Nahlah Ayed: How Syria's war is reshaping the Middle East

As Syria's brutal civil war begins its third year, new alliances are forming right across the region and the U.S. is now starting to make its presence felt, Nahlah Ayed reports. This past week saw the new battle lines starkly drawn.

New alliances forming, U.S. now making its presence felt

Anti-regime protestors in the Syrian city of Aleppo burn a poster of President Bashar al Assad on Monday. (Aleppo Media Centre / Associated Press)

Over many years of travelling to and living in Lebanon, I can't say I've ever seen a Russian warship docked at the port of Beirut.

But there they were earlier this month, gleaming in the distance, and for many Lebanese — in days as tense as these — their appearance was unsettling.

It may be — as one anonymous Russian official reportedly put it — that the ships were indeed simply restocking in a place far safer than their usual stop, Tartus, Russia's only supply base in the region. Tartus, of course, is in Syria, a staunch ally of Moscow, but a country at war.

Still, these warships made many in divided Lebanon nervous, especially those who insist they must maintain neutrality, if only in appearance, to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian conflict next door.

Lebanon has long had a tortured relationship with Syria, its former political master. But it is in a more precarious position than ever in a region increasingly polarized over Syria and its protracted conflict, now beginning its third year.

In a revolution that has morphed into a classic proxy war, Syria's battle lines have crystallized more than ever. The main protagonists are consolidating their support and pushing for clear commitments from their allies— you're either with us, or against us, they seem to be saying.

On the rebels' side, there appears to be little room anymore for prevaricating, or for anyone claiming neutrality.

You need only look at the past week of events, starting with America's diplomatic offensive.

On a visit to Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama managed to orchestrate an Israeli apology to Turkey, swiftly ending three years of animosity over an attack on a Turkish ship attempting to break Israel's blockade against Gaza.

The motive for the reconciliation: the need to be on the same page over a shared neighbour, Syria, that is falling apart.

Not only does the violence in Syria occasionally spill over into both Israel and Turkey. But the mere presence of Syria's chemical weapons — and the allegations that one side has already used them against the other — are enough for those two U.S. allies to bury their rift.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then made a surprise visit to Baghdad for his own, Syria-related demand: that Iraq do more to stop Iranian arms shipments to Damascus through Iraqi airspace.

Kerry wants Iraq to inspect the daily flights, which are believed to be delivering weapons and ammunition to Tehran's long-time ally in Damascus.

Iraq — still painfully divided between its Sunni and Shia Muslims — seems reluctant to oblige Kerry on this, the government more likely to side with Tehran on Syria, much as the U.S. might hope otherwise.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported earlier this week that the CIA is helping deliver more shipments of arms from Turkey and Arab countries, to the Syrian opposition.

The rebel side

On another front, there was more cajoling of reluctant anti-regime supporters at a meeting in Dublin: the British and French foreign ministers were pushing hard to persuade other EU members to begin sending arms to Syria's opposition fighters.

At a meeting in Cairo, members of Syria's Alawite community distanced themselves for the first time from their co-religionist, Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

These dissidents called on the army, which is dominated in its upper ranks by Alawites, to turn on the president and join the opposition. Sensing the possibility of a sectarian bloodbath if the rebels do gain the upper hand, they are seeking to divorce their fate from that of Assad.

Then, in a move driven chiefly by the Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab nations that have supported the Syrian uprising from the start, the Arab League voted on Monday to support the opposition with every means possible.

Their final communiqué in Doha even went so far as to spell out the right of each nation to support the opposition militarily.

Any pretext that the Syrian conflict is simply one nation's internal war has been firmly laid to rest.

Symbolically, but perhaps just as important, Syria's seat at the Arab League was also officially handed over to the opposition in a historic decision that left Assad's regime apoplectic.

Last push

The lines couldn't be clearer. Though, predictably, Lebanon abstained.

Refraining from taking sides and keeping a lid on its internal divisions hasn't been easy — Lebanon's army is constantly on call to put out sectarian fires.

And the Lebanese government just quit over the persistent conflicts between its pro- and anti-Syrian camps, leaving the country in political limbo for the moment and at risk of deeper turmoil.

But in a remarkable feat for a country that knows well the pain of being constantly tugged in opposing directions, it still manages to welcome Russian military ships, as well as Syrian rebels, with open arms — possibly the only country in the region capable of doing so now.

The rest have positioned themselves, along with their allies and their proxies, for the coming phase of Syria's war.

The support, for now, falls short of the kind of limited intervention that some in the opposition have called for, and still likely falls short of what they need to actually defeat Assad's forces.

It also comes late, given how many have already died.

For the time being, this remains a conflict left largely to the Syrians to fight out. But that, it seems, will almost certainly change.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.