The raging conflict in Syria that has left thousands dead and stymied all international peace entreaties is not just about the fate of President Bashar Assad.
Rather, the prospect for regional power shifts, proxy wars and spreading instability — along with a reprise of Cold War-style great-power animosities — goes far beyond Syria’s borders.
That is the stern warning from international experts including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is now engaged in what many view as a last-chance bid to avert all-out civil war in Syria, long a bastion of police state stability in the heart of the turbulent Middle East.
“Yes, we tend to focus on Syria,” a measured Annan said in Geneva after reporting to the U.N. Security Council on Friday about his inconclusive meetings with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “But any miscalculation that leads to major escalation will have [an] impact in the region which will be extremely difficult to manage.”
With no end to the fighting imminent, a nation that declares itself “the beating heart of Arabism” seems poised to become the site of the longest and bloodiest of the so-called Arab Spring revolts.
But, as Annan noted, Syria represents much more: It is the arena for the region’s most geopolitically significant conflict, and potentially the most disruptive one.
“Syria is unique because it is linked to so many players,” said Rami G. Khouri, who directs the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “You have an internal conflict in Syria. But you also have a regional conflict and a global one. It exists at all three levels.”
The probable impact on interlocking alliances and rivalries, as well as on long-running sectarian tensions, is almost dizzying to contemplate. Syria is a kind of strategic chessboard on which interests great and small are playing for their future advantage.
Led for four decades by the Assad family’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Syria borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Its population of 23 million includes a potentially incendiary mix of religious and ethnic groups. The opposition movement is dominated by the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority.
Two regional powerhouses, Shiite-run Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, are on opposite sides of the yearlong conflict, the latest front in their sectarian-tinged cold war. Iran views Syria, its key Arab ally, as a linchpin of its “Axis of Resistance” alliance.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, fret about whether a post-Assad administration would prove better or worse for their country.
On a global level, Washington and Moscow remain at loggerheads over Syria, with officials occasionally employing Cold War-style rhetoric: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton labeled a joint Russian-Chinese veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria “despicable,” while Russia’s foreign minister lamented the “hysterical” reaction of the West.
Moscow, still smarting over its inability to stop the Western-led bombing campaign that helped bring down longtime ruler Moammar Kadafi in Libya, is determined not to allow the same scenario to play out in Syria, its last major Arab ally.
In Lebanon and Iraq, the Assad government’s crackdown on opposition protesters and the violent response it has engendered have inflamed sectarian passions. Turkey, meanwhile, seems torn about how to deal with a crisis along a 500-mile-plus border.
“It mostly comes down to geography,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Syria is just in the middle of a very strategic part of the Middle East.”
As violence continues in much of Syria, the case for any foreign intervention remains much more problematic than in Libya, a North African nation that is mostly desert and has a relatively homogenous population of 6 million. Neither Washington nor its European allies seem to want the kind of air bombing campaign that helped oust Kadafi.
“Some people have a tendency to compare it with Libya or other situations,” Annan told reporters Friday in Geneva. “But I believe Syria would be much more complex.”
The impact of the Syrian conflict is already evident in the decision of Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group, to abandon its former headquarters in Damascus and back the uprising against Assad, its longtime patron. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and is committed to armed resistance against Israel.
Israel, meanwhile, is watching developments in Syria with growing unease.
Though Assad is no friend to Israel and has backed another anti-Israel militant group, Shiite-led Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian president is viewed by Israelis as a predictable and rational adversary. With few exceptions, the Syrian border along the occupied Golan Heights has been quiet for years.
“Some in Israel might still prefer that Assad stays, thinking that it’s better to deal with the devil you know,” said Hebrew University professor Moshe Maoz, one of the country’s leading Syria experts.
Yet from Israel’s standpoint, the collapse of Assad would also clearly carry a major benefit: It would deal a stinging blow to Iran, Israel’s current archenemy and Assad’s loyal benefactor.
But there is fear in Israel that Assad’s secular administration could be followed by one with a more Islamist makeup, one that might seek to renew hostilities with Israel as a rallying point.
Israeli military officials are concerned about Syria’s stockpile of arms, including chemical weapons. Israel is also worried about what officials in Tel Aviv call the transfer through Syria of more and more Iranian arms, including sophisticated rocket launchers, to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon.
Despite Hamas’ abandonment of Assad, no one expects such a move by Hezbollah. The group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly pledged support for Assad.
Tehran has likewise assiduously backed the Syrian leader, excluding the revolt there from its general support of Arab “Islamic awakening” uprisings. Iran also now enjoys friendly relations with its longtime adversary Iraq, where a Shiite-dominated government with strong links to Tehran emerged in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni.
“The Iranian alliance, in many ways, has never been stronger,” noted Tabler.
That state of affairs is a major preoccupation for Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab oil powerhouse that sees Iran as its major rival for influence in the region. Saudi Arabia has hinted it will provide material support to the Syrian rebels. Assad’s government has openly accused Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf state of Qatar of aiding the insurgents.
With Iran firmly in Assad’s camp, Syria could become a proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the latter backed by other Sunni-run gulf states. Washington, Moscow and other interested parties may not participate directly, but will have more than a rooting interest.
“The situation is clear: Who is going to inherit Syria as a sphere of influence is a key,” said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. “At the end of the day, [the] geopolitical position of Syria keeps it in the limelight.”
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem and special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.