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Syria's Uprising Sparks Regional Proxy Wars

The conflict in Syria is being shaped by the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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Al-Maliki's domination deeply worries the Saudis, who fear a "Shi'a axis" that stretches from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq to Iran, and extends to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's own Shi'a minority (who live mainly in the oil-producing region along the Gulf coast). The Saudis see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's rule as a means of achieving three aims: thwarting the emerging Shi'a axis, limiting al-Malaki's power, and damaging Iran's regional influence.

It is becoming clearer, even if firm evidence is still sparse, that Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of aiding the Syrian rebels The rebels' impact means that the survival of the Assad regime is now seriously under threat. This violent proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will, in the absence of any diplomatic or other breakthrough, increasingly shape the course of events in Syria.

There is one hope: if Russia decides that its own interests could be advanced by distancing itself from Damascus, and by encouraging a transition to a post-Assad regime in which Moscow retains reasonable influence.

It is questionable whether Vladimir Putin will reason this way and whether the United States will help in any such strategy. An outcome where Bashar al-Assad enjoys a peaceful exile in Russia would be objectionable to very many people. The alternative, though, may be a long and bitter war in Syria that risks engulfing the region.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University

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