It’s interesting to look at Liz Sly’s Washington Post piece on the situation in Syria and how it is benefiting Iran. There is a subtlety about it, but it defines the war in Syria as basically a proxy war between Iran and the United States, and then tells us that we’re losing. Take a look at her opening:
As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become.
With top national security aides set to meet at the White House on Wednesday to reassess options in light of recent setbacks for the rebels seeking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, the long-term outcome of the war remains far from assured, analysts and military experts say.
This makes it appear like we are openly aligned with the rebels, but that is not the case. We are formally opposed to the continued rule of the Assad regime, and we are working with some rebel groups, but we are just as opposed to some of the rebels (probably the majority of them) as we are to the Iran-backed regime.
As the article notes, the war in Syria has morphed into a sectarian conflict that pits Sunnis against Shiities and Alawites. It is neither advisable nor possible for us to take the side of the Sunnis in a sectarian religious war. That would pit us not only against Iran, but against Iraq. Plus, it’s the wrong thing to do. To see why, all you have to do is look at another article the Washington Post is currently running about a village massacre that Sunni rebels carried out yesterday in the border area with Iraq.
About 60 civilians and pro-government fighters were killed Tuesday as rebels stormed the largely Shiite village of Hatla in Deir al-Zour province, near the Iraqi border, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Videos released by the activist group showed rebels boasting of burning the houses of “rejectionists,” a derogatory term for Shiites.
Do we want to be associated with that? I don’t think so.
Here is how Ms. Sly defines the problem:
“This is an Iranian fight. It is no longer a Syrian one,” said Mustafa Alani, director of security and defense at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council. “The issue is hegemony in the region.”
The ramifications extend far beyond the borders of Syria, whose location at the heart of the Middle East puts it astride most of the region’s fault lines, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the disputes left over from the U.S. occupation of Iraq, from the perennial sectarian tensions in Lebanon to Turkey’s aspirations to restore its Ottoman-era reach into the Arab world.
An Iran emboldened by the unchecked exertion of its influence in Syria would also be emboldened in other arenas, Alani said, including the negotiations over its nuclear program, as well as its ambitions in Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.
“If Iran wins this conflict and the Syrian regime survives, Iran’s interventionist policy will become wider and its credibility will be enhanced,” he added.
From Iran’s point of view, sustaining Assad’s regime also affirms Iran’s control over a corridor of influence stretching from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to Maroun al-Ras, a hilltop town on Lebanon’s southern border that offers a commanding view of northern Israel, according to Mohammad Obaid, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah.
That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it. But let’s look at another part of the reporting.
The leading religious authority in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri have in the past week called on Sunnis to volunteer to fight in Syria, marking a potentially dangerous convergence that could herald an intensified influx of Sunni jihadis.
In a fight between Iran and al-Qaeda, do we pick al-Qaeda?
Now, look at this next bit:
“Politically we’re screwed, and militarily we’re taking a pounding,” [Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio] said. “America talked the talk while Iran walked the walk.”
This would not be the first time that Iran has outmaneuvered the United States since the Iranian revolution brought Shiite clerics to power in Tehran in 1979.
Now we’ve been “outmaneuvered.” Now it is “we” who are taking a pounding. How did that happen? When did Syria become our war? It seems like it’s the Sunnis’ war to me.
Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the region and Washington’s closest Arab ally, is unlikely to tolerate an ascendant Iran even if the United States chooses to remain aloof, said Jamal Khashoggi, director of the al-Arab television channel.
“It is a serious blow in the face of Saudi Arabia, and I don’t think the Saudis will accept it. They will do something, whether on their own or with America,” he said. “Syria is the heart of the Arab world, and for it to be officially conquered by the Iranians is unacceptable.”
Whoa. Iran is “conquering” Syria now? I think what he means is that the Shiites are winning. Because there aren’t a bunch of Persians in tanks in Damascus. The country has been a close ally of Iran for decades, and it will remain that way as long as Assad is in power. Despite being a heavily Sunni country, it’s been run by a tiny Shi’a-splinter sect called the Alawites for as long as I can remember.
It is a gigantic failure of analysis to look at Syria as a proxy war between Iran and the United States of America. We would like to diminish Iran’s power and influence, it’s true. But not at the expense of taking sides in a sectarian fight where the most effective fighters on our side are indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. You may have noticed that the Israelis are not clamoring for us to get involved in Syria.
After making implied criticisms that Obama has restricted weapon transfers to the rebels, Ms. Sly concludes with something that really ought to undermine the rest of her article.
The chief significance of the battle for Qusair lay in the powerful symbolism of the role played by Hezbollah, which eliminated any doubt that the Syrian conflict has turned into a proxy war for regional influence, said Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s defense consultancy in London.
“External actors are becoming increasingly decisive and pivotal in terms of where the conflict is going,” he said. And if the United States increased its support for the rebels, Assad’s allies would be likely to boost theirs, he added.
“The conflict has regionalized, and, unfortunately, that gives it the potential to drag on longer,” he said. “As long as one side increases its assistance, the other will see the need to do so, too.”
If Mr. Lister is correct, by providing the rebels with a better arsenal we can escalate the level of carnage, but we can’t settle the matter.
And why would we want to, when we don’t like either side of the conflict?
The only sensible thing to do is what we are doing, which is try to limit the carnage and avoid steps that will increase the sectarian nature of these hostilities in the Middle East.
But, when official Washington reports on this conflict this way, as a proxy war that we’re losing, that puts a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to do the wrong thing and get us involved in a developing war of religion where we don’t have any allies.