March marks the grim two-year anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war. Recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put the death toll at a staggering 70,000 and there are nearly 1 million refugees. The bloody civil war has pit a loose alliance of rebels against the nation’s long seated Assad family, currently headed by Bashar al-Assad. The problem is, the war no longer belongs just to the Syrian people. It is quickly turning into a proxy war between regional powers, competing ideologies
Syria- more specifically the al-Assad regime- has long been an Iranian ally, as evidenced by their mutual and public hatred for the United States and Israel. The civil war has done little to change this relationship. The Iranian government is shipping weapons to the Syrian regime to shift the tide of battle against the rebels. The flights are, remarkably, passing unchallenged over Iraqi airspace and the Iranian Air Force. The support isn’t restricted to hardware though. In mid-February Syrian rebels killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Hessam Khoshnevis inside Syria. The Iranian government has claimed he was engaged in non-military reconstruction work, and their ambassador to Beruit stated cryptically “Assassinating this dear martyr is a clear sign that the Zionist enemy does not accept his successful work”- as if Israel has a hand in the assassination. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, the terrorist group Hezbollah has also been caught aiding the al-Assad regime. Just this week Syrian Rebels claimed to have killed Hezbollah number two Naim Qassem near the border with Lebanon; early in February two Hezbollah fighters were killed on the border; October of 2012 saw the death of a Hezbollah commander in Syria. The evidence is overwhelming and obvious that Iran has played a major role in the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian rebels are not without their own benefactors. The rebels are armed with Belgian made assault rifles and Ukrainian ammunition courtesy of the Saudi Arabian government. Weapons from the former Yugoslavian conflicts are also flooding into Syria. The military hardware is being purchased from the Croatian government by the Saudis and transported into Syria via Jordan. The Saudi Arabian government would like to see Assad fall, mostly so that Iran loses a proxy in their contest for regional supremacy. Also, though, it gives them an opportunity to court whoever or whatever fills the power vacuum left by Assad’s departure and expand their influence in an area where Iran controls Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. While the Saudis and United Arab Emirates are paying for arms, Israel has remained neutral and uninvolved in the conflict, breaking this pledge only once to provide medical aid to wounded Syrians. The United States has opted to supply the rebels with $60 million in nonmilitary aid. The United States, tacitly, sympathizes with those struggling for freedom in the face of a dictatorial regime. Strategically, America wants to see Iran’s power base in the region weakened, in favor of their longtime ally in Saudi Arabia.
However, with the $60 million in American aid comes a healthy dose of skepticism and a refusal provide direct military support or weapons. The Free Syrian Army has been documented for its human rights abuses right alongside the Assad regime. More troubling for America and Israel is the influx of foreign jihadists into the fray. Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra has been an effective fighting force on the ground in Syria. They’re well organized and funded, and have proven themselves adaptable in combat. Jabhat al-Nusra has also shown adept at utilizing suicide attacks.
If the fallout from the Libyan civil war (and its poorly executed Western intervention) are any indication, Israel in particular needs to be prepared for serious spillover from the conflict. Already, Israel has been forced to launch an aistrike in Syria, when Assad tried to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah. The Iraqi military was forced to close a border checkpoint and return fire into Syria.
When Assad falls, what comes next? There’s a likelihood that the well-organized and ruthless Jabhat al-Nusra will attempt to fill the power vacuum left in the wake. Some speculate success in Syria may spark more ambitious attempts at Jihad; perhaps targeting Israel. In what hands will the Saudi Arabian funded weapons land? And more importantly, what has become of Assad’s chemical weapons? The Syrian civil war has implications far beyond the borders of Syria, and the consequences could be terrifying for America and Israel, not to mention the continued suffering of the Syrian people.