The feeling is growing stronger by the day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is approaching a tipping point. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, has abandoned as hopeless his efforts to implement an internationally agreed six-point plan to end the violence. Now the international community must think seriously about how to minimize the dangers inherent in Syria’s domestic turmoil.
Lack of agreement within the UN Security Council has prolonged the conflict and contributed to changing its nature. What began as a popular uprising inspired by the demands of the Arab Spring has taken on increasingly sectarian and radical tones. This reflects loss of hope in international support, while making it more difficult to achieve a negotiated solution.
In particular, there is a growing danger of Sunni retaliation against the Alawite minority, which comprises 12 percent of the population, but controls the government, the economy and the army. The Alawites, who overcame second-class citizenship only when al-Assad’s Baath party came to power in 1963, now believe that their very survival is linked to that of the regime.
If the Syrian opposition does not take the Alawites’ concerns seriously, the country could be wracked by years of civil war, worse than the conflict that devastated Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.
The regional consequences are already being felt. Fighting between the rebels and government forces is spreading and the resulting refugee flows into neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon threaten to bring these countries directly into the conflict.
Turkey is also worried about the conflict’s possible repercussions for its Kurdish population, among whom aspirations for independence are resurfacing, and for its relations with the Kurdish populations of Iraq and Syria, which are woven into a complex balance. Jordan considers the growing numbers of Syrian rebels entering its territory a threat to national security, while the arrival of thousands of refugees in Lebanon has revived old sectarian disputes in Tripoli between Shiite Alawites, most of whom support al-Assad, and Sunnis, who overwhelmingly sympathize with the opposition.
Chaos and confrontation could easily reach Iraq, too, where the possible fall of the Syrian regime seems to be revitalizing Sunni resistance to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s predominantly Shiite government.
The outcome of the Syrian conflict will also have a direct impact on the Middle East’s alignment of power. A Sunni takeover after al-Assad’s fall would mean a change of strategy with respect to Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, whose viability might be in danger, as a Sunni government in Syria would most likely cut off the conduit for arms flowing from Iran to Lebanon.
The disturbances in Syria have already weakened some of Iran’s traditional alliances in the region. For example, Hamas has taken a position in favor of the Syrian opposition by emphasizing its ties with the Muslim Brothers, and gave its support last year to Egypt’s transitional government after it permanently opened the frontier with Gaza.
Although the complex situation in Egypt suggests that its leaders will be preoccupied with domestic politics for some time, the new government will also try to redefine its relations with neighboring countries. Significantly, recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brothers’ political party, chose Saudi Arabia for his first official foreign visit, a decision laden with religious as well as political symbolism.