The Spanish civil war of the late 1930s was an historic event whose implications extended well beyond the Iberian peninsular. It was a proxy war between the Fascist powers and the Soviet Union that prefigured their WW II confrontation. It was an ideological contest among fascism, communism, and Spain's native anarchism. It exemplified the relative weakness of the liberal democracies at both planes as they stayed largely on the sidelines and had political kinship only with the Basque faction. Outside parties provided material support, some manpower, financing and diplomatic capital. Yet, in the end, it was the internal dynamic of Spanish politics that determined the outcome and shaped the country's political life for the next 40 years.
Most of these features are visible in the Syrian civil war. The latter's complexity, though, is even more tangled and the numerous interested external parties are regional as well as great powers. Official thinking in Washington, and most media coverage, fails to do justice to this complexity - nor do they fully appreciate the consequent constraints on what outsiders might accomplish. Syria does not present a tightly configured field of conflict - as did Spain. Quite the opposite.
Internally, the country is riven by sectarian, ideological, regional, and clan rivals that are cross-cutting in places and reinforcing in others. The Alawite controlled government of Mr. Assad represents a loose coalition of secular Baathists, Shia, Druze and most Christians. It also enjoys the backing of the country's business elite which is mainly Christian and Sunni. The opposition is a heteroclite assemblage of Sunnis, some dissent religious minorities, and liberal secularists. Each of these components, in turn, is fragmented along ideological and political lines. Along the sectarian continuum, one finds at the fundamentalist end half-a-dozen jihadist groups that include al-Nusra, the self-declared al-Qaida affiliate. Other non-fundamentalist groups range from traditional orthodox Muslims to Western oriented liberals. The largest Islamist formation probably is the Muslim Brotherhood that is closely linked to the Brotherhood's network of affiliates in Egypt and elsewhere. The most authoritative survey of the opposition identifies 17 factions operating as fighting and political units.
The roster of external players is equally numerous. Backers of the government include both actors close to home (Iran, Hezbullah and the Iraqi government) and powers farther removed geographically in an outer diplomatic orbit (mainly Russia). Opposition supporters number Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, Jordan, Turkey and - less directly - other Sunni states. Al-Nusra itself receives support from al-Qaeda in Iraq and some associated Sunni groups. In the outer orbit, the insurgent coalition is favored by the American-led Western powers. China, as per usual, is keeping its distance. As for Israel, it has no favorite but is prepared to act tactically against any perceived threat that it sees emerging.
The United States has enemies in each camp. Among the opposition: al-Nusra, other hostile fundamentalist factions, and al-Qaidi in Iraq along with a few related radical Sunni groups. Among government backers: there are Hezbullah, and - above all - Iran. Washington is ambivalent about the Iraqi Shia since we god-fathered the current government. As to friends, they are mainly the tactical allies among the conservative Sunni regimes. Liberal secularists are being marginalized in the Syrian National Congress and thin on the ground elsewhere in the region (as was the case in Spain).
The Spanish analogy is most pertinent in regard to the recrudescent Sunni-Shi'ite divide that is fissuring the Middle East. Syria's civil war stems in part from that increasingly tense relationship and offers an arena in which the main contenders, Iran and the Gulf states, are using surrogates in a proxy war.
On the Sunni side, the House of Saud is the key regional player. Its dilemma in a nutshell looks to be its sense of vulnerability due to its questionable pedigree, i.e. its legitimacy turns on a unique status that it acquired by force - its custodianship of the Holy Places of mecca and medina. Hence, the greatest threat is internal - but as affected by broader currents in the Islamic world. Moreover, the historic compact with the Wahhabi clerics that undergirds the regime is innately fragile. Logically it follows that the Saudi royal family must always be attentive to burnishing their credentials among Sunnis as the purest of the pure. Presenting themselves as champions of the Sunni cause against the Shia whose standard bearer is Iran may serve this purpose; however, it carries the risk of raising the fever among the very Salafist Sunni groups who could become a mortal political threat of a kind that Iran does not. Al-Nusra in Syria is a current example. Its joining of a Taliban-like doctrine with aspirations to reestablish the Caliphate makes it doubly dangerous.
