The Enemy in Syria

MADRID – The Geneva II Middle East peace conference, to be held on January 22, will take place against a backdrop of singularly appalling numbers: Syria’s brutal civil has left an estimated 130,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees registered in neighboring countries, and some four million more internally displaced.

The stakes at the conference are thus exceptionally high, both for Syria and for its neighbors, which are straining against severe destabilization. Lebanon has taken in more than 800,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan and Turkey have more than a half-million each. Iraq has received more than 200,000, and Egypt has nearly 150,000. These figures, a result of three years of civil war, are simply inacceptable.

What seemed like a new phase of the Arab revolts in early 2011 has become the worst conflict so far this century. Meanwhile, the international community has been disastrously divided. Since the fighting began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had Russia’s explicit international support. But while Russia’s strategy, from the outset, has been coherent and well-defined, the West’s has not. The United States and the European Union have remained hesitant, establishing no clear aims regarding the conflict. This vacillation contrasts starkly with the position taken by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which have steadfastly supported the Sunni opposition to Assad, and that of Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which have been equally resolute in supporting the regime.

Syria’s civil war has crystallized the complex geopolitical problem that has long characterized the region: the Sunni-Shia cleavage. The sectarian divide underlies the latent struggle for regional control between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The radicalization of Syria’s opposition, however, has complicated the situation even further, nesting one problem within another – much like Russian matryoshka dolls. The Sunnis are divided, with the more moderate forces opposing the radical Al Qaeda affiliates. In fact, in just the last few days, internecine clashes have left more than 700 dead.