Syria Facts: The Complete Guide to All the Global Players Involved in the Syrian Conflict [View all]
The news media has been running wild lately over reports that the U.S. is "going to war" with Syria. The flurry began with Secretary of State John Kerrys bold comments on Monday and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagels subsequent comments that the U.S. was ready to go should President Barack Obama order military action. By ready to go, the administration is talking about providing air support to the Syrian rebels much as it did for the Libyan rebellion to oust Muammar Gaddafi two years earlier.
I still have my skepticism, though. If the U.S. were going to attack Syria in any way that would alter the balance of power in the Syrian civil war, it would not be telegraphing such strikes. But Obamas red line on chemical weapons has trapped the administration; it does not want to militarily intervene, but it cannot sit idly by after having been so explicit about what would trigger military action (or the bluff of it anyway). What the administration is really trying to accomplish is convincing a war-weary American public that this will not be a protracted affair while giving Washington time to try to secure a broad coalition of support at the United Nations, NATO and/or with the Arab League.
But while isolationists (or non-interventionists) are panicking over a possible course of action that doesnt involve boots on the ground, what I find ironic is that the U.S., along with several other actors across the globe, have already had a covert presence within Syria for the last two years supplying everything from intelligence to weapons to both sides of the conflict. I think its important to remind everyone exactly which external actors are involved in this civil war as well as what their stake is in the conflict. This is not just a battle among Syrians. This is a battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran and the U.S., Turkey and Iran, Russia and the U.S., and others with each player pursuing very different interests.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a centuries-old ideological conflict, where fighters today are drawing their motivation from seventh century battles. Saudi support for the Syrian opposition is motivated by a decades-long desire to break the alliance between Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabias chief rival for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East.
Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring has been two-fold: Containing the unrest before it reaches Saudi territory, and ensuring that Iran does not benefit from any changes to the regional balance of power. In this context, the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 came as a golden opportunity for the Saudis to strike at Irans key Arab ally. While Saudi Arabia lacks the military capacity to intervene directly, it has been using its oil wealth to arm Syrian rebels and, in the event that Assad falls, ensure his regime is replaced by a Sunni-friendly government.