Anyone watching the Syrian conflict unfold should have at least a nagging sense that it has changed into something far different from a typical civil war. Commentators in the Middle East acknowledge this transformation; the actions of Iran and Hezbollah confirm it; and the Israelis, Jordanians and Russians - among others - warned about it a year ago.
Yet US and European policymakers remain unwilling to speak the truth, turning instead to sterile diplomatic phrases to describe the risks of a "broader regional conflict".
What's happening in Syria has already reached that point, and then some. The war in Syria isn't about Syria anymore. It's about
two other things: an historic Sunni versus Shi'ite conflict, and a proxy war through which the US sees an opportunity to strategically weaken Iran.
Sectarian warfare is a beyond-the-borders reality in Syria. Shi'ite Iran has moved beyond training and supplying regime forces to providing Iranian units for combat. Domestically, Iran's conservatives have doubled down, banning relative moderate Hashem Rafsanjani from contesting the presidency and acquiring improved technology to accommodate a faster drive toward nuclear weapons. There will be no policy change in Tehran. Iran is all in.
The Lebanese Shi'ite terrorist organization Hezbollah has also dispensed with all pretenses. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, has gone well beyond rhetorical promises to defend the Assad regime. Not merely fighting openly on Syrian battlefields, Hezbollah's guerrilla troops have spearheaded the Syrian army's effort to retake the city of Qusayr on the Lebanese border. Hezbollah, too, has pushed its chips to the middle of the table.
The Shi'ite powers in the region have thus firmly established their stake with Assad's Alawite minority in Syria. Tehran views the fight for Syria as a major opportunity to establish regional Shi'ite dominance. But Iran's adventurism bears the risk of an historic mistake in the making. The Sunni majority in Syria is certainly not thriving in opposition to Assad, but the conflict is increasingly populated with foreign Sunni fighters, as well as arms, provided by key Sunni Gulf Arab states.
Sunni Arab nations can drip feed both fighters and supplies to the opposition while waiting for Turkey to become directly involved and the US and European Union to step up to the table. International pressure does not afford Iran a similar luxury; Syria is not a war by proxy for Tehran. The prospects of Western arms or intervention, amid calls for a second Geneva peace conference, only serve to increase pressure on Iran and Hezbollah to maximize battlefield leverage in the near term.
The risks to Iran, and by extension to Hezbollah, are manifold. Tehran is already pinched by years of international sanctions, and faces another wave of restrictions aimed at the country's access to international capital. How long can Iran support a widening war in Syria, particularly if Iran's involvement catalyzes further conflicts along its western border with an Iraq already experienced renewed sectarian conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni? Domestically, at what stage could a spiraling war in Syria engender a reawakening of Iranian opposition groups and a second attempt at a "Green Revolution"?
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is in the process of risking its legitimacy throughout the Arab world. The organization has thrown aside its reputation, built largely via longstanding attempts to represent repressed Muslims everywhere, to engage in open battle for Shi'ite dominance in Syria. As Hezbollah expends troops and resources in Syria, it must also cover its own home front - a fragile Lebanon exposed to the Syrian violence. How long might Hezbollah maintain an intense tempo of combat operations in Syria before exhausting its resources, its political support within Lebanon, or both?
US policymakers certainly seem to hope Syria will prove to be a quagmire for Iran and its proxies. Moreover, Washington increasingly appears inclined to abet such a potentially fortuitous outcome. More by happenstance than design, US policy has produced a situation where Iran and Hezbollah have taken on the lion's share of risk among external players, producing vulnerabilities the US seems keen to exploit. Interventionists, of both the humanitarian and conservative stripe, continue to clamor for direct US involvement in Syria. Their gamesmanship, however, isn't likely to cut it.
Last week, President Barack Obama touched on the realism infusing his cautious approach to intervention in a speech on the nation's counter-terrorism policy. "Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight." Syria has evolved into a battlefield where the president's assessment appears to be the US does not need to fight, and that is vital for determining what happens next.
The administration remains averse to injecting US ground troops, but is increasingly leaning toward direct provisions of arms to rebel forces, a development which would raise the stakes for Iran and Hezbollah. The Geneva II peace summit proposed by Secretary of State Kerry has predictably led to intensified fighting as each side aims for greater strategic leverage from battlefield gains. This situation further validates demands for arms made by the opposition. A prospective peace summit also provides context for the president's public request for plans for a no-fly zone; each side is maneuvering for perceived advantage at the negotiating table prior to committing to Geneva.
Another peace summit, however, will matter little to the key parties on the ground. The fight is too far underway and the stakes are too high. A ready supply of foreign Sunni fighters and arms, including the potential introduction of heavy weapons from the EU and US may well ensure a prolonged conflict ultimately draining to Iran and potentially critically destabilizing to Hezbollah.
Turkey and Israel face the sternest tests to contain the violence along their borders and resist significant intervention, and the sternest test for US diplomacy may well lie in managing the demands and security concerns of Ankara and Tel Aviv as the war deepens. For Syrians, they are unfortunately living on a battlefield of convenience in two much larger geopolitical struggles. But the very nature of those conflicts ensures the Syrian nightmare will not end anytime soon.
Eric Shimp is a former Foreign Service Officer, director for ASEAN and Korean Affairs at the United States Trade Representative, and a policy advisor at Alston & Bird, LLP, in Washington DC.