The winners and losers from the Syria conflict
January 31st, 2013
09:42 AM ET

The winners and losers from the Syria conflict

By William Young, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: William Young is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was formerly a senior officer with the Central Intelligence Agency with extensive experience in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.

All roads lead to Damascus…and back out again. Financial and military aid flowing into Syria from Iran, Russia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and other Arabian Gulf states aims to influence the outcome of the conflict between a loose confederation of rebel factions and the Bashar al-Assad regime. But this outside support could merely perpetuate the existing civil war and ignite larger regional hostilities between Sunni and Shia areas, reshaping the political geography of the Middle East.

In many ways, this is a continuation of the historical struggle between Sunni against Shia for dominance in the Islamic world, with Israel as another nearby target. Historical hatred between extremists on both sides of the conflict has already begun to spread fear and influence political sentiment north and east into Turkey and Iraq, west into Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, and south into Jordan and the Arab Gulf. To understand these trends, it is important to ask: Who benefits from the conflict in Syria, and who loses?

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The most obvious beneficiary is al Qaeda and affiliated groups. War zones and other ungoverned areas facilitate their contributions to insurgencies, provide safe havens, and expand their reach. The clear divide between Sunni and Shia in Syria offers a unique opportunity, however: a fight for control of Islam with historical antecedents in the centuries-old animosity between Salafists and Nusayris, or modern-day Alawites. The Alawites, the ruling minority under al-Assad, have much to lose in the struggle. The threat of retribution by those oppressed by the regime will likely galvanize commitment to the conflict. Iran also stands to benefit from either an unlikely al-Assad regime victory or a protracted civil war. It undoubtedly views the fight for the survival of the regime as a way to both maintain influence and further its regional goals through Syria’s proximity to Israel.

The Palestinians are also potential beneficiaries. Instability created by the conflict brings uncertainty for Israel and Jordan, along with opportunities for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and refugee camps along the Syrian coast and in Jordan. They could either join the jihad against the Alawites or benefit peripherally from political arrangements brokered by the United Nations, the Arab League, or others.

Finally, the Kurds in northern Syria may benefit by either supporting the regime or negotiating with the Turks and allying with their Kurdish brethren in northern Iraq. Although the latter strategy is unlikely because of divisions in Iraq, it should not be completely discounted. The Kurds have proven to be masters at playing all sides simultaneously, out of necessity.

Who loses as the conflict drags on? U.S. allies Jordan and Israel, along with the broader social fabric of Syria and Lebanon, stand to lose the most. Refugees, economic hardship, and cross-border tensions are likely to stir political sentiment and embolden Palestinian and other political groups in Jordan to press for radical change. Such political unrest opens the door for al Qaeda and its affiliates to strike at both the Jordanian monarchy and Israel. Israel, distracted by the conflict in Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, may have to confront a much more permissive Egypt and aggressive Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.

More broadly, Iraq stands to lose from the spillover of sectarian strife within its own borders. An extension of the conflict would only add to Iraq’s unification challenges. And the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar will need to monitor stirrings of rebellion among their Shia populations, which Bahrain has already experienced. Efforts by these majority-Sunni regimes to fuel the fight against the Alawites in Syria could ricochet back in the form of internal political and social unrest. Their financial assistance could also find its way to al Qaeda affiliates.

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With no apparent coalition of interested parties to broker peace or guarantee a decisive victory, the civil war will likely continue without some form of Western political and military intervention. Although outside efforts to arm the rebels would help level the playing field in Syria, such a strategy would not ensure victory, and the weapons could fall into the hands of extremists for use against Israel, Jordan and other neighboring countries. The regime’s retaliation with chemical weapons against more heavily armed rebels could spur outside military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

The fast pace of change in Syria is another game-changing variable to consider. What could be done today might not be possible tomorrow. Inaction has its price: continued loss of innocent life, the hardening of positions on both sides of the conflict (which makes negotiating a settlement more difficult), and a vacuum filled by extremists are just a few examples of the risks that inaction poses.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East • Syria • Terrorism

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. dustin

    Who cares about isreal? They dont belong there and as far as being allies, all isreal has ever done for the USA is get us into conflicts that really dont concern us, and oh yea made most of the world hate the USA. Why should we care.

    February 2, 2013 at 5:36 am | Reply
  2. dustin

    they should put all the Jews christians and muslims on one island and let them kill each other so the rest of the planet could get along in peace and harmony.

    February 2, 2013 at 6:00 am | Reply
  3. jayCQ

    Why must we suffer so much the abuse on this lovely Earth of God's children. The madness in Syria is but a continuation of Assad family stupidity, brutality, and oppression going back generations. Everyone hates everyone, yet the Good Lord sends His rains down upon us all. Who is right? Sometimes it seems only the dead speak the truth.

