06/03/2013 03:49 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Syria's Four Wars: What They Mean

Syria is four wars in one that threaten the region, the world's energy prices and the global economy. This conflict is confusing and involves many players and origins. Each fight varies in terms of cause, intensity, possible outcomes and estimated duration so here is the playbook to help understand the headline.


Syria is four wars in one that threaten the region, the world's energy prices and the global economy.

This conflict is confusing and involves many players and origins. But what sparked Syria's crisis was a peaceful protest on March 15, 2011 that was violently rebuffed by the regime. Months later, this has lit a regional conflagration, fuelling three more wars.

Each fight varies in terms of cause, intensity, possible outcomes and estimated duration so here is the playbook to help understand the headlines:

War #1: The Syrian civil war

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others who formed the Middle Eastern protest movement called Arab Spring to overthrow dictators and economic elites, Syria's protesters have suffered immediate and sustained belligerence. Early on, Syrian military brutality reduced protests to armed rebellions and more violence.

The crux of the crisis is that the vast majority of the population are Sunni Muslims controlled by a minority of 12 per cent who are members of Shi'ite Islam sect, the Alawites, headed by the Assad family. (In Iraq, the opposite mix existed with a Sunni minority headed by Saddam Hussein who brutally controlled the majority Shi'ite population.)

Syria's atrocities have splintered the rebellion and forced it underground. This led to the rise of competing rebel groups and opportunistic interlopers with other agendas. Lacking a Tahrir Square -- or a place to collaborate and bring world attention to their cause or leaders -- Syria's rebels have been divided and conquered. This has ruined the country's economy and society, displaced millions, sparked three more wars and made international action or consensus elusive.

War #2: The Middle East war of religion between Sunni and Shi'ite sects

The carve-up by the World War I allies in 1919 of the Turkish Empire into illegitimate monarchies or dictatorships sowed the seeds for Arab Spring. The imposition of artificial borders created nation-states that contained competing or irreconcilable ethic and religious groups.

The result is an undercurrent religious war reminiscent of the European wars of religion that lasted from roughly 1524 to 1750 following the Protestant Reformation and its rejection of the Catholic Church.

Those wars were not only based along religious grounds but sometimes economic or political (the overthrow of the Catholic Church's hegemony) and resulted in a redrawing of Europe's political map and huge numbers of refugees. This has afflicted the continent even in recent history during both World Wars, then in Ireland and the former aggregations of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

War #3: The proxy war about energy

Syria is a battleground for a conflict between two wealthy energy nations: Russia with allies and Qatar, the world's largest LNG exporter with its allies.

Moscow has doubled-down in helping Syria in order to try and protect its natural gas monopoly in the European Union (where prices are four times higher than in North America). A large-scale conflagration in Syria for years will impede development of offshore natural gas reserves in the Levantine Basin (shared by Israel, Greek-Turkish Cyprus and Syria's client state Lebanon) that would flood by pipeline through Turkey destroying Russia's gas monopoly in the European Union. Russia offered a lucrative LNG deals to Israel and to the Greek portion of Cyprus.

This proxy war is not, as newspaper headlines bill it, a battle between Syria, Russia, Hezbollah and Iran against Israel, although Israel is involved in War #4. This is Russia with Syria (Lebanon) Iran versus Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the European Union.

Syria's rebels have been funded by Qatar (with Kuwait and Saudi support). Interestingly, Qatar, who's people are the richest in the world per capita, hosts the biggest U.S. military presence in the region including a secret missile base and is partners with ExxonMobil to build massive LNG plants. They fight Russia for markets.

Turkey also owns part of the gas fields off the coast of the half of Cyprus it controls. Recently, Ankara threatened military action if drilling permits on its portion of the island continued to be issued by the government residing in the Greek portion to Russians, who controlled its economy until it went bust this year. And it has been dragged into the neighborhood War #4.

This week, the EU ended their embargo on arms sales to Syria's rebels this week, an action fiercely criticized by Russia.

War #4: The war within the war

Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and others have been trying to protect themselves against the terrible spillover effects of the Syrian catastrophe and to avoid being dragged into the civil war itself. They are worried about refugees and weapons being used against them. For example, Israel launched airstrikes in Syria to stop arm smuggling into Lebanon.

Der Spiegel this week wrote an insightful piece explaining Israel's nuanced position in the region, not as a target but as a watchful regional player. "So far, Israel has tried to wage a war within the war, not against Assad's military machinery, but only against shipments of missiles and other high-tech weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah [in Lebanon]. The tacit understanding between the two enemies, the Assad dynasty and Israel, benefited both sides for decades. Proxy wars were waged in Lebanon. Even after the attack [airstrike by Israel] in early May, [Syria issued a tepid response and] the Israeli government made an effort to appease the Syrians, saying that its intention was not to bring down the regime but merely to stop arms from reaching Hezbollah."

Lebanon is also trying to play a nuanced game and this week its president asked Hezbollah to pull out of Syria to help the Assad regime amid concerns that Syria will completely destabilize and flood Lebanon with refugees. Hezbollah's leader then responded: "We want victory in Syria but call again for Lebanon to be left out of any confrontation. Let's preserve the neutrality of Lebanon."

The neighborhood rightly worries that Syria's civil war will become a full-blown Shia-Sunni religious war or full-blown proxy war that contaminates the region or brings in other big players.

The EU is starting to support the rebels while the U.S., China, Japan and others have stayed out on the basis that the only solution is a political one. Meanwhile Syria, regions cobbled together in 1922 by Europeans, is the tragic victim of unjust history, tyranny and now multiple wars even though it's nobody's prize.

*This article previously appeared in the Financial Post

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