The diplomatic, and military, field of action as depicted above is uncongenial to American intervention of any kind. That has not prevented the Obama administration from presuming to exercise influence via non-stop flying visits and non-stop commentary - the latter including a firm declaration by President Obama himself that Assad must go. The game is not sophisticated diplomacy; it is caricatured power politics. The naïve notion that an American strategic hegemony still prevails in the Middle East post Iraq/Afghanistan debacles, post-collapse of American moral standing, post-Arab Spring and the exhibition of Washington's hypocrisy, post the relative decline of American economic dominance globally, post rise of the Muslim Brotherhood & Associates, post sectarian passion plays - has no grounding in reality - that is, other than in the crude reality of military might. Continuing in this manner promises only more sorrow -for ourselves and for peoples of the Greater Middle East. A whiff of fresh thinking is desperately needed in Washington's stale and smug corridors of power.
Washington finds it hard to accept that the Syrian conflict is not about the United States. For none of the factions are we the primary referent. Interests and goals are local and/or regional. The impulse of intervene by one means or other expresses an odd sort of conceit that everything that happens in the world is our concern. Indeed, many worry that if we don't do something, our status as the world's greatest power somehow would suffer. Neither proposition can stand up to close scrutiny.
The place to begin such an agonizing reappraisal is recognizing the Shia/Sunni rivalry as the organizing principle of the region's political future. It offers us an angle of vision that serves our national purpose if we factor those insights into a multidimensional perspective rather than assume that this one dimension will determine all. Magnification of the sectarian divide is certain; its effects can be various.
Here are a few propositions intended to help structure the forecasting of how the region's sectarian politics might unfold.
1. Sunni and Shi'ite self-identities are strong but variable in time and space. There are no monolithic blocs.
2. Political factors are one reason for that. After all, Sunni Islam hasn't been unified for more than a Millennium. It won't be in the future. (The same was true for Europe during the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries). Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria (if the Sunnis prevail) will have complex relations whereby competition among them will be manifest - geopolitical in nature, nationalist in nature, and rivalry for the Crown of Sunni Islam at stake as well. Moreover, the legitimacy of the House of Saud rests on certain claims as to its unique position in the world of Islam that overshadows all else in Riyadh's thinking.
3. The Shia/Shi'ite rivalry will reinforce some pre-existing conflicts (Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies vs Iran) while cross-cutting others (Arab vs Persian). Iraq will experience this acutely.
4. The game will continue to involve outside powers. Economic imperatives are one reason - poor countries (and their new governments) desperately need for assistance and rich countries need stable external energy and financial markets. Too, outside parties can be called upon to redress local power balances - as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait did in the 1980s and 1990s. Can Iran play the same game? Were its diplomatic relations normalized, the answer is 'yes.' It even had Israel as a sometimes tacit ally in its war with Saddam's Iraq.
5. Hezbullah, like everybody else, has its own parochial agenda and local interests. It is neither an Iranian pawn nor Iranian auxiliary in the simple sense. Shi'ism created an affinity; convergent benefits from confronting Israel was another factor militating toward alliance. While neither will disappear, there is more than one divergent path that it could take in the event of diminished material support from Iran (which is not self-evident - whether money or arms).
Hezbullah's unique position vis a vis Palestine/Israel gave it implicit leverage via the Sunni Arab street as manifest in 2006. That now is largely dissipated due to its intervention on the side of Assad.
6. Picking winners and losers in an encompassing Shia/Sunni conflict seems less useful than tracing out the ramifying effects of its unfolding on the main parties' interests and policies - including those of the United States. Washington's self-defined stakes across the region are not obviously better served by one side's triumphs or the other's.
7. Back to Syria. The risk that the eventual outcome of the civil war could pose a serious threat of terrorism to the United States is exaggerated. (One is tempted to say: as always). Even were al-Nusra to emerge as the strongest political force, it would have to accommodate other factions - Islamist and non-Islamist - to consolidate power. The logic of that situation militates against the launching of adventurous actions that could spark foreign intervention. Moreover, a regime that controls territory and has other fixed assets is far easier to deter than a transnational terrorist network with multiple moveable addresses. That is why the Taliban in Afghanistan began to maneuver in an effort to distance itself from al-Qaida after 9/11. Moreover, whatever marginal shift in the odds on a terrorist attack on American interests as may result from outcome 'x' or 'z' in Syria, the United States has other interests in the region that should figure in the appraisal of alternative policies.