The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?
There is certainly a positive. American figures have made comparisons to outside support for the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation–the Free Syrians could easily become a proxy force. Iran is in an unpleasant fiscal situation thanks to the Arab Spring and the sanctions regime. Hot war in Syria would be a leech on Iranian resources, with potential benefits for the cold war on the Gulf. Draining Iran in this manner could be highly beneficial, as Tehran would have to either admit defeat and give up any ambitions of Mediterranean power or stay in the fight and risk domestic discontent. Iranian citizens would be loathe to watch rials flow overseas to prop up a dictator while their own economy flounders. Such an event might energize the Iranian opposition in a way that no other outside action could.
The pluses more or less end there. Backers of the FSA wouldn’t just be engaging in a proxy war with Iran. They’d also be fighting Russia. This would be globally counterproductive, as the U.S. has little interest in threatening or provoking Moscow and great interest in finding opportunities for cooperation while behaving in a nonthreatening and respectful manner that will prevent the emergence of a new Cold War. An angered Russia could collude with China on certain issues, with world-historical consequences.
It’s also hard to say what role Hezbollah would play in the conflict. Hezbollah has supported Assad so far, and he has long been a key sponsor. It is reasonable to expect that the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon would attempt to fight the FSA, but that it would also attempt to make money off of the conflict. Extra arms might be sold abroad or even to the FSA. Hezbollah also might try to divert Russian arms or even seize Bashar’s arsenals in order to increase its own might. Rumors have swirled in more skittish circles that the Party of God has gained access to Syria’s impressive stores of chemical weapons. Hezbollah might emerge from a Syrian civil war with cadres of battle-tested fighters equipped with even better weapons.
Civil war would obviously have a negative impact on Syria’s long-term political stability. Assad has claimed from day one that the uprisings in his country are foreign-backed terrorist “armed gangs.” (Few have pointed out that this narrative makes Assad’s departure just as merited as the truth–for what sort of incompetent leader would allow mass terrorist forces to organize under his nose?) A civil war would make this a reality. As we see in Libya, the gangs can stick around long after the leader has been on ice. Syria is a regional hinge, the keystone of the Middle East. Chaos there would ripple into Iraq, Jordan, the Kurdish lands, Palestine, and especially Lebanon. The region might become awash in small arms. It is all but certain that some of the gangs in Syria would take on a radical Islamist character. The global risks of this are obvious, but the regional risks are greater. Networks of armed fundamentalists, if they extend their reach beyond Syria, could poison the political transitions in Jordan and Egypt. The latter could set Middle Eastern progress back decades.