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The next big battle in Syria, and what might follow

Aleppo has become the latest focal point in Syria’s civil war. Rebels have advanced into the city and the Syrian government is rushing in reinforcements. Aleppo, with a population of more than two million, is Syria’s largest city and its commercial center. The city is only 40 miles from Turkey, so expect refugees to flood towards Turkey if the fighting in Aleppo escalates, as expected.

Last week, the rebels attacked Damascus. They made significant progress but the government eventually routed them by using superior heavy weaponry including attack helicopters. Expect more of the same from the government this time. Aleppo’s old town center has been designated a UN world heritage site, but that won’t count for anything in the upcoming battle. This isn’t the United States the rebels are fighting.

How will it all end? It seems unlikely that the regime, even with his superior fire power, can maintain what’s left of its grip on the nation. Richard Fernandez at the Belmnont Club suggests that Assad is fighting for time to create “an Allawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast; a bastion to which he, the Russians and the Iranians can cling and from which he can continue to support Hezbollah.”

Fernandez places events in Syria in a broader context, with sectarianism the dominant theme. He agrees with Lee Smith who has said:

No matter how much the Assad regime waved the banner of Arab nationalism and cursed Israel, the Sunnis’ most pressing hostility was with the minority clique that they decided, on reflection, had no right to rule them. By the time Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans had moved to topple their regimes in the spring of 2011, the Iraq war had already primed Syria’s Sunni population for a much bloodier conflict than any of the other Arab Spring countries experienced.

That’s why Assad needs some sort of sanctuary on the coast. Without it, says Fernandez, Assad’s sect, along perhaps with the Shia population in Lebanon, may be defenseless against the pent up rage of the Sunnis whom they have oppressed. In a sense, this is the reverse of the situation in Iraq, where Sunnis had long oppressed the majority Shiite population. In Iraq, though, the U.S. served as a buffer until recently. What’s the buffer in Syria and Lebanon?

In this light, it becomes even more apparent why Russia is protective of Assad. Arguably, it’s been quite some time since the Assad clan has been of much use to Russia. But the Russians can’t relish the prospect of the toppling of its ally, followed by a slaughter. And Iran, which is perhaps of more use to Russia, would suffer a huge set back in that scenario.

Fernandez concludes:

To a certain the degree the current crisis ironically validates the centrality of Israel in the Middle East process. But their importance was always misunderstood. They were not, as the Left never tired of saying, the bringers of the Apple of Discord into the Middle Eastern paradise. In fact they were the opposite. The real function of the Jew was to provide an object of hatred strong enough to keep other minorities from killing each other.

Now that the different sects have rediscovered how much they really loathe one other, Israel is for the first time in sixty plus years nothing but a bystander. If it were not for the threat of missiles, they might well break out the popcorn and watch it all play out. Unfortunately the countries in the Middle East are all too close together for this to be a realistic option. Still the resolution of the Israel problem — via its marginalization — may prove the only foreign policy achievement of the administration, though not in the way they had intended.

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