Voices
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Summer blockbuster

The threat of wider war in Syria could be the season's greatest hit

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Mark Twain said, "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't." If you tried to sell the truth of unfolding possibilities in Syria for a Hollywood script, even Jerry Bruckheimer might not buy.

In mid-June as leaders of the G-20 prepared to gather in Mexico, word came that Russia was sending a shipload of attack helicopters to Syria. With rebel forces actually securing some cities encircling Damascus, the insertion of aerial firepower would prove decisive, and likely end rebel advances against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Word passed from Washington to London that the Brits should intercept the Russian shipment. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on June 14 warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to halt all shipments to Syria. But direct military intervention and a full-frontal confrontation with Moscow seemed out of the question, and the MV Alead steamed on across the North Sea. As it reached the Atlantic, in one of those moments history may little record nor long remember, the Standard Club in London intervened. With the Alead only 50 miles off Scotland's north coast, the firm withdrew the ship's insurance on June 15, forcing the cargo vessel to turn back to Russia.

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Two days later, President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin sat down together-emerging grim-faced and without the usual chatter after two hours of discussing Syria. Obama said, "We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war."

Civil war is not the only emerging scenario: As the Alead incident suggests, followed by Syrian forces downing a Turkish warplane, wider war-and an East-West confrontation not seen in over two decades-could rapidly materialize.

Further, Israel remains technically at war with Syria over the Golan Heights. Already Israeli forces are fortifying the northern border should the Assad regime collapse. Israeli Defense Forces Major-General Yair Golan says such an event could provide Islamist militants with a "warehouse of weapons" and a new operating base. "Syria is in civil war, which will lead to a failed state, and terrorism will blossom in it," Golan has said. "Syria has a big arsenal."

The prospect of regional conflict in the Middle East multiplies when you consider the ascendence of a Muslim Brotherhood regime parked at Israel's southwestern border. Incursions from Egypt already are on the rise. An al-Qaeda-linked group calling itself "The Shura Council of Mujahideen in the Holy Land" claimed responsibility for a cross-border attack June 18 that left dead one Israeli construction worker. That same day Israeli Defense Forces went on high alert in response to an uptick in rocket fire from Gaza. "The more things deteriorate, the closer we come to a decision we don't want to make," warned Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom.

Israel may not attack Iran's nuclear facilities on a moment's notice, but what it will do is defend its borders-and ground operations into Gaza, Egypt, or Syria are not unimaginable.

It's easy to see how the United States and its allies might have averted this unfolding blockbuster over the last decade, with a substantial U.S. force parked over the Syrian border in Iraq and reasons to confront the Assad regime over its sheltering Saddam Hussein cronies. But that didn't happen, and U.S. options are diminished.

Do we continue to watch the indiscriminate killing, estimated by some to number 15,000? Do we continue to support an insipid UN peace operation, with its monitors admitting failure just one month in? Do we arm a murky rebel movement with jihadist elements attached? Do we lead a "Bosnia-like" international military intervention, as some Israeli generals demand?

There's real fear that Obama will reach a quiet compromise with Iran or Russia-to stand down over Iran's nuclear ambitions or trade with Russia on missile defense technology in exchange for Assad's removal. It's hard to imagine an Obama administration ready to do more than talk, yet hard to imagine that the United States can long remain a bystander.

Email mbelz@worldmag.com

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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