Syrian civil war becomes battleground for regional powers

Catching news of the Syrian conflict each day, it would be easy to think it straight forward; on one side a brutal regime clinging limpet-like to power, on the other an oppressed people longing for freedom and willing to fight for it.

It is often seen as yet another uprising in the string of rebellions constituting the 'Arab Spring', which has seen governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fall.

But while there is no question Syrians have been emboldened by events in the region, the war taking place there represents a more complex affair than previous Arab Spring revolts.

We already know the intricacies of the ethnic situation in the country, with president Bashar al Assad's minority Alawite sect enjoying control of Syria's government, armed forces and economy, while proportionately the majority Sunni Muslim community holds little power.

We also have seen how the conflict underscores international dividing lines, with America, Britain and the EU demanding increasingly severe action to stymie the Assad regime, while Russia and China block their attempts.

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But what is sometimes overlooked is the conflict playing itself out at a level between fire-fights in Damascus and squabbling at the United Nations.

The conflict has now become a proxy war for regional Middle Eastern powers; each trying to maintain their status, each seeing it as an opportunity to increase their influence.

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Two traditional pillars in the region, Iraq and Egypt, are undergoing their own metamorphosis and are not playing as big a role as they once would have.

But broadly speaking the struggle between regional powers has been drawn along the existing fault lines of Middle Eastern rivalry, between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

President Assad is the only staunch Arab ally of Iran, a country ruled under a Shia theocratic dictatorship since 1979.

But Syria also represents the key route through which the Iranian government influences the Israel/Palestine conflict; with Israel perceived as Iran's greatest threat, particularly in terms of its ability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.

Iranian money and munitions help president Assad guard its border with Israel. Meanwhile it is through Syria that Iran funds and arms Hezbollah; Lebanese-based Shia militants notorious for having fired some 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War.

A government source close to foreign secretary William Hague said: 'Iran is no doubt giving every piece of help it can to Syria. They see the uprising against Assad both as a serious problem and an opportunity.

'It's a problem because things are going to get tougher for Assad's regime. If it collapses it means the loss of an ally and a weakening of Iran's influence and ability to promote Hezbollah.

'Equally if there is a protracted civil war in Syria then that is just the kind of conflict in which Iran is good at fishing around in order to exert influence.'

The source added that in Iranian eyes the situation in Syria was being stirred by the US, UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

He said: 'If they feel too threatened they may want to poke us in the eye. Assuming the recent terrorist bombing in Bulgaria was connected to Iran, it would constitute a classic tactic just to remind others they're there.'

With Iran on the Shia side of the fault line, the Sunni side is being led by the southern monarchies; Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Both countries are known to be providing financial and military support to Sunni rebel forces fighting the Assad regime, the collapse of which they see as a golden opportunity to weaken Iran's regional influence.

Israel too has an interest in seeing Iran weakened, with the nation's leaders worried about Iran's nuclear intentions. Yet interestingly Israel are slower to call for Assad's downfall.

'While Israel might initially welcome it, the question they fear is 'what comes next?'' said the government source.

'However distasteful it finds the Assad regime, the truth is that on its north eastern border Israel has enjoyed a stable stalemate with Syria for some years.'

Furthermore, the Syrian government is thought to have stockpiles of chemical weapons. If these were to fall into the hands of an organisation like Hezbollah or Al Qaeda, Israel fears it would become a target.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is Turkey; which has used the conflict to present itself as the region's new great power. From once being a close ally of Syria, it has become one of its greatest critics.

It is the main destination for Syrian refugees, not to mention the military defectors bringing with them expertise and intelligence. Syrian rebels claim 250 of the regime's officers have defected to Turkey, including 16 generals.

'The Turks are feeling self-confident. They achieved a moderate Islamist democratic government in advance of the Arab Spring. Their economy is doing well,' said the government source.

'They have a good relationship with America, they have well-equipped armed forces integrated with NATO. They want to broaden their influence and are in a strong position to shape the region's future.'

Tensions rose when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet over the Mediterranean on June 22. As a result Turkey has repeatedly scrambled F16 fighters when Syrian helicopters stray close to its border.

So far Turkey has not retaliated for the downing of its jet, but if there are further incidents the nation will not want to lose face and has the fire power to take action.

Sadly for the people of Syria, hostilities which last the longest are those in which a multitude of interests conflict. All signs suggest they are in for a long and painful civil war.

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