By Laurent Vinatier, May 2013,
Research Associate, Thomas More Institute, Paris
Syria is a starter, proceeding slowly to allow more international actors to arrive, to take position and get ready. The real heat is to come soon. Beyond the locals, rebels and governmental forces fighting respectively for their survival, most of the major regional players have already reached the place. The US observes from behind, setting “red lines” which might prompt their action. The Russians, by struggling for the status quo, increase their diplomatic value. Israel regularly bombs missiles shipments from Iran. Iran sends weapons in support of their Shia allies. Turkey offers a political, humanitarian and military shelter to the rebels, while managing the Kurds’ ambitions. The Europeans lift an arms embargo that some among them had already bypassed. Qatar provides cash. Saudi Arabia does as well, but not to the same people. Lebanese Hizbullah fighters once again demonstrate their skills. Al-Qaida and like-minded salafi-jihadist groups negotiate alliances while taking ideological advantage from a new battle-ground. Even some Caucasian insurgents happily engage against Assad, having the impression that they combat Russia.
None of these outsiders, however, seem fully engaged. None of them can be said to be significantly committed to the two-year civil conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 Syrians and destroyed too many cities. Everything takes place as if the operational strength of these international parties had to be spared, as if the main priorities of those actors were to save energy. Hizbullah and Iran do not retaliate to Israeli airstrikes. Barack Obama decided not to rush to judgement about reports establishing that chemical weapons have been used. Turkey is considering closing its borders. Islamist movements, both inside and outside Syria, are particularly busy competing among themselves, whereas the various Jihadists on the field mainly worry about reinforcing their respectively established positions.
Syria appears to be an incomplete battle-ground, encompassed in a strategic fog. Camps among the outsiders are not sharply cut. Commitments are unclear, friends and foes are mixed. Israel, for instance, does not really know who its bigger enemy is: Iran or the jihadists. The Hizbullah also hesitates between maintaining their focus on Israel and opening a second northern front against the Sunni. Iran is remembering its previous support to radical Sunnis in Gaza and in Jordan while the surprise election of the centrist Hasssan Rohani in June may only blur a bit more the country’s real strategy. The religious fighters themselves, with their “50 shades of Islamism”, need to question their current objective alliance against Assad with the Western powers. The same goes for the West, but in reverse. Syria functions today as a kind of military lab where diverse ideological, operational and political associations are being tested. Individuals, states and groups are training while experiencing certain political and military combinations. Quite certainly, something bigger will emerge from this Syrian laboratory, something that is likely to overstep this present, largely improvised, rehearsal of wars.