The Syrian Mire: Middle East Divisions Deepen amid Civil War
Part 2: The Widening Sectarian Divide
Nevertheless, the United States and Europe still don't quite know what to do. At a meeting that stretched well into Monday night, EU foreign ministers couldn't agree on a unified position to determine what happens after the arms embargo expires at the end of May. France and Great Britain are leaning toward providing military aid for the rebels, while the German government feels that the best strategy is to keep out of the conflict altogether. Other EU members, including Austria and the Czech Republic, are vehemently opposed to providing any military assistance to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Assad's allies are keeping the dictator's military machinery running. Last week, Awad al-Zoubi, a Syrian Air Force general who defected to the Jordanian capital Amman in 2012, said that Department 720 of the Syrian Air Force intelligence service compiles an order list for Tehran every evening. After 15,000 missions, says Zoubi, Assad's forces are not just running out of bombs, but also materiel, such as tires, hydraulic fluid, spare parts and kerosene. "Iranian cargo planes arrive almost daily with the ordered materials," says Zoubi, who is now the guest in the villa of a Saudi Arabian tribal leader. "If they stopped delivering," he adds, "the air force would be finished after two weeks."
Iran and Hezbollah are standing firmly behind Damascus. Although Syria's Sunni neighbors have held back militarily, they are in the process of taking positions along the new front. In late 2011, the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas withdrew from Damascus, where its leadership had lived for years under the sponsorship of Iran.
The majority of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq are also Sunnis. This may have helped bring about the successful outcome of recent negotiations between the Kurdish separatist organization PKK and the Turkish government, after 30 years of civil war. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani played a key role in achieving the breakthrough. For weeks, his troops have been ready to fire on army units under the command of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki, for his part, is forcing Sunnis out of government and military posts in Baghdad, while the country is being shaken by the worst attacks in years.
Everything is interconnected. Like slivers of iron on a magnet, countries, ethnic groups and combat units are sorting themselves out along sectarian lines as the divide between Sunnis and Shiites widens.
Israeli's Role in the Complicated Equation
The civil war in Syria also threatens to reignite another longstanding conflict. So far, Israel has tried to wage a war within the war, not against Assad's military machinery, but only against shipments of missiles and other high-tech weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. As always, the leadership in Damascus, which for decades cultivated its image as a front against the "Zionist aggressors," put up no resistance against the Israeli airstrikes. Even after the latest bombardment, on May 5, it merely issued a tepid protest, saying that a continuation of the attacks would "heighten tensions in the region."
The tacit understanding between the two enemies, the Assad dynasty and Israel, benefited both sides for decades. Damascus kept the peace along the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied and administered since the Six-Day War in 1967. In return, Israel largely left the regime alone, despite its hostile rhetoric, with the exception of a few targeted airstrikes. Proxy wars were waged in Lebanon. Even after the attack in early May, the Israeli government made an effort to appease the Syrians, saying that its intention was not to bring down the regime but merely to stop arms from reaching Hezbollah.
Israel resembles Hezbollah in its belief that it can choose who it wishes to fight. Hezbollah wants to strike at Sunni rebels in Syria, and yet it wants to avoid conflict with Sunnis in Lebanon. But how much longer will this approach work?
Israel is under pressure to halt any future missile deliveries to Hezbollah. The Lebanese organization, for its part, has to live up to its own propaganda. Hezbollah can hardly justify sending more than 1,000 men to fight in Qusair, where there are neither Shiite shrines nor Israeli soldiers, while simultaneously doing nothing as Israel bombards an arsenal intended for its use.
The two sides are still merely threatening each other, and despite the propaganda, an open war still seems a distant possibility. Moscow's decision to provide Syria with the modern S-300 air defense system does make a war slightly more likely, but it is still unclear whether the Russians will change their mind at the last minute. Even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Moscow on May 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Moscow would still deliver the S-300 to Syria, noting it was contractually obliged to do so.
If the S-300 -- which, under the agreement with Moscow, would include six batteries and 144 missiles -- were ready for use in the near future, it would destroy Israel's absolute air superiority. Its jets would be within range of the S-300 missiles shortly after takeoff. Russia has an interest in keeping Assad in power. But Hezbollah would also be largely immune to attacks under Syria's air-defense umbrella.
"Israel cannot and will not allow this to happen," says Giora Eiland, a retired general and former national security adviser. "This is a very difficult issue for us. After all, we don't want a war with Russia. But if they do go ahead with the delivery, the response will likely be dramatic."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Middle East Divisions Deepen amid Civil War
- Part 2: The Widening Sectarian Divide
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