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The Regionalization of the Syria Conflict

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If there were any doubt among foreign affairs analysts and policy makers about whether the introduction of foreign influence in the Syrian conflict would lead to its gradual regionalization, that doubt has been removed. With the alleged assassination of newly appointed Saudi intelligence head Prince Bandar (in retaliation for the killing of the Syrian Defense Chief on July 18) and the abduction of a growing number of individuals of various political persuasions in Lebanon, it has already become clear that as foreign influence in the conflict grows, the region is being sucked into an abyss of its own making.

A proxy war is being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria, ostensibly to become the dominant force for future political change and influence in the region. The Syrian conflict is no longer about who is pro- or anti-Assad, or what would be in the Syrian people's best long term interests. Today the conflict has become which pro-Iranian or pro-Saudi domestic and foreign forces will have the greatest influence on the outcome of the conflict -- not for the benefit of the Syrian people, but for the benefit of themselves.

The Syrian conflict cannot be compared to the uprisings that occurred in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Yemen. None of these states had the geostrategic significance of Syria, which lays on Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Turkey's doorstep. Nor did they have the consistent support of both China and Russia in the UN and fail to reach an international consensus for a path toward resolution. Nor did they become a battleground for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The dynamics behind the Syrian conflict are unique, and must be recognized as such.

Like Iraq, Syria is a country with deep fault lines, and like Iraq, the conflict that has now started is going to last many years. We have seen that in Iraq, the Sunnis and Shias have continued to battle one another militarily and politically well after the civil war had officially ended. There is no reason to believe that the outcome of the conflict in Syria will be any different. If Mr. Assad prevails in the near term, his government will continue to be under siege from opposition forces. If his government falls, the ensuing battle for supremacy among the fractured political forces will take years to sort itself out. And, as has been the case in Iraq, those who will suffer the most through it all will of course be the Syrian people.

Either outcome has profound implications for Israel as well, which is increasingly finding itself surrounded by hostile forces, as was in evidence this past week with the border incursion along its Sinai border by jihadists, using stolen Egyptian military vehicles. There can be no positive outcome in Syria for Israel. Syria will remain unstable in the longer term, Hezbollah and its influence in the region will become even more unpredictable, and Lebanon will likely be drawn further into the conflict militarily.

This implies the need for greater devotion of military resources to the protection of Israel's northern border. It also implies that Israel has an additional incentive to proceed with an attack on Iran, in the hope of reducing Iran's ability to influence the outcome in Syria. If the window of timing for such an attack was already closing based solely on what Israel believes to be Iran's developing nuclear capability, it is closing even faster based on how quickly events on the ground are deteriorating in Syria.

The region's major powers were not united on last week's decision to expel Syria from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Neither Iraq nor Iran supported the decision, which reflected the increasingly sectarian orientation of the conflict between regional pro-Sunni and pro-Shia forces. While Iran has the most to lose if Assad were to fall, a backlash could easily impact states with majority Shiite populations, such as Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon. Shiites in all these countries are predominantly poor and may see a defeat for Iran in Syria as a reason to rise up in defense of their religion and in opposition to their local socioeconomic status. All of the region's countries could eventually feel the impact of the outcome of the conflict.

The picture that has emerged is complex and dark. Forces have been unleashed that no single national or regional power can now control. The involvement of Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States and other countries is only serving to create pain and suffering for Syria's people, with an outcome no one can predict. Syria's conflict has now become enmeshed with a variety of other regional and international conflicts that promise to make its outcome long winded and bloody, with increasingly high stakes for all. Now that the Syrian genie has been unleashed, it cannot be put back in anything resembling its original bottle.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (www.countryrisksolutions.com) and author of the book Managing Country Risk (www.managingcountryrisk.com).