In an analysis for Reuters, Samia Nakhoul writes: Regional powers are pouring in money and guns, jihadists are joining rebels battling to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, while his own well-armed but hard-pressed forces are fighting back ruthlessly with combat aircraft and artillery.
Gruesome scenes of slaughtered civilians or executed rebel fighters provide daily snapshots of the worsening conflict in Syria. Video apparently showing rebels gunning down Assad militiamen in cold blood suggests the insurgents are capable of brutality to match their enemies.
After almost 17 months of revolt against the Assad dictatorship, Syria’s conflict is turning into a regional proxy war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam that could splinter the country along sectarian lines unless a unified rebel leadership emerges as a credible opposition to the beleaguered government.
Few observers of Syria see any sign of an opposition ready to run the country if or when Assad and his clan, whose power base lies in the esoteric Shi’ite sect of Syria’s Alawite minority, lose overall control.
Some fear a Lebanon-style free-for-all, in which armed groups from different sectarian and ideological backgrounds fight for supremacy over territory, turning Syria into a patchwork that condemns its state to failure.
With the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran behind Assad, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim states backing the rebels, Syria could become the arena in which the regional Sunni-Shi’ite cold war becomes an open-ended civil war with the potential to destabilize its neighbors – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
“We most definitely have a proxy war in Syria,” says Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. “At this point of the conflict it is difficult not to say that the international dimension of the Syrian conflict precedes the domestic one.”
“Syria is an open field now. The day after Assad falls you (will) have all of these different groups with different agendas, with different allegiances, with different states supporting them yet unable to form a coherent leadership.”
What started on March 15, 2011 as an internal uprising against the Assads’ repressive 40-year rule, emulating the revolts that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, has now been transformed into an arena for foreign meddling.