CAIRO — The prospect of U.S. military action against Syria highlights the web of regional interests in Syria's conflict, raising troubling questions about how those lined up both for and against the Syrian government might respond.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned that U.S. military action against his country would unleash a regional war.
One flaw in that threat is that, in many ways, the Syrian conflict already is.
Professor Christian Donath, of the American University in Cairo, says regional powers - from Assad opponents like Saudi Arabia to supporters like Iran - are using the war to do battle with other rivals.
"Saudis have seen Syria as an opportunity to push back on the Iranians. And the Iranians see the uprising against the Assad regime as threatening their corridor into Lebanon for their support of Hezbollah," he said. "And I think the Iraqis as well are kind of pulled into two different directions trying to sort of support the Assad regime while they have Sunni fighters going in across the borders in Syria.”
All these players are now calculating the aim of any U.S. strike: from the stated punitive action for alleged chemical weapons use, to attempted regime change.
"I think Iranians will be cautious to see how far Americans will go against Bashar al Assad and then to decide eventually about retaliations," said Mustafa Labbad, the director of the Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies. "And they have Hezbollah in Lebanon for indirect retaliations. But in this case Israel will be involved. And if Israelis are involved, Iran will be involved and maybe Israel will launch an air strike against Iran.”
Israel's concerns over Iran stem mainly from Tehran's nuclear program, not the war in Syria. But Professor Donath says a U.S. strike could give Israel cover.
"The Israelis have been really vocal for some years now about potential strikes against Iran and I think one of the things that the administration, the U.S. administration has done, has tried to restrain the Israelis and make it clear that this is not something that the U.S. wants to continue to pursue diplomatic initiatives and I think there would be, I think the U.S. would be very, very nervous to allow the Israelis to strike against Iran,” he said.
Political analyst Labbad points to apparent behind-the-scenes diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. via the Sultan of Oman, to assure Iran that any strike is not aimed at toppling Assad.
"If you look at the surface we can see an agreement between Saudi Arabia and USA on doing something against Bashar [al-Assad], " he said. "Deep inside you will see U.S.-Iranian agreement of no intention from the U.S. to topple Bashar al Assad.”
Labbad argues that despite the uncertainty, regional powers are calculating their response, for now, on a limited U.S. airstrike. If not, he says, all bets are off, and the possibility of “regional chaos” he says, grows.