Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial
Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 1 William Shakespeare
“Blood and destruction,” “dreadful objects,” and “pity choked” was the Bard’s searing characterization of what war visits upon the living. It is a description that increasingly parallels the ongoing war in Syria, which is likely to worsen unless the protagonists step back and search for a diplomatic solution to the 17-month old civil war. From an initial clash over a monopoly of power by Syria’s Baathist Party, the war has spread to Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, ignited regional sectarianism, drawn in nations around the globe, and damaged the reputation of regional and international organizations.
Once loosed, the dogs of war range where they will.
Although the regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited the explosion with its brutal response to political protests, much of the blame for the current situation lies with those countries, seeing an opportunity to eliminate an enemy, that fanned the flames with weapons and aid: the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, plus a host of minor cast members ranging from Jordan to Libya.
The results are almost exactly what Russia and China predicted when they warned about trying to force regime change without a negotiated settlement: an opening for radical Islamists, a flood of refugees, and growing instability in a region primed to erupt.
The war has claimed between 20,000 and 25,000 lives and wreaked havoc on a number of cities, including the country’s largest, Aleppo. Just who those casualties are is in dispute. While it is undoubtedly true that the Damascus government’s use of heavy weapons in urban areas has killed and wounded many civilians, the opposition has carried out extrajudicial executions of Syrian soldiers and Assad supporters as well.
“This is an asymmetrical war, and there is a degree of expansion of violations of international law by both sides that seems to be escalating,” says Kristalina Georgieva, UN commissioner for crisis response.
The Damascus government has developed its own spin on the casualties, claiming they are not Syrians but “foreign fighters.” There is no question that “foreign fighters” are involved—mostly Islamic jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, and Turkey—but most of the insurgents are Syrians. Truth is always the first casualty in a war, particularly a civil one in which the protagonists are not always easy to define.
The fighting has produced a refugee crisis that, while nowhere near the catastrophe generated by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—when 4 million fled their homes—has still sent hundreds of thousands of people into neighboring countries. At last count, the UN had registered almost 250,000 refugees, some 80,000 in Turkey, 70,000 in Jordan, close to 57,000 in Lebanon, and over 16,000 in Iraq.
The uprising has also become increasingly sectarian. Syria has one of the most complex mélanges of ethnicities and religious identities in the Middle East. Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, there are sizable minorities of Druze, a variety of Christian sects, and Alawite Muslims. The Alawites, among them the Assads, have dominated the Syrian military since French colonial days. The sect is associated with Shiism, although it has a pre-Islamic history that is deeply rooted in the country’s western mountains.
According to reporting by foreign media, jihadists are playing an increasingly powerful role in the fighting. “The Islamist groups, which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves,” Randa Kassis, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council told Der Spiegel. “Syrians who are taking up arms against the dictator but not putting themselves under the jihadists’ command are being branded as unpatriotic and heretics.”
While the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army disavow the more extreme jihadists, the latter hold the whip hand because of their support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main source of weapons and funding. The rising number of car bombings is the signature of such al-Qaeda-affiliated groups as the al-Nusra Front. Speaking in Jordan on September 9, al-Qaeda leader Abu Sayyaf called for a jihad against the secular Assad regime.
French surgeon Jacques Beres, a founder of the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders who recently returned from treating wounded in Syria, told Reuters that 60 percent of his patients were foreign fighters. “It’s really something strange to see. They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar al-Assad’s fall, but are thinking how to take power afterward and set up an Islamic state with Shariah law to become part of the world emirate.”
The surge of extremism is not restricted to Syria. Iraq has been convulsed by bombings aimed at the Shiite community, killing over 300 people between July 21 and August 18. On September 9, nearly 400 people were killed or wounded in 13 Iraqi cities. Alawites have been targeted in Turkey and Shiites in Lebanon, the latter in a replay of sectarian attacks five years ago in Tripoli by the Saudi-funded Fatah al-Islam.
While Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is playing a key role in the war by supplying the rebels, Ankara is discovering that the dogs of war are ranging uncomfortably close to home. Iraqi-based Kurds, who have long fought for an independent state made up from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, have stepped up operations against the Turkish military, and the Turks are apprehensive that Syria’s Kurds might join in. Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” might explain why Erdogan has toned down his rhetoric against Syria, though the explanation might also be simple politics—Ankara’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is not popular with the average Turk.
The conflict has also damaged the UN, though that is mainly fallout from the organization’s role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya. Moscow and Beijing backed UN Security Council intervention in Libya because they were assured that there would be an attempt to negotiate a political solution. The African Union (AU) had already begun such talks when the French started bombing and the war went full-tilt.
The AU is still unhappy at the United States, France, and Britain over Libya, and the African organization’s warning that the collapse of Libya might fuel instability in other areas of the continent appears to be coming true. The current war in Mali is a direct result of the massive number of weapons that poured into the rest of Africa following the Libyan war, as well as the empowering of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an extremist group that played a role in overthrowing Gaddafi.
As intractable as the Syrian war looks, there is room for a political resolution, but only if the protagonists and their supporters stand down. The Damascus government will have to recognize that one-family rule went out with feudalism, and that its opponents have real grievances. On the other side, the opposition will have to drop its insistence that there will be no talks until the Damascus government resigns. A zero-sum approach by either side will simply translate into a continuing war.
But this will also mean countries fueling the opposition with guns and supplies will have to back off as well. And those nations that constantly talk about the threat of “terrorism” need to confront the extremists’ financers.
“The US and Israeli obsession with Iran has led Washington to turn a blind eye to the dangers posed by Saudi policy,” writes Anatol Lievan, a war studies professor at King’s College, London, which “has helped lay the basis for Islamist extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere.”
Other countries affected by the war, including Lebanon and Iran, need to be brought into the process as well.
Lastly, the role of regional and international organizations needs to be reconfigured. The Libya war damaged the AU, the Arab League, and the UN because the political process was hijacked by NATO and Gaddafi’s enemies. The UN can play a key role in bringing peace, but not if it serves the interests of one side over the other.
“The Western powers would be well advised to unite with Russia and China in putting maximum pressure on both sides to put up their arms and come to the table. Diplomacy, rather than war, is the only way to preserve what is left of Syria for its hard-pressed citizens,” says Patrick Seale, a leading British expert on the Middle East.
The alternative is death and destruction, floods of refugees, religious extremism, restive minorities, and a divided international community. Such ground makes rich hunting for the dogs of war. It is time to bring them to heel.
This article originally appeared at Foreign Policy in Focus.