It had elements from the outset, but the war in Syria is looking more like a war by proxy between outside interests. It may be that it can now only be resolved from outside.
Most wars are proxies to some extent, perhaps the most notorious recent war being the three-cornered contest in Cambodia between 1978 and 1992. Syria is now starting to look like such a multi-faceted contest, but perhaps with even greater potential for complication.
The air attack last week by Israel against a Syrian military target raised the spectre of a wider conflagration. Initial reports said the target was a convoy that was presumed to be carrying guided surface-to-air missiles to Syria’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. However, reports now indicate the target was a military research centre at Jamraya, north-west of Damascus about 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border.
While sabre-rattling against Israel, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to open up a war on a new front. Similarly, while Assad’s ally, Iran, has warned of repercussions it too has so far not acted.
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Somewhat oddly, Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he believed the air strike could be part of a conspiracy between Israel and Syria to bolster support for the Assad regime by other Muslim countries. Turkish supported groups dominate the north of Syria and are likely to form a more moderate political grouping should the Assad regime fall.
Israel’s interest in this presumed conspiracy is to forestall the manageable Assad being replaced by a radical Islamist regime, which would be more likely to attack Israel. More probably, however, Israel, has decided that it wishes to contain aspects of the war, particularly the possibility of high-tech weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamist insurgents, supported from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Iran has been increasingly supportive of the Assad regime — and angry over Israel’s air attack — presumably, because it wishes to retain its pro-Shia ally in power. It, too, does not want to see Syria fall into the hands of potentially radical Sunni Islamists who could then ally themselves with increasingly resentful Sunnis in Iran’s former enemy and next door neighbour, Iraq.
Russia too has been stepping up its support for the Assad regime with money and weapons and, as elsewhere, increasingly aligning itself with Iran. In part this reflects the distinct chilling of relations between Russia and the US, with Russia opposing the US push for Assad to leave Syria.
With Russia’s lease of its main naval base on the Ukraine-owned Crimean Peninsula due to expire in 2017, Russia is very keen to retain the base at Tartus as an alternative. It is therefore keen to retain a friendly face in Damascus.
To a lesser extent, too, Russia also does not want to see the rise of a radical Islamist regime in Damascus, given its possible support for Russia’s Chechen separatists.
Following attacks by radical Islamist groups against more moderate anti-Assad groups and the more active involvement of regional powers, the war in Syria is increasingly turning into a three or possibly four-cornered contest, with each Syrian faction having its own external sponsors.
Each of the regional neighbours hopes to retain some semblance of balance in Syria, lest the country become a strategic black hole, into which they could eventually be drawn, sparking a wider regional war. But like Cambodia, with external actors playing Syria’s internal factions for their own interest, the cost can only be borne by the Syrians themselves.
The UN eventually brokered an imperfect peace agreement in Cambodia. It may be in everyone’s interests that the UN now brokers a similarly imperfect peace agreement in Syria.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University