Two years have passed since the beginning of the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war, and the debate over whether the United States should intervene continues. Historically speaking, all one has to do to see how the next decade in Syria might play out is look at two of its neighbors. Like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon had previously been defined by decades of minority rule over an antagonistic majority population. And like both Iraq and Lebanon, Syria has seen an outbreak of brutal sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, with no end in sight. This is the nature of this type of conflict — it will not quickly flame out with the entrance of a benevolent intervention force. The United States must contain the violence before it spreads across the region, not stoke the flames by appearing to align with any one faction by intervening militarily.
Fareed Zakaria made the point, citing U.S. experience in Iraq, that violence and instability would not end with any level of U.S. intervention in his latest column for TIME magazine. Zakaria, like Syria researcher Joshua Landis, believes the underlying tensions between the Alawites and other minority groups and the Sunni-Arab majority define this conflict in its current state. It is hard to argue with this logic. The signs of full-blown sectarian conflict are evident in Syria and have regional implications. Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah has wholeheartedly thrown its lot in with the Assad regime and has been cited as one of the main reason pro-government forces have gained the upper hand against the rebels.
The regime's targeting of Sunnis in traditional Alawite strongholds along the Syrian coast could either be a first step in the creation of an Alawite enclave there, or be a way for Assad to reinforce sectarian divides and strengthen unity in his faction. Conversely, Sunnis have also targeted Alawites and other minorities. Despite the efforts of a PR campaign by the Free Syrian Army to appear inclusive, the Syrian opposition remains Sunni dominated. Questions of command-and-control and the support (even among moderates) of Sunni extremists like the Al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, plague the opposition and its viability of being anything but a sectarian militia.
The situation presents no entrance point for the United States to take dramatic military action. However, it must do something as the violence is spreading in a tangible way. Hezbollah’s entrance into the Syrian theater, ostensibly targeting Sunnis, has stoked sectarian sentiment in Lebanon. Iraq has fared much worse in recent weeks, engulfed in some of the nastiest violence in years. The combination of Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese violence along the same Sunni-Shiite divide could lead to a bloody showdown between these two groups across the Levant. Bashar Al-Assad will not come out of this as the leader in Syria, but the United States' main priority must be to contain the violence and not haphazardly destroy Assad's regime without knowing the repercussions and the effects it will have on minority sects. Fear more than reality has pushed the Alawite and other minority communities to back Assad and more importantly, hate and fear the Syrian opposition. The U.S. can certainly affect the outcome of the current conflict, but it cannot stop the sectarian violence that has come to define it.