Syria: A Proxy Battleground

By Pezhman Mohammadi


Almost two years after unrest began in Syria, not only has the ‘popular revolution’ not borne fruit, but also many of the ‘freedom fighters’ have turned out to be non-Syrian, foreign-funded terrorists. What made Syria a target of a foreign-backed insurgency? And what could be the solution to the crisis?

Since 2011, Syria has become a target of indirect foreign intervention to topple the Assad’s regime. Various motives have been suggested for such aggression against the secular state. First, Syria is strategically important for many countries, including the United States, Israel, Iran and Russia. Second, Syria is Iran’s strongest ally, Israel’s long-time adversary, and a channel for Iranian arms transport to resistance organisations in Palestine and Lebanon.

Has a new ‘Cold War’ emerged in the Middle East? Putting Russia aside for the moment, Syria can be argued to have become a battlefield for a clash between Iran and the United States. The US, assisted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) terrorists against Assad. Meanwhile, Iran is providing financial assistance and military know-how to the Syrian President through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) shadowy Quds Force, hence the reason the Syrian President is still standing.

To some analysts, the current Syrian turmoil is as part of a US plan to contain and further isolate Iran by removing Islamic Republic’s only Arab ally in an era of increasing Arab-Iranian regional rivalry. Assad’s regime is considered as a fundamental pillar in Tehran’s policy approach towards Israel and hostile Arab states. Clearly, in his absence, Iran loses significant influence in that arena. In this context, Michael Hanna of Century Foundation in New York stated that “Syria is a central player in Iranian power projection”. Nevertheless, this would be an attempt to correct an earlier American miscalculation, namely the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which significantly strengthened Iran’s position in the region. This is a textbook proxy conflict scenario in which the laws of war appear to be absent, causing mass civilian casualties.

Some believe that Syria without Assad would be an ideal state, a liberated society. But this is wrong. Syria is currently witnessing a sectarian clash, thanks to the emergence of extremist Wahhabi ideology in the Free Syrian Army. According to this ideology, other religious sects, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic factions such as Shiites, are all considered as ‘infidels’ and must either accept the fanatic organisation’s ideology or be persecuted and killed. In the absence of Assad, a once secular country is likely to disintegrate as sectarian conflicts intensify. This provides an explanation for the loyalty of the Alawite-dominated Syrian army to President Assad: they prefer his rule to that of the FSA.

The solution to the Syrian crisis is far from straightforward. I would suggest that bilateral talks between Iran and the US would be a step in the right direction. Improved US-Iranian relations would contribute to improved regional stability.

Moreover, in late-2012, Iran proposed a ‘Six-Point Plan’ to solve the Syrian Crisis. The Plan’s steps include immediate cease-fire; initiation of a ‘national dialogue’; establishment of a united government which; humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Syria; freedom for all prisoners who have not committed a crime against the country; and full and unbiased media access to Syria. Although this has been widely rejected by the ‘anti-Syrian coalition’ for obvious reasons, Russia and China may be able to enforce the Plan using their influence in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Further, states must stop arming the terrorists in Syria. In this context, the United Nations (UN) is obliged to issue a firm resolution against the terror-sponsoring bodies. After all, these are the same gang of radicals that the West is fighting against in different corners of the world. A related practical, but extremely difficult, measure would be to place punitive economic sanctions on countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that financially and militarily sponsor such groups.

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