If you’ve given even scant attention to the news lately, you have noticed that Syria has been much discussed.
Why has this small Mediterranean country of 22 million citizens and vague Old Testament relevance garnered so much interest?
Again, if you’ve been paying attention, you know chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians last month, marking a new level of violence in a brutal civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that began two years ago in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
This attack provoked the United States to threaten military action for the purpose of upholding international norms against using weapons of mass destruction, which was only forestalled by President Barack Obama’s inability to persuade Congress to support military action and an 11th-hour diplomatic arrangement with Russia and Syria.
This much is common knowledge, but if this is all you know, you don’t really understand why Syria is so significant.
In a region rife with religious, strategic and economic conflicts, Syria has become the focal point of these.
Because the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, is Shiite, it is allied with Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite group that controls much of Lebanon.
Russia backs the Syrian regime because it opposes U.S. intervention for the purpose of regime change anywhere in the world and also because Russia maintains a naval base in Syria, giving it leverage in the Mediterranean.
In contrast, the Sunni rebels are supported by the major Sunni states of the Middle East, most importantly Saudi Arabia.
Although Israel is disliked by all Islamic countries, Sunni or Shiite, Israel opposes the Syrian regime because it is in Israel’s interest that a war among Muslims continues.
Israel would prefer a fragmented Syria — divided into several small states that have less power to threaten it — to a unified Syria.
Furthermore, Israel sees its greatest threat in Syrian ally Iran, which is likely developing nuclear weapons that it could potentially use against Israel.
As the United States is a strong ally of both Israel and Saudi Arabia and adamantly opposes Iran, the U.S. supports the rebels.
Ironically, this means that the U.S. is nominally on the side of Al Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist group, and against the Syrian Christian minority, which is protected by Assad.
As if this was not enough, tensions are further heightened by the fact that Syria is an obvious geographic candidate for a natural gas pipeline to Europe.
Shiite Iran and Sunni Qatar each control portions of the world’s largest natural gas field, located in the Persian Gulf.
If the Syrian regime wins, Iran can pipe gas through Shiite Iraq and Syria to Europe, netting billions of dollars.
If the Sunni rebels win, Qatar, under the strong influence of Saudi Arabia, can pipe gas to Europe and reap the rewards.
This is why both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have given crucial support to the Syrian rebels.
Thus, whether the diplomatic arrangement to remove Syrian chemical weapons succeeds or not, Syria will likely be news for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Greg Ryan is assistant professor of political science at Union University. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.