It's been over 16 months since the "Arab Spring" first reached the shores of Syria. 16 months of gun battles, defections and condemnations that have slowly loosened the iron grip of the ruling Assad regime. With heavy fighting in the capital of Damascus, and with much of the country now in the hands of opposition forces, it would appear as though one of the most authoritarian regimes on earth is on its way to way to total collapse. For many people around the world, that country's civil war might not appear to have particular significance for them. Yet the troubles in Syria could quickly escalate, causing very real consequences felt worldwide.
There are many outside players involved in the current conflict. Turkey has played a lead role in supporting the opposition forces of the Syrian regime, which fall under the banner of the "Free Syrian Army." The Turks allow them to operate on Turkish soil, provide them with funding, and offer them military cover. Military and financial aid has come from many Sunni Arab countries as well, most prominently Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, there's been a rise in radical Islamists that have joined the fight against Syria in recent months. Aside from being aligned with Sunni extremists, these Islamist militants also happened to be dedicated, more regimented fighters than their many of their more secular comrades. Perhaps not coincidentally, the United States has therefore also supporting anti-Assad forces.
For the Iranians, Syria is critical to the realization of its geopolitical goals, and perhaps even its very survival. The fall of the Assad regime would have disastrous consequences for them, and as a result it is apparently actively collaborating with Hezbollah agents to prop up the dying regime. Syria today serves as a conduit to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is considered by the U.S. and Israeli governments to be a terrorist organization, and which was most recently linked to the suicide bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Syria assists the Iranians in subverting both military and economic sanctions that have targeted Iran's nuclear ambitions, allowing that country to maintain its financing, purchase Russian military hardware, and smuggle banned technologies. And Syria has served as a moral ally against the interests of Israel, the Sunni-Arab world, and the United States.
So what might the Syrian regime do if it feels its back pushed even harder up against the wall? An increasing number of scenarios point to a potential war with Israel. One setup would see the Syrian regime attack Israel in an effort to divert international attention. The Syrians have tested this before. Back in June of 2011 the regime bussed hundreds of Palestinian protestors to the heavily guarded Israeli border, which they subsequently stormed. Last month, nearly 500 Syrian soldiers with 50 military vehicles crossed into the demilitarized zone between the two countries. No shots were fired, though Israel did file a complaint with the United Nations. Israel is now publicly boosting its defenses on what had traditionally been a relatively quiet, albeit tense Golan Heights border. The Assad regime might once again attempt to hijack the Palestinian cause to further the benefits of such a dangerous move. This time around it could bus additional Palestinians to the Israeli border, and once again encourage them to storm it, this time in much greater numbers. Or it could simply attack Israel outright, in a last ditch hope to unite the Arab world around the regime.
An increasing number of nightmarish scenarios include Syria getting involved with its chemical weapons. One sees the regime transfer its chemical weapons to Hezbollah, or have other radical Islamist groups raid its stockpile or attack neighboring states. Neither the Jewish state nor the United States could afford to allow a non-state armed group to obtain a true chemical or biological weapons capability. Aside from a likely devastating war with Israel, chemical weapons in the hands of Hezbollah could also affect Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other oil-rich or otherwise strategically significant parts of the Middle East, where rumblings are already underway amongst their Iranian-allied Shiite populations.
Another scenario would see Syria unleash its chemical weapons onto its own people, and perhaps on Israel as well for cover, in a last ditch effort to quell the revolution. Taking no chances, Israel has re-issued gas masks to residents near its northern border, and along with the United States it has publicly announced concern for the safekeeping of Syria's well known WMD programs. If Syria attempted to launch a chemical attack it would almost certainly lead to a preemptive attack by Israel.
Any of the abovementioned scenarios would have serious implications for much of the world. Oil prices could spike significantly. The United States could quickly be sucked into a conflict it has taken great pains to stay away from thus far. U.S. deterrence could diminish. As the civil war in Syria comes to a head, the likelihood of the region descending into chaos grows.