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Playing with Oil and Fire

By Claude Salhani | Tue, 21 May 2013 22:11 | 2

The war in Syria is taking a sudden turn – and a potentially dangerous one. Having already oozed into Turkey with a number of attacks by Syrian forces across the border increasing and the explosion of two huge car bombs in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli about two weeks ago there is a real risk today of seeing the war expand into two of Syria’s other neighbours; Lebanon and Israel.

As the tide turned in favour of Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent days with the fighting for a key strategic town on the Lebanese border going in favour of government forces, two major ingredients that could expand the conflict have weaved their way into the crisis.

First, is the now obvious fact that the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah, is openly supporting the Syrian government. Although this was an already well documented fact, the fighting on the border of northern Lebanon brings it out in the open as the Shiite militia, according to Al-Jazeera, has suffered at least 27 fatalities but their participation in the battle for the town has proven to be vital for the Syrian government and instrumental for their victory.

Related article: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Petro-Political ‘Peace’ for Syria

In response to the Shiites moving in to help the Alawite forces of Mr. Assad, (Alawites being an off-shoot of Shiism), droves of Lebanese Sunnis have reportedly joined the fight and crossed the border into Syria to help their coreligionists. Additionally, heavy clashes have broken out in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where Sunni gunmen clashed with Alawite supporters of President Assad.

This turn of events transforms the Syrian conflict into a sectarian war with Sunni and Shiites openly fighting each other based on their religious, rather than political affiliation.

And second President Assad is well aware that this victory is just a temporary one given that the tides of war often shift back-and-forth as in any conflict. Assad also knows that the longer this war drags on, the less likely are his chances of winning as the odds are clearly stacked up against him, particularly if it openly becomes a religious war. However, should the conflict suddenly change pace and becomes more of a regional one, then Mr. Assad perhaps feels that he may have a better chance at winning the war albeit even if it means sailing into unchartered political waters.

This would explain why after 40 years of calm on the UN-monitored Golan Height separating Israel from Syria there has been a sudden eruption on Monday.

The Heights were occupied by Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Technically Syria has been in a state of war with Israelis since 1948, but Damascus did sign an armistice agreement with Israel, brokered by then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger in the aftermath of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli-War, or as it is known in Israel, the Yom Kippur War.

By dragging the Jewish state into the conflict Syria hopes the move will rally the Arabs back to its support and shift the balance of the civil war firmly into his favour.  As with his father Hafez, Bashar has often played the “Israel card” a cry of Arab disenchantment and discontent -– even if at times over used, if not abused – but that has nevertheless always yielded positive results for the government.

Related article: Should the US Intervene in Syria?

Should the government in Syria find itself at war with Israel, other Arab countries such as oil rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia – two of the opposition’s most ardent supporters -- would have a hard time maintaining their support for the opposition while the government is fighting Israel.

At the same time Israel would find itself in somewhat of a bind, faced with a very difficult conundrum: Attacked by the Assad regime, Israel would be obliged to respond.  Yet Israel prefers to have the current regime in Syria succeed rather than have the country next door fall into the hands of Islamists. Indeed, Israel would be between a rock and a hard place: should it retaliate against Syrian government forces and therefore play right into Assad’s playbook, and weaken the opposition forces, thus going counter to all the policies set out by the United States, the European Union and a number of Arab countries? Or should it retaliate by helping the opposition and in doing so, setting the ground for unchartered political waters?

The stage for the next act in the Syrian war is now set with actors, props (oil and weapons) and all that is needed for an explosive finale.

By. Claude Salhani

About the author

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  • Arnaud de Borchgrave on May 22 2013 said:
    Claude,
    Seven lines from the end x x x Israel would rather have the current regime in Israel??? You mean Syria.
    Arnaud
  • Philip Andrews on May 22 2013 said:
    Assad's army and Hezbollah are practically professional fighting troops.

    The rebels are an ill armed ill assorted hodge podge of Jihadists, Syrian army dseserters, other volunteers etc.

    "droves of Lebanese Sunnis have reportedly joined the fight and crossed the border into Syria to help their coreligionists"

    Do you have any idea how long it takes to train a man to fight and to integrate him into a combat unit?

    To take on the Syrian Army, the Hezbollah and the Iranian Basij?

    Its a little more complicated than Mr Salhani makes out...

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