Ten Reasons Why The War in Syria Could Spark WW3
Ever since a series of democracy protests escalated into an armed uprising the in the face of a brutal state crackdown in Syria, there has been speculation that the conflict could spread to neighbouring countries. Countless thousands of words have been written in newspapers and blogs since then about the dangers of the civil war in Syria breaking out of that country’s borders and becoming a broader regional conflict. But could it go escalate even further than that?
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Some fear that it might, that the world could unknowingly be on the brink of another global conflict. Currently these fears are mostly the preserve of the internet’s flourishing conspiracy culture, or are mentioned in passing but given little serious consideration in the mainstream press. This is probably as it should be, because as things stand these fears do not represent what you would call a likely scenario. But neither are they completely unfounded, and as such I think they are worth exploring. So, to give you a little thrill of fear on Halloween, here are ten good reasons why the civil war in Syria could spark WW3.
- Sectarianism - When the troubles began in Syria they were primarily about democracy protesters who wanted government reform, coming into conflict with an authoritarian government. But the longer the conflict has gone on, the more it has taken on sectarian overtones. The government of Bashar al Assad is dominated by Alawite Muslims, an off-shoot of the Shiite sect. However much of the population of the country belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, and it is in Sunni areas where the rebels have drawn their strongest support. As the conflict has continued the government has bombarded the mainly Sunni areas where the rebels have based themselves, whilst the rebels have carried out attacks on many Shia districts, both of which have served to further divide the country along sectarian lines. The influence of foreign powers has only exacerbated this, with support for the government coming from places like Shia Iran, and support for the rebels coming most strongly from Sunni Muslim countries. Sunni terrorists groups such as al Qaeda have also sought to exploit sectarian divisions for their own ends. The Sunni Shia divide also happens to be the main geopolitical faultline running across the whole of the middle east. The international politics of power in the middle east, which is arguably the most important region of the world in terms of global geopolitics because of its oil reserves and its location between east and west, is (and has been for many, many years) dominated by the struggle for dominance between the followers of these two branches of Islam. In many ways this means that the divisions in Syria are a microcosm of the broader divisions across the middle east, and it provides an obvious mechanism through which the conflict can begin to spread.
- Global Interests Have Taken Sides Along Sectarian Lines - Of course middle eastern sectarianism is a potential cause for a regional middle east war, but there is a big difference between that and WW3, right? The problem is that there are also big global players with an interest in what happens in Syria, who are not shy about interfering – and they have long term connections which play into the sectarian divide. The most obvious example is the United States of America. The USA, which has expressed strong support for the rebels, also has strong long-term relationships with the main Sunni powers of the middle east – Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc – and entrenched enmity towards the main Shiite power – Iran. On the other hand Russia has maintained ties with the Syrian regime, continuing to supply them with weapons, and has historically often sought to provide support for Iran against western pressure, particularly at the UN. Alongside China, Russia has an interest in ensuring that the US doesn’t have complete dominance of the power structures of the middle east through their Sunni allies – and the Shia government of Syria falling to Sunni rebels would be a big step towards exactly that.
- The Number of Non-State Actors - Although governments do often go to war, they have many good reasons not to. Militant groups whose primary purpose is military, rather than actually running a country, have less pressure to avoid war and potentially more to gain from it. And there are plenty of militant and terrorist groups with an interest in what is happening in Syria. Hezbollah, based in neighbouring Lebanon, have always had a close connection to the Syrian regime. Al Qaeda and other international Islamist groups are known to be fighting alongside the rebels in some areas. And Kurdish separatists with a strong presence in Syria, Iraq and Turkey have been taking advantage of the conflict to further their own goals.
- The Syrian Government May Want the Conflict to Spread – See Syrian Regime Accussed of Planning to Spark Conflict in Lebanon
- Turkey Could Draw in Europe – If the war in Syria does spread to become a wider regional war, then Turkey, along with Lebanon, is one of the most likely countries to be drawn in. They have already exchanged mortar fire with the Syrian government. If Turkey became involved in a more substantial way, then Europe would have a major conflict right on their doorstep, and some might argue that it would then be almost impossible for the European Union not to get involved.
- Chemical Weapons and America’s Red Line - The probability of the United States launching a military intervention went up massively when President Obama set a ‘red line’ on even the movement of chemical weapons, which would trigger US intervention. Even if the Syrian government had no intentions of using their chemical weapons, America may feel compelled to intervene if Assad could no longer secure these weapons and prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists or militant groups such as Hezbollah.
- Iran May Prefer to Fight in Syria rather than in Iran - Israel is continuing to threaten to launch strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. If this happens then Iran are sure to respond. It is entirely possible that they would then feel compelled, along with their Hezbollah proxies, to join with Assad and fight in Syria, which would keep open their route through friendly territory to reach Israel.
- North Korea could side with Syria and Iran, Bringing China with Them – If the conflict escalated to the stage where Iran was openly fighting alongside Assad, North Korea could potentially jump in two. The secretive communist country is famously paranoid about western aggression, and have cooperated with Iran on controversial nuclear technology in the past. It is easy to see the country deciding that they would be better off fighting whilst they still have friends not too far away, than waiting to be further isolated and for the wests attention to fall fully on then. And of course North Korea has a very close relationship with Beijing.
- The Stalemate – The longer the war in Syria continues, the more likely it is to spread. As things stand, there seems to be little chance that it will end any time soon. The Syrian government has been able to do little to diminish rebels attacks, whilst the rebels can only take territory and can do little to hold onto key infrastructure in the face of government air strikes and mortar bombardment. The failure of the recent Eid truce shows that there is also little hope for a viable peace process any time soon.
- Its 2012 Baby! 2012 is supposed to be the year of the apocalypse after all…