The conflict in Syria is being shaped by the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A descent into even greater violence could yet be avoided, but this would require both Russia and the United States to shift their stance.
The escalating violence in Syria in recent weeks has led United Nations peacekeeping sources to describe the conflict there as a civil war. Both the Bashar al-Assad government and the opposition avoid the term: the former because it claims to be dealing with illegitimate and even terroristic forces, the latter because it sees itself as a legitimate uprising against autocracy and repression.
The description does seem accurate in that, while most media attention has been on reports of massacres involving the pro-regime Shabbiha militias, anti-regime rebels now control significant territory in both urban and rural areas. Many of the rebel forces have acquired far more arms, including powerful anti-tank missiles, and scores of Assad's forces are being killed and hundreds wounded every week (see Victor Kotsev, “Syrian violence invites foreign intervention”, Asia Times, 13 June 2012). This is one reason for its use of helicopter-gunships, which perhaps will extend to strike-aircraft (see “UN Observers confirm Syria aerial attacks”, Al-Jazeera, 12 June 2012).
In the perspective of fifteen months, a regime that few analysts expected to survive 2011 has proved resilient. This is owed to its maintenance of robust elite security forces, a loyal officer-class drawn in part from Assad's own Alawi community, and the calculation of some of Syria's confessional groups (including Christians) and elements of the business community that it is dangerous to oppose Assad in case his regime survives, and that if he does fall then what might replace him may well be worse.
The regional dimension
This domestic Syrian conflict has evolved in a regional and global context which is essential to understanding its possible direction. The increasing tension between the United States and Russia, reflected in Hillary Clinton's strong condemnation of deliveries of Russian helicopters to the regime, dominates much current coverage.
The charge has a political dimension, in that the United States presidential election is approaching and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is seeking to portray the Barack Obama administration as weak. It could also be seen as hypocritical, given that the Pentagon is buying helicopters from the selfsame company (Rosoboronexport) to equip Afghanistan's air force (see “Pentagon On Defensive Over Russian Helo Purchase for Afghans”, Defense News, 13 June 2012). At heart, though, it is further confirmation that Obama's administration is seeking regime-change in Damascus.
The Washington-Moscow tension, though, tends to overshadow the deep regional antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis have, according to some analysts, developed an integrated response to the Arab awakening that comprises support for Sunni leaders facing Shi'a revolts (notably in Bahrain) with that for any Salafist element that comes to the fore in the aftermath of regime-change (such as in Egypt and Tunisia) (see Alastair Crooke, “Towards a new Arab Cultural Revolution”, Asia Times, 13 June 2012).
The implication is that Saudi backing for the Syrian rebels is part of a strategy to replace the Assad regime with a Sunni-dominated governance which might include Salafist elements. The presence of al-Qaida-linked paramilitaries in Syria may help to further the Saudi plan. Iran's efforts to prop up its Syrian ally reinforce the the Riyadh-Tehran antagonism, as well as making the US even more determined to curb Iran's influence. Washington's strong support for its Saudi partner casts further doubt on the argument that its encouragement of the Syrian opposition has much to do with democracy.
The other interest
A neglected factor here, of great concern in Riyadh, is Iraq. The government of Nouri al-Maliki has been successful in consolidating power in what is fast becoming an autocracy (see Toby Dodge “Iraq's Road Back to Dictatorship”, Survival, 54/3, June-July 2012, International Institute of Strategic Studies). Iran's political influence in Baghdad has greatly increased, even if the Iraqi Shi'a population offers fellow-Shi'a Iran less religious homage than it would like.
Al-Maliki's domination deeply worries the Saudis, who fear a "Shi'a axis" that stretches from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq to Iran, and extends to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's own Shi'a minority (who live mainly in the oil-producing region along the Gulf coast). The Saudis see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's rule as a means of achieving three aims: thwarting the emerging Shi'a axis, limiting al-Maliki's power, and damaging Iran's regional influence.
It is becoming clearer, even if firm evidence is still sparse, that Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of aiding the Syrian rebels The rebels' impact means that the survival of the Assad regime is now seriously under threat. This violent proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will, in the absence of any diplomatic or other breakthrough, increasingly shape the course of events in Syria.
There is one hope: if Russia decides that its own interests could be advanced by distancing itself from Damascus, and by encouraging a transition to a post-Assad regime in which Moscow retains reasonable influence.
It is questionable whether Vladimir Putin will reason this way and whether the United States will help in any such strategy. An outcome where Bashar al-Assad enjoys a peaceful exile in Russia would be objectionable to very many people. The alternative, though, may be a long and bitter war in Syria that risks engulfing the region.