Syria’s tragedy can no longer be contained: The world needs to confront the implications of its inability to keep Syria’s horror within its frontiers
The capacity of the Syrian civil war to draw other nations into its ghastly vortex has finally been realised with the Israeli air strikes on targets inside the disintegrating state. While Western powers have been anxious to stay out of the conflict, Israel cannot afford to be indifferent to what is happening on its doorstep. Warplanes attacked a convoy of missiles apparently destined for Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. More dramatically, Israeli jets also appear to have targeted a military research facility near Damascus. Israel would not confirm the second strike – but nor did it ever officially acknowledge the destruction of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear plant in 2007.
The Syrians called the latest attack an act of war and vowed to retaliate; but while the Assad regime has a modern air force, which it is using against its own people, it is fanciful to think it will compound its existential crisis with a declaration of hostilities against Israel. None the less, the wider world may soon need to confront the implications of the inability to contain Syria’s tragedy within its frontiers. In the Middle East, the ramifications are already apparent on a daily basis as refugees stream into Lebanon, Turkey and other neighbouring countries. The government in Beirut yesterday said Israeli warplanes had also flown over Lebanese territory in violation of its sovereignty. Yet Israel is entitled to do what it can to defend its national interests if it feels they are being threatened by the spill-over from the conflict.
Equally alarming is what is going on inside Syria, where Alawite militias have been on a sectarian killing spree seemingly designed to carve out an enclave into which Assad and his supporters can eventually retreat. The parallels with Balkan ethnic cleansing in the 1990s are clearer by the day, but with even greater potential consequences. A new Shia rump state backed by Iran and using Hizbollah as a proxy against Israel would be seriously destabilising in a region that is unsettled enough as it is. Meanwhile, the emboldened jihadists who have joined the rebellion against Assad pose a threat both to Israel and the West.
Doubtless this crisis will be the main topic of discussion when US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Moscow this week. The Russians continue to arm Assad and to block UN moves for tougher action, while the Americans back the rebels but stay clear of any direct involvement. An agreement between Washington and Moscow on how to deal with Syria seems as far away as ever; but it cannot be in anyone’s long-term interests to watch this disintegration continue.