The stage remains set for a protracted war, in no small part because it is already a regional conflict. The last U.S. presidential-campaign debate revealed a consensus in Washington to avoid direct intervention in Syria, and if the U.S. is keeping its forces out of what would likely be another complex and open-ended military commitment, then so are Turkey and the Arab countries, who have neither the appetite nor the capacity to intervene alone. Instead, it will be a proxy war, with outside powers enhancing the fighting capacity of their Syrian allies.
The warning that Syria’s conflict might spill over into neighboring countries is a tad misleading, because pre-existing regional conflict has also spilled into Syria from neighboring countries. Sure, it has already had echoes in renewed communal violence and terrorism in Lebanon and has fostered strife in Turkey, which faces a growing refugee burden — as well as a Kurdish separatist insurgency emboldened by the gains of their kin on the Syrian side of the border and growing sectarian tension among Turks who identify with different communities in Syria. But the burgeoning sectarian conflict in Iraq, where according to AFP more than 1,000 people have been killed this year as political violence continues on a daily basis, is more intimately connected to Syria’s conflict.
“The battle for Syria is also a battle for Iraq,” warn analysts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in a sobering assessment of the current turmoil in the Arab world. “Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shi‘ites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.”
For the regional antagonists, Syria is simply another theater of a battle fought across the Gulf and the Levant. The same dynamic that prompts the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm Syria’s rebels reinforces the determination of the Iranians to shore up Assad’s regime. But while the regional proxy conflict between Iran and the Saudis has raged for three decades, one of its defining features is that the losing side in any particular round is never destroyed or eliminated; a new balance of power is established on the ground and then codified in new political arrangements. Brahimi has simply reminded all the parties on the ground and their regional sponsors that sooner or later they’ll need his services.