Syria deteriorates rapidly, threatens wider conflict
Over the past several weeks, the situation in Syria has become more and more grave. The deteriorating conditions are having ramifications at the national, regional, and global levels.
Since the massacre of civilians in the towns of Houla and Al-Kubeir several weeks ago, the conflict between Syrian government forces and the Syrian rebels has been escalating. Each side is arming itself and turning to a "no holds barred" strategy.
The ruling Assad regime has decided it will not compromise. It is determined to crush the uprising. The Syrian army is using heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, against rebel strongholds. It has employed a pro-government militia to execute the worst atrocities.
As the UN peace process fails, the level of violence is rapidly increasing. Because of the growing danger, the UN observer mission, sent to Syria to monitor the implementation of the plan, has decided to suspend its activities.
The Syrian conflict is becoming a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran for influence across the wider Middle East. With major stakes for all sides, each is supporting their respective factions within the country.
For Iran, the Assad regime is its closest ally; both are ruled by a Shiite leadership. Syria is a key element in extending Iran's influence across the Middle East. Iran is heavily supporting the Assad regime with troops, weapons, and money.
Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, is supporting the rebels who are largely drawn from the majority Sunni in the country. Saudi Arabia's goal is to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East, which will allow Saudi Arabia to be dominant in the region.
Sunni Turkey has also sided with the rebels, who are largely drawn from the Sunni majority. Its goal is to stabilize its southern border and ensure that the outcome will be favorable to Turkey's stability and security.
Lebanon has been drawn into the conflict as Iranian-supporting Shiite factions battle with Sunni factions within Lebanon.
The international community is split into two camps. Over the last several weeks their respective positions and rhetoric have hardened, leaving little ground for compromise.
The US and EU nations support the Syrian rebels. Their position is that the Assad regime has to go, and that the rebellion is a legitimate response to a brutal and repressive dictator. More practically, Iran is seen as threat to Middle East stability. Removing the Assad regime, which is allied with Iran, reduces Iran's influence.
Russia and China support the Assad regime, claiming that the government is implementing the necessary reforms and that the rebels are dominated by terrorists. More practically, Russia's goal is to preserve its influence in the Middle East, as the Assad regime is Russia's last ally in the region.
With the pullout of UN observers, the UN-sponsored peace plan is essentially dead. There is no "Plan B" waiting in the wings. Violence in Syria is escalating rapidly as government and rebel forces revert to a no holds barred strategy. With huge stakes for both sides, regional and global actors are supporting their chosen faction.
The US and EU nations are considering their next moves, as likely are Russia and China. But with incompatible positions (US's , Russia's) staked out, they are unlikely to agree to a plan that will de-escalate the conflict. There is now a strong possibility that the conflict will evolve into a sectarian, proxy supported, civil war. It will become increasingly messy and bloody, and the final outcome is unpredictable.