Behind the Lines: The Syrian Crucible

With all major players in the Middle East involved in one way or another in the Syrian crisis, the balance of power in the region could depend on outcome of the conflict.

May 25, 2013 03:26
4 minute read.
Family cover the body of a victim of the Syria conflict

syria conflict funeral 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Syrian civil war is no longer a conflict mainly concerned with the fate of Syria.

Rather, it is a fight being waged by regional and global powers and rivals, in the vacuum left by the collapse of Syria as a functioning state.

Four events this week demonstrated this reality with increasing clarity.

The first and clearest indication is the increasing and ever more open engagement of the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies.

On Sunday, Hezbollah and regime forces, with the presence of Iranian advisers and backed by Syrian artillery and air power, attacked the strategic city of Qusayr. Rebel-held Qusayr lies 10 km. from the Lebanese border. The regime side must secure it in order to maintain control of the highway between Damascus and the coast.

This forms the centerpiece of a larger campaign by President Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies to drive the rebels back in Homs province. Their aim is to ensure the link between the capital and the Alawite west, and contiguity between the regime-held western coastal area and the Hezbollah-controlled northern Beqa’a. This is a strategic goal for the Iranians, since it will keep open the possibility of supplying Hezbollah from the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, on Syria’s western coast.

The regime assault on Qusayr city does not, however, appear to have gone to plan. Regime and Iranian media outlets declared this week that the greater part of the city was now in their hands; rebel sources and media flatly denied this. While sorting out the precise lines of the battle is not currently possible, the fighting is clearly not over. Rebel forces are augmented by the presence of an unknown number of Sunni jihadi volunteers from Lebanon. Prominent Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir also visited the city a few weeks before the regime assault began. The fighting in the west threatens to suck in ever greater resources from Iran and Hezbollah, as the unexpected resilience of the rebels prevents the achievement of vital goals.

The second example of widening conflict took place in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli this week, when as a direct result of the Qusayr battle, fighting broke out again between supporters and opponents of Assad in Syria. Three people were killed as residents of the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood clashed with Sunnis from the pro-rebel Bab al-Tabbaneh area. Mortars as well as small arms were used in the fighting. It was a further indication that Lebanon is teetering on the brink of new and generalized sectarian strife, as fallout from the involvement of the Lebanese on rival sides in the war in Syria.

A third illustration was closer to home: IDF troops were fired at on three consecutive days from the same area across the Syrian Golan border, and responded by firing a Tammuz rocket. These incidents follow a series of statements from Assad and officials close to him indicating the commencement of low-intensity operations using proxies in the Golan Heights area.

As in the fighting in western Syria, the guiding hand behind this appears to be that of Iran. Iranian deputy chief of staff Masoud Jazayeri said in a May 18 interview on with Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar TV: “From a security and military perspective, I should say that the liberation of the Golan is not impossible; it can happen... In the next few months, we will witness fundamental changes in the region... some of which will pass through the Golan, Allah willing.”

The Iranian intention appears to be to open up a low level of ongoing military activity in the south. The purpose, presumably, is largely propagandistic. Such action will make it easier to portray the rebellion as in alliance with Israel and the West (who, of course, are objects of derision for both sides in Syria).

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, reiterated his determination this week to “prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and to other terrorist elements.” Netanyahu’s statement leaves open the possibility of further Israeli raids to prevent such transfers.

And lastly – Russia this week sent a naval task force to the Mediterranean, to patrol the waters around the naval base in Tartus.

Tartus, of course, is situated firmly in the heart of the western coastal area that Hezbollah and the Iranians are currently seeking to consolidate and expand. The move was as a clear demonstration from Moscow to the west that Russia continues to stand firmly behind its Syrian clients.

So in a single week – Iranian and Hezbollah elements spearheaded the fighting on the war’s most crucial front, a manifestation of the Syrian war erupted in northern Lebanon, the regime engaged in a series of provocations against the IDF on the Golan, the IDF responded and the prime minister pledged his determination to continue to interdict the delivery of advanced weapons systems from Iran to Hezbollah on Syrian soil. All this – as the Russian navy cast a deepening shadow over Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Iran and its allies are now dominant on the regime side, with Russia behind them. The Sunni rebels, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are proving resilient after recent setbacks.

Most importantly, Syria is now the most active front of the Israel-Iran conflict. Israel is continuing to clearly state its red lines, and will presumably seek to enforce these in the period ahead. There is thus no significant player on the Middle East regional stage that is now not involved on one level or another in the Syrian civil war (with the notable exception, of course, of the US).

Syria today is a crucible – in which the strength, resourcefulness and resilience of all elements are being put to the test.

The balance of power in the Middle East may well depend on the outcome of this test.

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