For Russia, there is a lot at stake, suggests Hassan-Yari. "Syria is, in my view, the only place where the Russians can hope to have a presence in the region," he says.
Russia is looking for international respect and a stronger role in international relations, not unlike that afforded the former Soviet Union, suggests Hassan-Yari.
At the same time, Russia is also hosting the Olympics in February and has come under enormous pressure from the West to try to do something to help stop the fighting.
The role of Iran
The complex nature of Middle East relations also plays into the conflict, particularly the role that Shia Iran, one of Assad's longtime backers, has taken on. That would include Iran's admission last fall that it has had troops in Syria to provide what it calls non-military assistance. It is also widely believed to have supplied weapons to the Assad regime.
Iran has just had elections and its new president seems to want to re-open a dialogue with the West, particularly about the economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear ambitions.
Still, Lamrani says, "there are many reasons why Iran would want the [Syrian] regime to stay in power." He points to recent history, particularly the Iraq war, the collapse of the Sunni regime in Baghdad and the rise of the Shias in Iraq.
That, Lamrani suggests, "has extended Iran's influence through Iraq into Syria, a traditional ally, and to the Lebanese coast, so they have a crescent, or what many analysts call the Shiite crescent of influence, extending all the way to the Mediterranean."
If the Syrian regime collapses, that influence, which includes leverage against Israel, would be broken.
"There's also the key factor that Syria acts as a major logistical hub for access to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon," says Lamrani.
"Without Syria, Iran's going to have major difficulties supplying Hezbollah with weaponry and supplies.
"It acts as a key transit point and if the Syrian regime collapses and is replaced by Sunnis, Hezbollah will not get the supplies it used to get before from Iran, and also they will be threatened in turn by [Sunni] militants coming from Syria."
With files from The Associated Press