    February 2, 2013 at 8:07 am | Reply
  4. Hao So

    What about the real winners? The Syrian people!
    For the first time in many decades, they have a real choice to fight the Alawites on their feet instead of dying on their knees.
    Good luck to the Syrian people, and may they have the opportunity to form their own government with just as little Western interference as they had to put up with during the fighting.

    February 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  5. dyinglikeflies

    How does Israel not benefit by the weakening of Hezbollah and Iran owing to the loss of their main, mutual ally and the only bridge for arms shipments between the two? In writing this, did you bother to look at a map?

    February 2, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  6. Arash

    I feel sorry for the writer to call Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf. Go learn your history before talking politics.

    February 2, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  7. Arab Problems Need Arab Solutions

    I'm glad that the US has decided to stay out of this conflict. The Arab league is perfectly capable of doing some good in Syria, but they all seem to be squabbling over which version of Islam is better and the Sunnis and Shias are killing each other like they have been for hundreds of years. They need to get with the modern world and stop these generational vendettas and reprisals. That's all I see in the middle east is people seeking revenge for this and that. Once all of the oil is gone, the rest of the world will cease to pay attention. The killing will continue like it already has for centuries, but people just won't notice. That is the fate of Islam, to remain wild, rabid dogs. Small tribes roaming the desert, fighting over faith, blaming the West for all of the uneducated, barbaric muslims hell bent on killing other muslims. Until the Arab League decides to take the lead and truly push for a peaceful solution, I don't see this conflict getting anywhere but worse. The Arabs need to grow up and realize that there is more to the world than religion and tribal conflicts. Looking back on a few hundred years of Islam, I don't see that changing for the better any time soon.

    February 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  8. Mahmoud Ghaffari

    William Young; Arabian Gulf???? Did you flunk Geography in High School??? Ever since when The Persian Gulf (registered by the United Nations) became the Arabian Gulf. Unless you are among those Naive Americans who think by kowtowing to the Arabs (yes the same bunch who caused 911 in your country) can be your friends. Dream on. Next to the Iranian regime, the Saudi populace are the most dangerous enemy of America.

    February 3, 2013 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • Or

      Or we could just call it "Towel Head Pond".

      February 4, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • Call me Bwana

      We don`t like Iranians. They have proved (the Government) to be fanatical, inefficient in every respect, untrustworthy, liars, bellicose. Want more?

      February 6, 2013 at 10:57 am | Reply
  9. Clint

    Imagine that...a religion that glorifies violence and shuns innovation.

    February 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Gazi abo ayyash

      So, smart
      did you find a religion that takes you to successful eternal life! if not keep searching and it is there it is contrary to evil side.
      it is the truth

      February 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
      • MyPictureOfMuhammad

        8=>(_|_)

        February 4, 2013 at 10:18 am |
      • Call me Bwana

        As I read your post I can now rest assured of your fanaticism and ignorance. You are still living in the 7th Century.

        February 6, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  10. Gazi abo ayyash

    The rebels now on the doors of the killer's palace and he will be brought to justice for all crimes committed against syrian people

    February 3, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  11. Gazi abo ayyash

    that is the arab way and your dreams, but the main drive for that will be people of god will fight for, freedem truth and justice and that who will fight for evil and injsutce will be losers , so chose one side
    easy ya

    February 3, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Reply
    • Call me Bwana

      I will not choose your side. You fight to establish an Islamic regime, with sharia law. If you call that freedom, then you have remained in the 7th Century.

      February 6, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
  12. Sori halabi

    this is a heartbreaking video to illustrate the destruction and damage that is happening:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2erZLs-z4EU&w=640&h=390]

    it shows the impact on the city of Aleppo, and it is a sample of what is going on in the rest of Syrian cities.

    February 4, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  13. JM

    It will probably take at least 3 more generations for those people to learn that religion and politics don't mix. Lebanon used to be referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East, now look at the mess there caused by mixing religion with politics. Now in Syria it's about one religious faction trying to hold on to power at any cost, and another religious faction opposing it. We have the al queda terrorists using religion to push their power-grabbing agenda, and so on. People in the Middle East, in general, seem to have their brains fried with too much religion. As John Lennon said: Imagine a world with no religion. Even here in the states, we have religious nuts trying to gain power. They tend to be concentrated on the more radical wings of one of our traditional political parties. I think it would be bad news if they ever rose and took over.

    February 4, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  14. david

    the best thing we in the western world can do is stay out of the middle east and let these people keep on killing each other! we could give arms to both sides so they can do it faster. this part of the world has been broken for hundreds of years by a faith that seems to be based in violence toward each other. lets let them fight it out and than deal with who ever is left many years from now.

    February 5, 2013 at 1:44 am | Reply
  15. Dre Zee

    I disagree with the list of losers. Clearly Israel wins. Why else would they be constantly violating their neighbors sovereignty and bombing without hesitation? Clearly USA needs to become truly neutral and/or leave the region.

    February 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  16. Call me Bwana

    Winners and losers? In a war? Everybody loses

    February 6, 2013 at 10:53 am | Reply
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