Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 7 August 2012
What began as a popular uprising 17 months ago is now an all-out civil war fuelled by regional and global powers that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East. As the battle for the ancient city of Aleppo grinds on and atrocities on both sides multiply, the danger of the conflict spilling over Syria's borders is growing.
Driving the escalation of the conflict has been western and regional intervention. This isn't Iraq, of course, with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, or Libya, with a devastating bombardment from the air. But the increase in arms supplies, funding and technical support from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others in recent months has dramatically boosted the rebels' fortunes, as well as the death toll. Barack Obama has so far resisted the demands of liberal hawks for a direct military assault. Instead he's authorised traditional forms of CIA covert military backing for the Syrian rebels.
The US has long funded opposition groups. But earlier this year Obama gave a secret order authorising covert support to the armed opposition. That includes CIA paramilitaries on the ground, "command and control" and communications assistance, and the funnelling of Gulf arms supplies to favoured Syrian groups across the Turkish border. After Russia and China blocked its last attempt to win UN backing for forced regime change last month, the US administration let it be known it would now step up support for the rebels and co-ordinate "transition" plans for Syria with Israel and Turkey. Not to be outdone, William Hague boasted that Britain was also increasing "non-lethal" support for the rebels. Autocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the cash and weapons, while Nato member Turkey has set up a logistics and training base for the Free Syrian Army.
For Syrians who want dignity and democracy in a free country, the rapidly mushrooming dependence of their uprising on foreign support is a disaster – even more than was the case in Libya. After all, it is now officials of the dictatorial and sectarian Saudi regime who choose which armed groups get funding, not Syrians. And it is intelligence officials from the US who decide which rebel units get weapons.
Opposition activists insist they will maintain their autonomy, based on deep-rooted popular support. But the dynamic of external backing clearly risks turning groups dependent on it into instruments of their sponsors, rather than the people they seek to represent. Gulf funding has already sharpened religious sectarianism in the rebel camp, while reports of public alienation from rebel fighters in Aleppo this week testifies to the dangers of armed groups relying on outsiders instead of their own communities.
The Syrian regime is of course backed by Iran and Russia, as it has been for decades. But a better analogy for western and Gulf involvement in the Syrian insurrection would be Iranian and Russian sponsorship of an armed revolt in, say, Saudi Arabia. For the western media, which has largely reported the Syrian uprising as a one-dimensional fight for freedom, the now unavoidable evidence of rebel torture and prisoner executions – along with kidnappings by al-Qaida-style groups, who once again find themselves in alliance with the US – seems to have come as a bit of a shock.
In reality, the Syrian crisis always had multiple dimensions that crossed the region's most sensitive fault lines. It was from the start a genuine uprising against an authoritarian regime. But it has also increasingly morphed into a sectarian conflict, in which the Alawite-dominated Assad government has been able to portray itself as the protector of minorities – Alawite, Christian and Kurdish – against a Sunni-dominated opposition tide. But as the independent opposition leader Haytham Manna argues, the militarisation of the uprising weakened its popular and democratic base – while also dramatically increasing the death toll.
There is every chance the war could now spread outside Syria. Turkey, with a large Alawite population of its own as well as a long repressed Kurdish minority, claimed the right to intervene against Kurdish rebels in Syria after Damascus pulled its troops out of Kurdish towns. Clashes triggered by the Syrian war have intensified in Lebanon. If Syria were to fragment, the entire system of post-Ottoman Middle East states and borders could be thrown into question with it.
That could now happen regardless of how long Assad and his regime survive. But intervention in Syria is prolonging the conflict, rather than delivering a knockout blow. Only pressure for a negotiated settlement, which the west and its friends have so strenuously blocked, can now give Syrians the chance to determine their own future – and halt the country's descent into darkness. Twitter: @SeumasMilne [Abridged]