LONDON (Reuters) - With the United States accusing Russia of providing attack helicopters and ethnic violence spiraling out of control, Syria’s conflict is pulling world and regional powers into a mounting proxy confrontation.
While Washington, Moscow and Beijing as well as European and Middle Eastern capitals have all endorsed Kofi Annan’s peace plan, analysts say it has become increasingly obvious that they have also been taking sides.
Publicly critical of violence by all parties but broadly lining up behind embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are not only Iran but also long-term ally Russia. At stake for Moscow could be its Tartus naval base and lucrative trade, including arms sales. While there are few signs of any direct involvement, China looks to be throwing its diplomatic weight behind Moscow, both keen to avoid a repeat of events in Libya.
Washington maintains it is not providing direct military support to the opposition Free Syrian Army, but has pledged “non-lethal” support. Some believe it may be helping facilitate arms deliveries from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and perhaps others.
There are also growing signs al Qaeda-linked militants may be entering the fray against Assad, worrying Western states.
In some ways, the face-off already has more than a flavor of Cold War era confrontations, in which Western and communist states fought, manipulated and almost certainly prolonged a host of conflicts in the developing world.
With communal militia increasingly blamed for bloody massacres within Syria itself, it may also feed a Middle East-wide growing ethnic confrontation between Saudi-backed Sunni and sometimes Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces.
“If you look at what’s happening on the ground, both sides are now acting like a ceasefire doesn’t even exist,” says David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s. “The great powers say they want peace in Syria and they are right in saying that conflict there is dangerous... but if you look at what they’ve been doing, they have simply been making matters worse.”
Without outside encouragement, some doubt Syria’s fractious and chaotic opposition would have kept up the initially peaceful struggle against Assad’s forces for so long. Moscow has simply shrugged at U.S. talk of helicopter shipments, and maintains its arms deliveries are legitimate and have no bearing on a domestic conflict.
Ultimately, it seems clear both sides believe that if they can continue the fight and convince their foreign backers that they have a credible chance of victory - or at least survival - then they will continue to receive outside support.
Moscow’s backing for Assad might in part be driven by local strategic interests, analysts say, particularly a desire to preserve its main regional ally and weapons buyer as well as retain a naval base in the eastern Mediterranean.
But most believe President Vladimir Putin and others believe much more is at stake. For Russia, and to a slightly lesser extent China, Syria is seen as a battleground in which they can draw a line in the sand and end years of unilateral Western foreign intervention.
“It’s not about contracts or our base,” said Alexander Golts, an independent Moscow-based analyst. “Russian support to Syria is mostly based on ideology.”
In Kosovo, Iraq and most recently Libya, Moscow in particular has been forced to simply sit on the sidelines and watch the United States and allies act almost unchallenged against its one-time allies.
Facing their own internal rise in protest and accusing the West of backing pro-democracy groups within their borders, Russia and China would also like to re-establish another once almost universally agreed principle: that states have the right to crush dissent and restore order in their territory with whatever force necessary and without external meddling.
That stands in stark contrast to western talk of a right - or even obligation - to protect civilians even from their own governments, invoked last year in Libya although only applied sporadically to the other countries of the “Arab Spring”.
“Russia does not agree with the breakdown of the system of international law which is currently happening,” said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute of Political Analysis. “Why should Russia allow the Syrian regime to be annihilated by countries that it has a competitive relationship with like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the West?”
Russian weapons shipments would almost certainly continue, he said, although if a Western-backed military intervention were launched against Assad it was unlikely Moscow would fight and risk all out global war.
With the United States already well into a presidential election campaign and Europe preoccupied with dangers of euro zone collapse however, any repeat of Western and the Gulf action in Libya is seen highly unlikely.
Not only is Syria’s military considerably more capable than that of Muammar Gaddafi and the country considerably more complex to fighting, but most observers believe the West is now in a considerably weaker position than even a year ago.
The deployment of a Russian aircraft carrier earlier this year to Syria after the United States quietly moved one of its own carriers to the region sent a clear message, analysts say.
“It is about pushing back the power of the United States, which has been struggling in the region since the “Arab Spring”,” said IHS Jane’s Hartwell, pointing to the revolutions against U.S.-backed strongmen such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak that left Washington wondering how to react.
Some believe a similar agenda may be behind at least some tacit Chinese and Russian support to U.S. enemy Iran, with Beijing in particular seen undermining Western sanctions with continuing oil purchases.
But others argue the most dangerous trend is taking place within the region itself; the growing sense of ethnic polarization and conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite in the year and a half since the “Arab Spring” began,
Saudi and wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fears Iran might be stirring unrest among Shi’ ites in eastern Saudi, Bahrain and northern Yemen may help drive their support for the broadly Sunni Syrian opposition, some suggest.
Through its confrontation with Tehran over nuclear issues and long-term Saudi alliance, some in the United States worry Washington itself may be being drawn awkwardly towards a sectarian regional Sunni agenda.
“This is also the inspiration for the GCC to be so outspoken against Assad in Syria, not the goodness of their humanitarian hearts but the fact he is backed by Iran,” said Hayat Alvi, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow; editing by Ralph Boulton