More than a year after it began, the Arab awakening has had its seasons. After a world-shaking spring, then on through summer, autumn and winter, one country after another — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen — has toppled autocrats, with varying amounts of blood. Some governments have stamped out revolts, like Bahrain. Others have tried modest reforms, like Morocco, or idled on the sidelines (think Algeria and Saudi Arabia). Now it is nearly spring again, and there is Syria.
As the dead pile up and diplomacy fails to stem the violence, it is clear that this conflict is unique in significant ways, difficult to predict and far riskier to the world. Unlike Libya, Syria is of strategic importance, sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.
“Syria is almost the only country where the so-called Arab Spring could change the geostrategic concept of the region,” said Olivier Roy, a French historian of the Middle East. He offered as a counterexample Egypt and Tunisia, where new leaders seemed to be keeping similar alliances and geopolitical positions. “But in Syria,” Roy said, “if the regime is toppled, we have a totally new landscape.”
Many consider the conflict another inevitable revolution that will eventually overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But in the months since Syrians revolted — and as Assad has unleashed his army against them — the country has already become a proxy fight for larger powers in the region and beyond.
For decades, Syria was the linchpin of the old security order in the Middle East. It allowed the Russians and Iranians to extend their influence even as successive Assad governments provided predictability for Washington and a stable border for Israel, despite support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
But the burgeoning civil war in Syria has upset that paradigm, placing the Russians and Americans and their respective allies on opposite sides. It is a conflict that has sharply escalated sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations. And it has left Israel hopeful that an enemy will fall, but deeply concerned about who might take control of his arsenal.