Syria as Prologue

The Turkish government hosted a conference last weekend in Istanbul to discuss possible international responses to Syria's budding civil war. The conference attendees, including the United States along with dozens of other countries and organizations, called themselves the "Friends of Syria" and declared open support for the rebels fighting the Syrian army.

The Friends also announced substantial financial support for the rebellion, including $100 million -- pledged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- to pay salaries to the fighters, a direct inducement to government soldiers to defect to the rebellion. For its part, the U.S. government pledged an additional $12 million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations aiding the Syrian opposition. This assistance will include satellite communications equipment for rebel fighters and night vision goggles. Attending the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said discussions were occurring on "how best to expand this support."

The broad and growing international support for the Syrian rebels is no doubt motivated by several concerns. On a humanitarian level, Bashar al-Assad's security forces are now suspected of killing more than 9,000 civilians over the past year. From this perspective, non-lethal assistance to the opposition seems the least the international community can do to help civilians cope with the widespread disorder inside the country.

At a more practical level, leaders like Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, host of the Istanbul conference, undoubtedly fear population displacement and cross-border refugee flows as a result of the fighting. Assisting the rebels may help keep them and their supporting populations inside the country. Erdogan's support for the rebels may also be an acknowledgement that Assad's remaining time may be limited. If there is to be regime change in Damascus, Erdogan and other leaders will be in a better position to protect their interests if they already have a supportive relationship with Syria's future leaders.

It is at the strategic level where the stakes in Syria are high and rising. The country has become a battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its smaller Sunni-Arab neighbors against Iran. Smaller versions of the Saudi-Iran proxy war have played out in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen. The clash in Syria raises the intensity and the stakes to a much higher level.

Should the Assad regime fall and Syria's Sunni majority win control, Iran would suffer a crushing geo-strategic defeat. Not only would Tehran lose a loyal and well-located ally, Tehran's line of support to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon would be imperiled. The arrival of Sunni control in Syria might also boost the morale and material support of Iraq's anti-Iranian Sunni minority, a development Riyadh would no doubt welcome.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on April 6th, 2012.

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