Joel Brinkley: US, Russia must work to stop snowballing Syrian crisis

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The Syrian war is spreading fast, engulfing all of its neighbors and risking even larger conflicts, while leaving the pregnant question: What's to be done before the region explodes?

First the facts: Firefights across the Iraqi border have become quite common, and many analysts believe the Sunni-Shiite violence now engulfing Iraq exploded after Iraq's Sunnis watched their brethren next door stand up to Assad, an Alawite-Shiite. Just after the latest wave of attacks that killed at least 24 people, the United Nations envoy to Iraq warned that "systemic violence is ready to explode at any moment."

In recent days, the Turkish government blamed Syria for a car bomb that killed about 50 people in a Turkish border town and wounded 100 others -- the second assault of that sort in a week -- while the Turks are also trying to deal with half-million Syrian refugees living in border camps. Relations between Turkey and Syria remain extremely tense and violent -- even as Turkey is now trying to deal with its own uprising.

The Syrian conflict is now setting Lebanese against each other once again. Late last month, Hassan Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite terror group he leads, would fight to the death in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since then, Syrians and Lebanese have repeatedly fired missiles and mortars into Hezbollah's southern Beirut suburbs. Deadly violence is spreading, including frequent street firefights in Tripoli and elsewhere -- raising fears that the Syrian war is reviving Lebanon's own sectarian conflicts. They caused a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Meantime, more than 1 million Syrian refugees are encamped in Lebanon.

Jordan, already an unstable state, is now facing "external sources of instability" that are "spillover effects of Syria's civil war," the Council on Foreign Relations said. Among the problems are frequent border clashes and the flood of refugees trying to flee across that border, too. And as Islamic jihadists stream into Syria, they are threatening Jordan, as well, while the half-million Syrian refugees already there are badly straining the state's resources.

Hundreds of Saudi mercenaries are flooding the Syrian battlefield in support of the rebels, scaring the Saudi government. It recently ordered its people to stay home. Last time large numbers of Saudis fought abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, they came home and raised arms against the monarchy.

Firefights across the Syrian border with the Israeli army in the Golan Heights are becoming more common. Israel has bombed arms shipments and other nearby Syrian military sites three times in the last year. Now that Russia has promised to deliver a shipment of S-300 advanced missile-defense systems to Damascus, Israel has suggested it will destroy them, saying they have the range to attack deep into Israel.

This time, Assad has promised to retaliate, which also could lead to a spiraling escalation in violence. And we can't know how Russia will respond if Israel destroys its missiles shortly after they arrive.

Russia and Europe's recent behavior is complicating an already tortured, tangled political-military dilemma. Just as soon as Europe announced late last month that it was not renewing its arms embargo against Syria, allowing European countries to arm Syrian rebels, Moscow vowed to respond by delivering those missiles. Late last week, Assad said the missiles had been delivered, but that hasn't been confirmed.

So what should the world do now? A few days ago, French President Francois Hollande said he was holding out for a political solution but also could not ignore the need to maintain "military pressure" on the Syrian regime. Some congressional Republicans are saying the same thing.

Unfortunately, the United States and Europe must face a discomfiting reality: You cannot defeat an internal insurgency with military force. America learned that the hard way in Vietnam, Iraq (where the U.S. spawned the insurgency) and Afghanistan.

The Syrian imbroglio is far more complex than any of those wars, now that multiple forces are vying for control, including those bitter enemies Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

This leaves the Geneva peace conference that the U.S. and Russia are trying to arrange. That effort is troubled, too. Given the multiple groups fighting in Syria, who is going to speak for the rebels? The so-called Syrian National Coalition met in Istanbul for more than a week trying to settle that question, but in truth the coalition no longer represents the majority of groups fighting in Syria.

It's up to Washington and Moscow to stop bickering so they can work to be sure this conference takes place and produces some sort of outcome that saves the region from explosive disintegration.

(Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.)

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