Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has become more pronounced over the last week. On April 30th, its leader- Hassan Nasrallah- declared that he would not allow Syria “to fall into the hands” of Western backed extremists. Four days later, Israel bombed a reported shipment of missiles sent by Assad’s government to support the Lebanese guerillas.
The increased brashness of the Assad government’s dealings with Hezbollah is indicative of a precipitous change in the Syrian Civil War. No longer a secular conflict, it has become a sunni-shia proxy war, funded- and at times fought- by neighbouring powers. This situation has vastly increased the brutality of the conflict, and all but ended any hope for a secular government in a future Syria.
With the Syrian army withering to around 65,000 men, President Assad has been looking to his Shia allies for support. Iran and Hezbollah have stepped up to the challenge, providing men, materiel, and training for the embattled government. Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have been reported to be fighting in Syria under various guises since last year. In January a senior officer of the Revolutionary Guards was even killed near the Lebanon-Syria border, fueling further concerns about Iranian involvement.
At the same time, the rebels are increasingly being dominated by radical sunnis. Initially made up of defectors from the secular military, their ranks- like those of the army they left- have withered after two years of war. In their place, foreign militias, like the Nusra Front- who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda’s leader- have taken a prominent place. They are, in truth, exceptional in their foreign makeup, but even majority Syrian rebels are being radicalised. Saudi control of funding and arms has largely driven this, and the result is increasingly alarming for the Syrian people.
With both sides radicalised, sectarian violence has increased dramatically. Last week alone over 140 people were reported to have been killed in the neighbouring villages of al-Bayda and Baniyas. In January, a massacre in Haswiya led to 100 deaths, and last August 300 died in Darayya- a Damascus suburb. Such actions have been widely condemned, but their continued frequency show the brutality now instilled in the conflict. The rise in suicide bombings is a further sign of this, as is the increasing failure of all parties to take prisoners. With the count of atrocities increasing, everyone is only being further radicalised.
The US’ vision of what a future Syrian state would look like is also fast disappearing. Those areas held by rebels are increasingly being run along lines that are far from what the State Department hoped for two years ago. The military proficiency of the most radical rebels has allowed them to take a more prominent civic role. In Aleppo, groups with ties to Al Qaeda are now running oil fields, power plants, and, crucially, bakeries. Their provision of essential services like these are endearing them to a Syrian people tired of the privations of war. More concerning still is their establishment of islamic courts. Though they do not enforce executions or amputations, lashing is a frequent punishment administered by them. A secular revolution is increasingly off the cards.
The international ramifications of this change are vast. United States intervention, while holding increased support domestically, has become almost impossible. Any western soldier would find himself at odds with both sides of the conflict. Arming the rebels is also an increasingly dangerous prospect, particularly in light of what happened in Benghazi last year. Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, thought to be amongst the largest in the world, are also now in danger of falling into terrorist hands regardless of the war’s outcome.
The Syrian Civil War has become truly bleak. Any resolution will now leave a nation divided along sectarian lines, and bitter recriminations are almost guaranteed. Weapons of Mass Destruction could find themselves in terrorist hands, or, at the very least, be utilised internally. Western intervention has now become all but impossible, though Saudi and Iranian involvement continues to be on the rise. Syria will not have a secular revolution. Proxy war is destroying Syria. Rather than encouraging further involvement, the US should do all it can to prevent it.