Brian Stewart: The powder keg that is Syria

Unrest in Syria is edging towards a civil war in which proxy militias, beholden to dozens of foreign and sectarian interests, will want a piece of the action, Brian Stewart writes.

There were times when covering Lebanon's Civil War in the 1980s when I would have to remind myself just which of the dozen-odd separate militias and proxy armies were slugging it out around Beirut on any given day.

Reporters used to joke that it was an unfunny version of hockey's old bench-clearing brawls when everyone leaped into the fray. Every nation and every faction in the Middle East seemed to have backed one or more of the groups shelling and sniping, to gain control of contested neighbourhoods.

This taught me plenty. I learned that when so many groups have a stake in a war, peace becomes extraordinarily difficult to achieve, because the fighting itself soon becomes part of the culture.

That is why Lebanon's war lasted 15 years, killed a quarter of a million people, and tore the country apart.

I dwell on this because of growing fears that the uprising and repression next door in Syria could soon push that country into civil war as well.

Hopefully, there will be alternative endings. But many hopes are being buried in Syria these days. So we need to contemplate the latest worst-case scenario being discussed in think tanks and diplomatic gatherings.

For if a full-scale war erupts in Syria, it won't be "just like Lebanon," but a great many times larger, and far worse. It would replace Iraq and Afghanistan as the dominant conflict of the decade.

The Sunnis' turn

Much of the rebellion that we are seeing springs from Syria's large Sunni majority (74 per cent of the country) trying to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Anti-al-Assad demonstrators gather in Hula, near Homs, on Nov. 28, 2011. The demonstrations have been the cause of huge clashes in recent months between Syrian Sunnis and government security forces. (Reuters)

The regime is supported by the Alawite community, a Shia sect that comprises about 10 per cent of the country and is the core power-base of the dictatorship; as well as by a Christian minority fearful of losing the regime's traditional protection.

The resilience and size of the rebellion has stunned both these communities to the point that long-standing power balances are now showing signs of cracking.

Alawites and Christians, already battered by the economic chaos, are reporting growing threats from the angry majority. And now even the 300,000-strong military, one of the most heavily armed in the Middle East, has started showing dangerous splits along sectarian lines.

While 80 per cent of the officer corps is Alawite, the soldiers are largely Sunni, a volatile balance at a time like this.

Already several thousand troops are said to have deserted, many with arms to fight as the Free Syrian Army alongside other rebels.

Civil war?

Today, enough outside arms are now being smuggled into Syria to allow such soldiers/guerrillas to ambush security forces and even mount attacks on government buildings in Damascus.

For months, the regime has been purging its military of Sunni officers out of fear that these people could stage armed mutinies backed by whole battalions.

Crackdowns like this, however, may actually trigger more revolts as the rebellion gathers strength and, increasingly, significant international support, most importantly from Turkey, which has given rebels sanctuary.

There's much speculation these days that the Alawite power elites, including generals and business leaders might push out the al-Assads in a kind of palace coup, to escape going down with the regime.

But after so much bloodshed — the UN says more than 3,500 Syrians have been killed since March — and with so many government forces implicated in human rights crimes, even this kind of peace overture may be spurned by a rebellion with momentum on its side.

At this stage, an implosion of the system, leading first into chaos and then civil war, can't be ruled out.

Vital interests

What this means is that every single intelligence service of every government and armed faction in the region is already contemplating the chaos and looking to pinpoint potential allies to become its paid "proxies" on the ground.

Some will act out of power ambition and others to protect vital interests. Some will simply get involved because they fear their own populations won't tolerate inaction if battle is joined.

One can actually count close to 20 nations or big movements that will want to have a direct role in shaping Syria's post-al-Assad future. The list is likely longer.

Any conflict would involve Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds as well as the military arms of Hezbollah, Hamas and other pro-Palestinian organizations. As for nations, look to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Iran to want to be involved.

One may also expect the U.S. and Russia to get into the fight in some shadowy fashion.

When proxies engage

Turkey, for example, would be an important force. It shares a long border with Syria, doesn't want instability across its trading routes to the Arab south, and will want to avoid unrest spreading to its own Kurdish minority.

Also, a successful Sunni rebellion would increase Turkey's regional influence, at the expense of its main rival, Iran, the region's Shia power, which has backed al-Assad's regime to the hilt.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waves to a crowd in Raqqa, in eastern Syria, on Nov. 6, 2011. (Reuters)

Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, on the other hand, would be loath to see a regime change empowering rival Sunnis. While Israel, for its part, would surely be quietly encouraging those factions fighting to break Syria's alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Iraq has a Shia-dominated government at the moment that would likely continue to support Syria's Alawite forces (and likely al-Assad if he survives).

However, there are large Sunnis communities in western Iraq and there are fears that fighters from both Shia and Sunni militias in Iraq would cross into Syria to join the proxy armies there.

Both Sunni Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia, for their own reasons, would likely want to see a change in Damascus, while even poor Lebanon, ever the loser, would find several of its own core factions inevitably drawn into a conflict that would likely flood across its border.

These are dizzying scenarios — and yet only the short list of probable effects.

They do, however, underscore just how critical it is for the world to try to avoid a catastrophic civil war in Syria that might have no foreseeable end.

There seems little hope at this stage for a peaceful resolution unless al-Assad and his family depart and urgent reforms are undertaken by a new, more broadly representative government.

Given the urgency, one hopes world leaders are not simply shoving this particular crisis down the long list of troublesome uprisings. Perhaps, they need to pause for a moment to remember Lebanon and what a civil "war of proxies" is really like.