Marc Lynch writes: Many of the advocates of aggressive intervention define the Syrian conflict primarily as a front in the cold war against Iran. From this perspective, Hezbollah’s entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing — Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran’s most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy’s queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat — and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran — should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.
If Washington endorses the goal of bleeding Iran and its allies through proxy warfare, a whole range of more interventionist policies logically follow. The model here would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighboring countries, fueled by Gulf money, and popularized by Islamist and sectarian propaganda.
“Success” in this strategy would be defined by the damage inflicted on Iran and its allies — and not by reducing the civilian body count, producing a more stable and peaceful Syria, or marginalizing the more extreme jihadists. Ending the war would not be a particular priority, unless it involved Assad’s total military defeat. The increased violence, refugee flows, and regionalization of conflict would likely increase the pressure on neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. It would also likely increase sectarianism, as harping on Sunni-Shiite divisions is a key part of the Arab Gulf’s political effort to mobilize support for the Syrian opposition (and to intimidate local Shiite populations, naturally). And the war zone would continue to be fertile ground for al Qaeda’s jihad, no matter how many arms were sent to its “moderate” rivals in the opposition.
What follows if the conflict were understood instead as a Syrian civil war and humanitarian catastrophe? Resolving these twin crises has long been the focus of international and U.S. diplomatic efforts and is again at the fore of the proposed (but probably stillborn) Geneva II conference, which aims to bring the Syrian regime and opposition together to reach a negotiated deal. Such a settlement could in theory reduce the killing, allow the return of refugees, reduce pressure on Syria’s neighbors, marginalize the jihadists, and assuage the region’s spiraling sectarian hatreds. But it would not mark a defeat of Iran and its allies. [Continue reading…]