Middle East

Syria: The impossible art of predicting the future

Portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (top) and his father former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (rear) are seen at the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria (23 July 2012)
Image caption Looking into the past may help find clues to Syria's possible future

It was never only opposition by the Russians and the Chinese that stood in the way of effective international intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Fear of what might happen when and if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is toppled has always played a crucial role in making the prospect of wading into the unfolding conflict unpalatable and even frightening.

The worst-case scenario is that the regime, feeling cornered, might be forced to press the "Samson" button - to collapse the temple on its enemies as it goes down with them.

This could mean maximising the cost of Syria's downfall for all her adversaries, at home and abroad. In a final act of callous vindictiveness, the regime would destroy as many as possible as it perishes.

The effects of such a downfall, like nuclear radiation, might live on for years to come with tens of thousands dead and displaced and many wounds to heal. There could also be internal and regional instability with the possible shake-up of precarious political and social structures across the entire region.

There are historical and more recent reasons why Syria's fate has been so intricately intertwined with that of its neighbours.

Syria is the heart of what was once known as the Levant during Ottoman (Turkish) rule of the Middle East - a vast region which encompassed Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

The entire area has been a patchwork of sectarian and ethnic enclaves that has seen bouts of religiously motivated violence many times before.

The nation state is also still a relatively recent invention in this part of the world. Cross-border loyalties to the sect and the tribe trounce fear of the state.

Proxy wars

The spillover into Lebanon, for example, is no longer a theoretical possibility.

Image caption Syria's war is already having an impact on its neighbours, with refugee camps along borders

More than 20 people were killed in violent clashes earlier this year between the Alawite minority - the same sect as President Assad in Syria - and the Sunni majority in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Indeed, no other country in the region is likely to feel the impact of the events in Syria more than Lebanon.

The war in Syria has aggravated an already polarised Lebanon between supporters of the Syrian rebels and friends of the Assad regime.

Among the regime's supporters are the Shia Hezbollah group and its powerful militia, whose emergence and survival has, for many decades, depended on vital ties with Damascus and its allies further afield in Iran.

The demise of the Assad regime in Syria does not bode well for either of them, and no-one can predict, with any degree of certainty, how they will respond.

Optimists believe that Hezbollah will not plunge the country into civil war and will resign to reconfiguring itself as a domestic player defending Shia interests inside Lebanon instead of trying to flex its regional muscles.

Traditional sectarian and ethnic loyalties aside, no other political order in the region has tied its fate and future to a network of non-state actors like the Assad regime. These include the fundamentalist Shia Hezbollah group in Lebanon, Palestinian militants in Gaza and the West Bank, Turkish Kurdish separatists and Sunni jihadists in Iraq.

For decades, it has relied on such allies to wage proxy wars in the geopolitical struggle for survival and supremacy.

Iraq is another case in point. Some analysts have noted a possible link between events in Syria and the sudden spike in violence in Iraq.

Although it is possible that Sunni militants in Iraq may have simply felt encouraged to challenge the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Damascus is, once again, pulling some strings.

Veiled threat

It would not be without precedent.

At the height of the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq six years ago, Syria was home to leaders of the Iraqi insurgency and allowed its territory to be used to co-ordinate attacks on the US soldiers stationed in Iraq.

Image caption Powerful Sunni Arab states, lead by Saudi Arabia, provide Syria's rebels with cash and weapons

The aim back then was to frustrate the emergence of a political order hostile to Damascus or its allies in Tehran.

Exporting chaos to its neighbours to save its own skin is a well-rehearsed tactic used many times before by the Assads.

It has already been noted that Syria is rapidly developing into a battlefield in the struggle for regional hegemony between Shia Iran and powerful Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, who provide the rebels with cash and weapons.

However, one should not overplay the strictly sectarian dimension in a region known for its mercurial alliances that have sometimes criss-crossed religious lines.

Lebanon and Syria themselves are the best example of that, where Shias and Christians have at times found themselves on the same side of the barricade as secular Sunni nationalists, against Sunni fundamentalists.

The number of actors and shifting alliances will make predictions a difficult art.

Equally worrying for Syria's neighbours, and the world at large, is what may happen with its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

In an attempt to assuage fears, the Syrian government has said it will only deploy them when under attack from "external aggression".

But, given that Damascus has already designated the insurgents as agents of foreign powers and Arab mercenaries, many will wonder whether this was meant as an assurance or as a thinly veiled threat.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites