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The Syrian Stalemate

Syria is looking uglier every day. Assad can’t crush the protesters, and the protesters can’t overthrow the government: a stalemate could be emerging. As the FT reports, the rebels are hunting for weapons and are getting increasingly organized. They are enjoying the growing backing from one of the oddest coalitions in years: American and West European democracy crusaders, Sunni chauvinists, and everybody who hates Iran (a very long list indeed). Arms are flowing already; more will come. There is a lot of money in the Gulf, and a lot of money to be made on the black market by enterprising arms dealers and smugglers.

The longer the fighting goes on between rebels and government, the more likely it is that the likely prolonged and bloody struggle to oust Assad will only be the first stage in a longer Syrian civil war, one that could destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while making Turkey extremely worried and unhappy. A bloody stalemate that sees the country fragment into sectarian and tribal militias and enclaves seems like the worst of all possible outcomes, and it looks very much now as if this is where things are headed.

The recent “friends of Syria” meeting wrapped up without much agreement; the Saudis and others look set to arm the rebels without perhaps openly saying as much. A Sunni alliance against what many see as a Shiite surge is likely to stretch from Lebanon through Iraq. Channels to distribute arms date back to the Iraq and Lebanese civil wars; arming young radicals and sending them out to fight the heretics is a good way for conservative oil monarchies to fight back against the Persian menace while burnishing their Islamic credentials (and sending the most fanatical youth into foreign parts to win the crown of martyrdom they so covet).

Ugly, more than a tad hypocritical, and almost certain to lead to a Syrian government of which Human Rights Watch will not approve: get used to it. That is where we are as the world approaches round two of the Arab spring.

UPDATE: Secretary Clinton told the BBC this morning that there “is every possibility” of a civil war in Syria.

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  • Lorenz Gude

    I’m not sure that a bloody stalemate and fragmented Syria is the worst possible outcome. How about a grand Sunni alliance of like minded islamist governments in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey all attacking Israel at once and trying to drive Israel into the sea? More bluntly, I don’t think Sunni unity is in America’s strategic interests.

  • Pedro Marquez

    Egypt and Syria will both be basket cases for a long time to come.

    Turkey is a demagogic, Putin-on-the-Bosphorous semi-dictatorship, but I doubt Erdogan is apocalyptic-minded enough to actually start a military conflict with Israel.

    The best thing for U.S. interests right now is to break the Shiite axis, then contain the Sunnis with deterrence.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Secretary Clinton told the BBC this morning that there “is every possibility” of a civil war in Syria.”

    Really goes out on a limb there, doesn’t she?

    Contez Nous, Cher Madame Secretary, how could we possibly begin to tell the difference between the way things are now in Syria, and a civil war?

  • Kris

    I notice one prominent exception in the long list of foreign interventionists: the militaristic and expansionist Israel, font of world instability, under its adventuristic and extremist Likud government. How odd that they are not taking advantage of this opportunity to overthrow the Assad regime and seize some more territory!


  • Lorenz Gude

    I have to emphatically agree with Pedro Marquez’s comment that breaking the Shi’ite axis is the main opportunity for US interests. Iran’s radical Khomeiniist Shi’ite regime has had a very convenient ally in Syria from which to wage proxy war and having to get along without a friendly Syrian regime would I think cramp them considerably. I believe Shi’ite dominated Iraq is a different situation because a large portion of Iraqi Shi’ites are led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the senior representative of the traditional branch of Shi’ia Islam. The Alawites of Syria are a small minority, often considered heretical by other Muslims, that has needed the Iranian alliance to survive. Iraqi Shi’ites are Arab, not Persian, and although there is a natural cohesion among the long persecuted Shi’ites there are also the divisive forces like the previously mentioned traditional versus radical schools and the Arab Persian split. All of which is to say that when the dust settles in Syria the sectarian map of the middle East has lots of potential to develop in complex and unexpected ways.

  • EvilBuzzard

    How is a bunch of Syrians killing eachother our problem?

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