Syria’s shockwaves

Did you hear about the two Shaikhs and the Shi’ite? This sounds like the start of a bad joke.

Far from being funny, these three men may be all that it takes to plunge the Middle East into a regional inferno. That is, if the international community, particularly the United States, fails to intervene in the two-year long civil war in Syria. Even if Washington decides to lead the battlefront, the forthcoming war could mean hard times for Americans at home.

Regional Tensions Rising

The Shaikhs are Sunni- Salafi Shaikh Al- Assir, from Sidon, who has called on his followers to engage in jihad with rebels in Syria; And Sunni Salafi Shaikh, from Tripoli, Salem El-Refai, who is calling for the mobilization of the Lebanese to fight along with the Syrian opposition in its battle against President Basshar Al Assad’s regime.

El-Refai added that fighters should form 5 person secret cells to carry out their objectives. “We will be sending the first batch of armed men to fight alongside the Syrian armed militias in al-Qseir,” El-Rafei said.

The Shi’ite is Lebanese Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, who on April 30th , proclaimed that he and his men will never abandon Syria (Al Assad) and will defend Lebanon and the Lebanese people. He confirmed that Hezbollah fighters are inside of Damascus, tasked with protecting the Sayidna Zainab shrine, which is highly revered by Shi’ites. Hezbollah, translated, as the “Party of God”, is the largest Shi’ite military and political party in Lebanon.

“Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall in the hands of America or Israel or the Takfiris,” Nasrallah said. Takfiris refers to those who follow Sunni Salafi ideology.

In recent weeks, there has been an uptick in violent incidents and inciting speech in Lebanon solely based on sectarian lines. Sunnis and Shi’ites are not only speaking out but acting out as well. A source in Tripoli told me that a man was stripped naked and tied to a rope and dragged around the city. This is in addition to the kidnappings and gunfights that often flare up in the majority Sunni city.

The sparring of the Shaikhs and the Shi’ite could draw this small country, whose population numbers less than 5 million, into another civil, sectarian war and perhaps, spark a wider regional war.

The U.S. Response

U.S. President Obama has been reluctant to be drawn into another war in the Middle East. He has established a wait-and-see policy with nominal support to the Syrian opposition. The Obama administration has been cautious to act, and rightly so. Any military action will come at a high cost.

Syria is complex. A proxy war in Syria and Lebanon is raging between Iran and Hezbollah on one side and the West, Gulf Arab States and Israel on the other. Israel would like to see Hezbollah decapitated with the fall of the Alawite Assad regime in order to protect its own Lebanese border. But an alternative government made up of Sunni Salafis does not guarantee future security for the Jewish state. Meanwhile, the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in the region is being conflagrated with each car bombing and sectarian massacre.

Last August, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States, implying that its use could provoke military action. This month, he seems to have backtracked after evidence of the use chemical weapons was confirmed by the United Nations.

“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” Obama said. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

The cost of inaction is already known; more lives will certainly be lost. In Syria, more than 70,000 people have died in the two-year civil war. More than 160,000 people have been incarcerated. There are now 1.2 million refugees in neighboring countries and 1.5 million internally displaced refugees. The country will witness more destruction while security across the region will deteriorate, particularly in neighboring countries, which are accepting refugees.

Implications of U.S. Engagement

Thus far, no country or leader has taken the initiative to mobilize for military intervention. Any involvement will mostly likely be headed by the United States. If President Obama decides to mobilize troops directly or indirectly, through, say, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), what will it mean to the average American?

Military engagement could spell tough times ahead.

If U.S. troops engage in fighting on the ground and the frontlines, their lives will certainly be at risk. Depending on how many troops is deployed and the cost of such mobilization, this could further strain the military and military families that are still trying to recover from long deployments during the Iraq war. Further, terrorists abroad and perhaps, here at home, could use this action as cause for targeting U.S. interests, both military and civilian—making us all feel less secure.

Any economic recovery we are experiencing now, albeit slow, could be lost. The U.S. economy has been sluggish to regain from the steep downturn of the past decade. The unemployment rate is still at 7.6%, leaving 11.7 million people without jobs.

American taxpayers will bear the cost of paying for another military excursion. Currently, government coffers can barely pay for social security and Medicare let alone another adventure in the Middle East. This may mean, we will have to borrow more money, putting our country into further debt for the next generations to pay for.

Furthermore, any U.S. military engagement could provoke conflict with Iran, Iraq and other neighboring countries that are main exporters of crude oil. Prices for oil will rise, making everything we buy at home and abroad more expensive. Inflation will make us all poorer. Nobody wants that.

Certainly, the implications of going to war are many and extend far beyond American security and the economy.

Politically, the Obama Administration will need to convince the public that leading the fight in Syria will make America, the Arab region and the world safer. After a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little political will to go to war. A Pew poll released this week found that only 45% of Americans were in favor of military intervention in Syria, while 31% were opposed. Another New York Times/CBS poll found that 62% of Americans do not feel that America has a “responsibility” to intervene.

Whether or not President Obama decides to intervene militarily, the outlook for the Middle East is bad and getting worse. Morally, the international community has a “responsibility” to prevent the broad scale killings taking place in Syria and other conflict areas. But, practically, each nation must weigh the costs and benefits of going to war or remaining on the sidelines.

For now, the United States, will likely continue its wait-and-see policy until the moral “responsibility” becomes so overwhelming that it will trump all practical benefits of inaction.

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    Souheila Al-Jadda

    Souheila al-Jadda is the Editorial Director at The Islamic Monthly

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