Two presidential debates, especially the last one on Oct. 22 dealing with foreign policy, stressed strongly that Syria matters. And not just to Americans, but to Russia, China, Iran, Muslims and especially to the peoples of the Middle East.
Syria matters because developments there the last 20 months indicate that much is at stake for all of the peoples and countries mentioned above.
Syria matters to Russia because Moscow wants to end the hegemonic role that the U.S. has played in the region for the past 12 years, especially in Iran and Afghanistan. It wants to emphasize that the era of unilateralism that the U.S. has exercised in the region since the end of World War II is over.
Russia also wants to assert more strongly its position in the eastern Mediterranean and the role it seeks to play with regard to the large deposits of oil and natural gas discovered in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The major base that it has to pursue these goals is in Tartus, Syria. It will pursue this policy regardless of who rules Syria.
Syria also matters to China. China is the main supplier of arms and weapons systems to Iran and a major trading partner. Beijing, like Moscow, wants to assert that it too has a big geopolitical stake and that America's unilateral epoch in the Middle East has passed.
China has large and growing investments and trade with East African countries to which it wants unhindered access for which the Arab countries are vital.
Syria is also vital for Iran to be able to project its geopolitical posture into the Eastern Mediterranean and to support its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon. Hezbollah, and the many Shi'a who support it, is the strongest political power in Lebanon and a strong opponent of Israel's expansionist policies both in Lebanon as well as in the West Bank and Gaza and a strong supporter of Palestinian claims against Israel.
Syria has played a crucial role in Iran's affairs since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran when the Islamic leadership attempted to consolidate its legitimacy among Muslims by criticizing the "Zionist entity" in the eastern Mediterranean.
But what happens in Syria matters most for the Muslim countries of the Middle East, especially Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. There are several reasons for this. When Bashar al-Asad falls, and even if elements of the Ba'th regime remain, what will occur politically and sectarianly is of vital importance for the peoples of Syria.
There are two worst-case scenarios. One is that the remnants of the al-Asad regime will withdraw to their home base in the mountains along the Mediterranean — stretching from southern Turkey to Lebanon — and take their weapons, including chemical, and as much of their Air Force as they are able. This would ignite a major sectarian war with not just the Syrian Nationalists but with the Sunni Arabs including jihadists and Salafists (zealous Muslims).
If this were to occur, it would put many of the non-Sunnis at peril and possibly result in major ethnic cleansing. Some 40 percent of Syria's population are minorities, primarily Christian (Greek Orthodox-Armenian) at 12 percent; Alawite (sectarian Shi'a) at 12 percent and Kurd (Sunni Muslim) at 11 percent.
If the reports coming from Syria the past several months are correct, large numbers of Muslim Brothers, jihadists and al-Qaida elements, most of whom come from U.S. Gulf Arab allies, have joined Syrian oppositional forces. There is no doubt that the radicalism of the oppositional forces has grown over the past year.
If the civil war continues, it is bound to grow more intense. Let us hope that it doesn't.
If the Christians of Syria, especially, were to experience the same calamities that have happened to the Christian communities in Iraq, which have been reduced by half (400,000 to 500,000), it would lead to the further decimation of Christians in the central Middle East. Since many of these calamities are due to the U.S. decision to pursue a war of choice in Iraq, Americans are responsible for a goodly portion of these sad events.
That is why Syria matters.