As distressing as the bloodbath raging in Egypt is right now, the ongoing civil war in Syria in some ways is even more disturbing and potentially has more serious consequences in the long run, although both situations are seriously destabilizing the Middle East.
And both represent difficult challenges to American foreign policy. There appears to be no immediate way for President Obama — or any other American president — to emerge from these international crises as a winner.
The BBC, which has been closely monitoring the situation in Syria from the beginning of its civil war two years ago, offered this discouraging status report yesterday: “With relentless logic, and despite all the dire predictions and alarm bells that have been echoing for so many months, the Syrian crisis seems to be sliding inexorably over the brink, crashing onto the rocks below in a struggling mess into which much of the region is inevitably being dragged.”
The British radio service described “a series of tit-for-tat escalations” that has led to a regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shia, with Syria torn apart as regional borders are “thrown into question for the first time in nearly a century.” There’s the potential for a clash between international as well as local powers, it continued.
In the beginning, the Syrian uprising was led by the Sunni majority that had grown tired of being governed by the Alawite minority. Later, other Sunnis, mostly from Lebanon and Iraq, joined the battle and regional Sunni powers (and friends of the United States) Saudi Arabia and Qatar helped the rebels with arms and money.
It appeared at times the government was on the ropes, but it has managed to stand its ground and now it is helped by the fact the rebels are fighting among themselves. And as the Assad regime repels the rebels on several fronts, the fighting among the rebels can only worry Washington and the western democracies because Al Qaeda, once believed to be nearly vanquished, is now involved and relentlessly pushing its jihadist agenda.
“This is partly a battle over spoils, partly ideological,” the BBC reported, explaining that almost all of those fighting the regime are to some degree religious, including those regarded as “secular.” The significant difference is that the secularists favor establishing a civil government in Damascus while the jihadists want to establish an Islamic theocracy in Syria (and elsewhere).
Meanwhile, neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey try to cope with the flood of Syrian refugees. Now thousands have begun crossing into Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the UN refugee agency reports. As many as 10,000 crossed on Saturday alone, joining the 7,000 who crossed last Thursday. The UN agencies and the Kurds face serious logistical problems in accommodating the influx. An emergency camp is being organized to take in as many refugees as possible.
“This is an unprecedented influx of refugees, and the main concern is that so many of them are stuck out in the open at the border or in emergency reception areas with limited, if any, access to basic services,” an emergency team leader told reporters. “The refugee response in Iraq is already thinly stretched, and close to half of the refugees are children who have experienced things no child should.”
It has become clear that the Arab Spring is unlikely to blossom into a democratic summer. The religious rivalries throughout the region are undermining any efforts to establish stable governments that will respect and protect the minorities within their own boundaries.
And Americans can only watch and worry.
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