July 25, 2013
While Washington continues to struggle with the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, the Middle East currently experiencing the effects of a geopolitical nuclear bomb in Syria. People around the world have already seen the bright flash of the explosion now that brutal fighting throughout Syria has claimed close 100,000 lives. Now, much like a nuclear weapon, the violent outward explosion is beginning to collapse back upon itself. Ever since the Assad regime recaptured the town of Qusair, the Syrian rebels have been on the run. What once seemed like another successful revolution initiated by the Arab Spring seems to be no much for the resilience of Assad’s army and the support it has received from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Even with Washington’s decision to arm the rebels, the battle seems to have already turned too far in favor of the current regime of Bashar Assad. Now, as the glow of the nuclear fireball slowly dims over the desert sky, the Middle East must now prepare for the deadly fallout that will surely come from the Syrian conflict.
As the rebel forces’ losses have continued to grow and in-fighting between Islamist, Secular, and Kurdish groups have complicated the original goals of the insurrection, many Syrian rebels have become disillusioned with the fighting.
After two years of brutal war and the destruction of large parts of Syrian cities, the revolution seems lost. With this, the Assad regime has created an amnesty program, allowing rebel fighters to give up their weapons in exchange for safe transport to a government-controlled area. Although only small numbers of rebels have taken the offer, the number will likely grow as Islamists continue to change the nature of the conflict from a search for democracy into a precursor for theocracy. There is a cycle effect to this trend if it occurs. As more secular rebels accept amnesty, the rebellion will become even more Islamist in nature. Al Qaeda-linked, Jabhat al Nusra has maintained its fighting resolve and is poised to continue the battle indefinitely. It has rejected the political process in leadership of the coalition of rebel groups, indicating a continuing trend of disagreement among the various fighting organizations. Soon, the majority of the formidable fighting forces in the Syrian rebellion will be Islamist. The radicalization of the Syrian rebellion will have drastic effects on the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, whether they succeed in ousting Assad or not.
If the rebels, by some major miracle, were to defeat Assad tomorrow, Syria would remain a violent and dangerous place to be, for the foreseeable future. As history has taught us, Islamist groups, once they take up arms, rarely put them down for any amount of time, let alone permanently. Post-Assad Syria will attempt to hold democratic elections which will either result in a democratically-elected Islamist government that will likely face a similar fate as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or a democratically-elected Secular government which will likely face an armed and angry Al-Qaeda linked, war-hardened corps of Islamists. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, relatively moderate amongst the Islamist groups involved in Syria, are not very popular and would likely lose in elections. Its weakness leaves an Islamist vacuum for other more radical groups that have garnered support through valiant fighting to fill. They will likely garner the votes of many pious Syrians looking for peace after the two-year civil war. Islamist parties have won resounding victories in Tunisia and Egypt, only falling short in Libya, which coincidentally was the only Arab Spring nation enthusiastically supported by the United States. Thus, a post-Assad Syria will likely be an Islamist government and a haven for Sunni radical Islamist groups to organize and operate. This means that anti-aircraft weapons and small-arms that these groups are receiving from other Sunni states as well as the United States will likely end up in the arms of radical groups with nothing more lip service from the Islamist government. Given the current state of affairs, this is an unlikely scenario as the rebels will probably not win the war.
If Assad manages to defeat the rebels, this end of the conflict will not occur anytime soon and not before whittling the rebel forces down to their Islamist core of fighters. Once the secularists have either been killed or accepted asylum, the government will push the Islamists out of Syria. This will have grave implications for the region. Jihadists, such as those fighting in Syria, are like toxic waste. You don’t want them in your backyard, but solving your problem inevitably creates a problem for whoever’s backyard you move them to. In the case of Syrian Jihadists, there are two major possibilities. Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group operating out of Lebanon, has been supporting Assad’s Shiite and Alawite forces in Syria with supplies, weapons, and even volunteer fighters. In response to this, a Sunni group recently detonated a car bomb in Lebanon stating Hezbollah’s assistance of Syrian government forces as their reason. With no battle to fight in Syria, these war-hardened, armed, and vengeful Islamists may cross into Lebanon seeking revenge against Hezbollah. This could easily disrupt the uneasy peace that has existed between the various religious and sectarian groups in Lebanon. A terror war between exiled Syrian Islamists and Hezbollah could escalate into a greater conflict in Lebanon. In addition to this, an Assad win would boost the confidence of Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, and Assad would surely have no qualms with returning the favor to Hezbollah in some fashion. This would likely draw the ire of Israel as Hezbollah has been behind a number of rocket attacks and bombings in Israeli territory. The combination of an emboldened Hezbollah, vengeful Sunni Syrian Jihadists, and a security-minded Israel could trigger conflict on a much larger level. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hezbollah could even use a Jihadist attack as rationale for striking at Israel, claiming the attack was a Mossad ploy. Essentially, battle-happy Sunni Jihadists is the last thing that Lebanon needs and an active and Hezbollah with its old friend Assad securely in power is high on the list of things Israel does not want. The United States, possibly already fearing the second and third-order effects of Lebanese violence recently warned Hezbollah of an Al-Qaeda attack. Hezbollah is on the United States list of International Terrorist Organizations so this act was very peculiar.
The second possibility, and these can happen simultaneously, is the retreat of these armed Islamist rebels into Iraq. The group Jabhat al Nusra has been linked closely with the Iraq branch of Al Qaeda and has even reportedly merged with the Iraqi terrorist organization. With the recent escape of over 500 Iraqi Al Qaeda members, the Sunni group’s campaign of terror is sure to intensify. Most people with their eye on Iraq know that the prison break is just a sign of greater violence to come in Iraq. With the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, the name of the merged group, solidifying ties between the already strong Sunni extremists in Iraq and the Syrian Sunni extremists who will be searching for a home and a battlefield, Iraq is sure to be the unfortunate beneficiary of the failed Syrian revolution. The belief that exiled Syrians will go to Iraq is so strong that AQIM, the North African branch of Al Qaeda, condemned Jabhat Al Nusra as a “Western ploy” to keep foreign Jihadis from traveling to fight in Mali. This official connection and the tendency of Jihadists to go where the fighting is the strongest, means that Iraq is likely the next destination for the radicals after they are defeated by Assad. The current state of civil conflict in Iraq is completely sectarian with the Shiite-run government under constant attack by Sunni Al Qaeda car bombings, kidnappings, and executions. The strong tie between Syrian and Iraqi Sunni radicals will likely also entice Jihad-hungry radicals from other locations in the Middle East. This possibility is more likely to draw the attention of Iran as it seeks to gain greater control of its neighbor, Iraq. The Shiite Iranian regime would disapprove of a change in the balance of power in Iraq and an influx of battle-hardened Syrians could very well do just that. Who knows, the resurgence of a Sunni-led Iraq might raise Iranian regional security concerns enough to invigorate their nuclear energy, and suspected nuclear weapons, program.
A third, less-likely possibility is that defeated Syrian Jihadists may take their talents to Egypt in an attempt to instigate conflict in support of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Following the military’s removal of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, violent clashes have broken out against the military and Islamist Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Among the peaceful protesters, there have been videos of individuals firing weapons at military officers. A sudden introduction of armed Syrians could easily cause a violent crackdown by the military which would in turn spiral into armed conflict.
Thus, the Syrian nuclear bomb that detonated two years ago is still in the explosive phase with battles raging on across Syria, but as it winds down, other countries in the Middle East, whether it be Lebanon and Israel, Iraq and Iran, or Egypt, will have to deal with the fallout once the Syrian conflagration subsides.