The conflict in Syria has assumed more dangerous dimensions with the latest developments along the Syrian-Lebanese border, where forces with and against both the Syrian government and Hizbullah have engaged in cross-border shelling. This builds on a recent spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings in northeastern Lebanon’s own Tora Bora frontier region that captures all the modern Arab world’s vagaries of nationalism, statehood, identity, sectarianism and citizenship.
The easiest way to describe the events in that region has been to speak of Sunni-Shiite fighting, or antagonisms between pro- and anti-Syrian government elements. The involvement of Hizbullah adds a significant new element to the mix, and also helps to clarify what the fighting in and near Syria is all about. It is much more than merely “spillover” of the Syrian war into Lebanon. I have previously described the war in Syria as the greatest proxy battle of our age, and I believe that is now clearer than ever as we see how Syria comprises a rich and expansive web of other conflicts that play themselves out on a local, regional and global scale.
The war in Syria is so enduring and vexing precisely because it is such a multi-layered conflict, comprising at least six separate battles taking place at the same time:
- The domestic citizen revolt against the Assad family regime that has ruled Syria for 43 years is the first layer of the Syrian conflict, which reflects a widespread spirit of citizen activism for freedom, rights and dignity that continues to define much of the Arab World today. After the non-violent demonstrations that erupted across the country in spring 2011 elicited a violent military response from the regime, this political conflict quickly became a militarized war.
- This armed battle for control of Syria reignited the second layer of conflict that has defined the region since the 1950s—the Arab cold war between assorted regional forces that keep shifting over time, but can most easily be described as conservative vs. radical, or capitalist vs. socialist, or royalist vs. republican, or Islamo-monarchist vs. Arab nationalist, or pro-Western vs. anti-Western, though none of these simplistic black-and-white dichotomies is fully accurate. At its simplest, this Arab cold war for decades has been led on one side by Saudi Arabia and its conservative allies, and on the other by governments such as those in Syria, Egypt or Iraq at various moments.
- The third layer of conflict in Syria is the old Iranian-Arab rivalry, recently also often defined as Shiite-Sunni rivalry. This is symbolized by the Iranian government’s alliance with Syria since 1979, and recently including the close structural ties between Iran and Hizbullah (or, more accurately, the ties between Hizbullah and the institution of the Wilayet el-Faqih, or the Supreme Leader, in Iran). Iran’s strategic links with both Syria and Hizbullah have been among the few foreign policy achievements of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, so the Iranian, Syrian and Hizbullah leaderships will battle hard to maintain those mutual benefits that all of them derive from their relationships.
- The fourth battle taking place in Syria is the renewed but more limited version of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (with other players like China and assorted European states hanging around to pick up energy contracts and other gains). At its simplest, this renewed Son of Cold War sees Russia taking a determined stand in Syria to prevent the United States from unilaterally deciding which Arab leaders go and which ones stay, while also burnishing its renewed credentials as a global power. Almost a quarter century after the end of the original Cold War, Russia is trying to recalibrate global power relations, formally closing the “post-Cold War” era in which the USA was the world’s sole superpower in a uni-polar world.
- The fifth conflict in Syria—like the domestic citizen revolt against autocracy that reflects a regional trend—is the century-long tension between the power of the centralized modern Arab developmental and security state and the forces of disintegration and fragmentation along ethnic, religious, sectarian, national and tribal lines. These sub-national, ancient and primordial identities defined our societies long before the imposition of the modern Arab state, and are always there to reaffirm themselves when that state fails to function efficiently and meet citizen needs.
- The sixth and most recent strain of conflict in Syria is between the forces of Al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist fanatic militants, like Jabhat el-Nusra, and mainstream opposition groups fighting to overthrow the Assad family regime, like the Muslim Brotherhood or broader, more secular groups, like the Syrian National Opposition Coalition or Council. Hysteria has typically gripped some analysts in the region and in the West today as they fret over the prospect of Nusra and others like them taking control of all or parts of post-Assad Syria—an impossible prospect, in my view.
So what we witness in and around Syria is a lot more complicated than spillover into neighboring countries or Sunni-Shiite rivalry.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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