I visited Levantine Syria  for three memorable days in 2008 and was struck by the welcoming, friendly nature of the Syrian people, their effusive pride in Syria’s multicultural heritage, and a pervasive atmosphere of optimism. I had the impression Syria was emerging from the darkness of the Hafez Assad dictatorship. To be sure, his son, Bashir Assad, had inherited the deeply entrenched thuggish Ba’athist machinery and ruled as an autocrat, but it seemed also that he was a struggling reformer of sorts, perhaps a well-intentioned young man in over his head. Based on my limited conversations with the locals, I sensed (perhaps erroneously) the average person on the street was empathetic to his problems and willing to give him a little time to sort things out. Without exception, everyone I talked to on this subject said he was far better than his father.
Bear in mind, I was heart of Ba’ath country. Levantine Syria is where the Syrian Ba’ath party has its roots. It is where the most of the Alawites and Christians are concentrated, but there are plenty of Sunnis and even Turkomens, Kurds, Circassians, etc., in a rich polyglot that is evident in this etho-religious map. In contrast to the prevasive sectarian atmosphere in the similar, but perhaps less complex culture of Lebanon, sectarian tensions in Levantine Syria, to the extent that they existed, were not in evidence in the areas I visited in 2008. The economy, although very poor, showed signs of considerable foreign investment and seemed to have a latent vibrancy. Syria’s contentious relations with its neighbors, especially Turkey, were improving and there was even a modus vivendi with Israel, notwithstanding Syria’s alliance with Hezbollah and tense relations with the Lebanese government. In short, optimism was in the air.
Perhaps my impressions were fanciful, because today, that image is in ruins. Syria is in the grip of a vicious sectarian war that, as Rami Khouri explains forcefully below, is being stoked by outsiders having all sorts of agendas, many hidden in a smokescreen of the blind unreasoning fear of chemical weapons . This civil war could easily escalate into a regional war, if as is becoming increasingly likely, these outsiders, including the United States , become actively involved in it.
 The region west of line running from the NW corner of Lebanon thru Aleppo to the Turkish border. Although I visited Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, regrettably, I did not visit its fabled capital Damascus.
 Chemical weapons, first used in WWI, have terrifying albeit limited effects; yet they are now called weapons of mass destruction and subliminally equated in the popular mind to the far more widespread and far more destructive effects of atomic weapons. This concatenation of basic differences was not an emotional driver during the Cold War, when chemical weapons were an afterthought, but it has become become a central assumption in the mentality of political elites obsessed with continuing the politics of fear in the Islamophobic culture wars of the post-Cold War era.
BEIRUT — The big question being asked by many international, especially American, media is whether the United States will now respond and actively engage militarily in Syria, due to the reports of the use of chemical weapons there. I suspect both parts of that question are the wrong issues to focus on, for neither chemical weapons use nor American involvement strike me as the most significant elements of the Syria conflict that should grab our attention.
The Syria conflict has certainly crossed a significant red line, but not the one that U.S. President Barack Obama has defined in terms of the use of chemical weapons. The red line that has now been breached is the active, direct participation of neighboring powers into Syria’s two-year-old war. The key words here are “active, direct” participation in the war, because neighbors have been fighting each other in Syria and Lebanon through proxy parties for decades.
This should trigger our acknowledgment of bigger picture worries of the worst case scenario that is slowly taking shape before our eyes:
as the civil war in Syria increasingly settles down into a vicious sectarian barbarism fest with a growing element of Qaeda-like militants,
neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan feel the intense pressures of refugee flows and start to panic;
others, like Hezbollah and Israel, directly participate in aspects of the war;
and, the armorer-funder powers behind them all — Iran, Turkey, the United States and Saudi Arabia — start talking about how they will react to all this.
The big fear now is that the world’s biggest proxy war of the past century dangerously approaches shedding its proxy status and morphing into direct combat among a range of wild ones – the United States, Iran, Syrian government and opposition forces, Israel, Hezbollah, Russia, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to name only the main potential antagonists.
The immediately dramatic elements in this picture are that
Hezbollah declared last week that it would continue to fight inside Syria (to protect Lebanese Shiites there and defend Shiite shrines, it says),
and Israel has actively entered into the fighting, with its two consecutive air strikes against targets inside Syria in the past week (to prevent the transfer of advances missiles from Iran/Syria to Hezbollah, it says).
One of my rules of thumb of observing which way the wind blows in the Middle East is now in active operative mode: When Hezbollah and Israel both are actively fighting in the same third country, and Iran and the United States are both actively warning about their determination to act to protect their allies and their interests in that same third country, it is time to make another pot of coffee and make sure you have plenty of fresh batteries at home for your transistor radio.
The slow and continuing escalation in the fighting in and around Syria should come as no surprise. Largely due to the wily ways of the late President Hafez Assad, Syria has played a pivotal regional and global strategic role for over half a century, in both constructive and destructive ways. Today, this web of Syrian connections has simply been transposed into the realm of active warfare, as Syria’s same, multiple regional/global partners and linkages now engage in proxy fighting — and bursts of direct warfare — inside Syria, instead of diplomacy and strategic bargaining via Syria.
Recent history suggests that countries like the United States, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are perfectly willing to engage in savage, destructive warfare through proxies in third countries (i.e., Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, for starters), and as of this week we can add Syria to that list. The likelihood is high that we will continue to witness episodic military action inside Syria by regional players. The main dangers now are that
some of those actors (Iran, Israel, Hezbollah and the United States are the main candidates) might decide to take on each other,
Syria could collapse into a Somalia-like ruined state,
and Qaeda-like militant-terrorist groups that now fight Assad under the banner of the Syrian uprising might gain strong footholds inside parts of the country.
There will be plenty of time for hand-wringing and blame-setting in due course, but this might be a good time to remember a few things, so that we can avoid acting like idiots and going through this scenario again a few years down the road:
If we had resolved the Palestine-Israeli conflict in the 1980s, many of these regional tensions would not exist.
If the Soviets, Europeans and Americans had not actively supported Arab autocrats for half a century, many of these regional actors would never have been able to achieve their current status.
If the Soviets had not invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Anglo-American-led combine had not attacked Iraq in 2003, the appeal and reach of Salafist militants probably would not have attained their current levels.
So what the United States might do in response to chemical weapons use in Syria strikes me as a pretty provincial perspective on a much larger and older problem — that of thugs in power, and bullies who support them from abroad.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
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