Syria’s neighbors: protagonists and victims

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The war in Syria has been ravaging for the past 18 months and has no end in sight. Despite what many analysts and policymakers think, namely, defections from key members of the regime and the security apparatus have been minor. Moreover, desertions from the army, in the thousands, have not altered the existing military balance of power favoring the regime forces over the opposition. The war in Syria is not different from a proxy battle, waged by one group of backers (Iran and Russia) and another, supporting the Free Syrian Army (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US). Not all of the players involved realize that its spillover effects, manifesting themselves across sectarian lines, extend well beyond Syrian borders and will have a long-lasting impact upon the regional balance of power.

With Europe constantly on the verge of financial crises, the US already overwhelmed by its election month, Russia and China vetoing UN resolutions against Syria, it is unsurprising that consensus over “red lines” beyond which intervention could not be postponed has yet failed to emerge.

Intervention could take different shapes, as the Turkish leadership often underlines, and as the French have come to appreciate: for a start, the creation of buffer zones of those areas controlled by rebels at the Syrian borders would provide a politically strong signal that the international community will not be a bystander anymore. These areas would subsequently need to be secured through a no-fly zone, patrolled by international air forces. And then, should this fail to meet the target (deter attacks in the minimalist version, a collapse of the regime in the wider interpretation of the policy), a military operation, with limited boots on the ground and as much unmanned aerial vehicles as possible, would come next.

This is on paper. In reality there are numerous events unfolding in parallel, inside and outside Syria, which will have an impact for years to come for Syria and many of its neighbors.

First and foremost there is an ever worsening humanitarian tragedy: the UN has recently estimated that 2.5 million Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian aid, with at least half of them internally displaced.

This tragedy has immediate repercussions outside: so far, 15,000 Syrian refugees have asked asylum in the EU, while 260,000 are currently hosted in neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. This number is expected to reach 600,000 by the end of 2012. The international community has pledged huge sums but has delivered so far limited amounts, ranging around one third of what it should contribute.

Humanitarian considerations aside, the conflict is taking a sectarian turn, transforming fellow citizens into enemies across the Sunni-Shia divide (Alawites are a Shia sect), with Syrian Kurds playing their game, among pressures by both Iraqi Kurds and Turkish Kurds. While the revolt started as a cross-sectarian, non-violent, democratic and inclusive movement, the tide has changed, through militarization on the one hand and sectarization on the other. The risk is that the longer and bloodier the conflict, the more engrained these cleavages will become. This, according to many analysts, would lead to a sectarian partition of a post-Assad Syria, between the overwhelming Sunni majority (70% of the population), Alawites, Kurds (10%) and Druzes. Were effective power-sharing agreements adopted, this could look like today’s Iraq: democratic and yet unstable. In the worst case scenario, on the other hand, with no agreement among the different confessional groups, the risk of the country’s disintegration would be high. In that context, the unification of the Syrian opposition continues to represent a work in progress. Through a number of meetings, chaired by outside powers, the attempt is to widen the constituency of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian National Council, mainly sponsored by Qatar and Turkey and featuring a strong representation of Muslim Brotherhood elements, has partially responded to the calls from the international community to enlarge its base, but progress remains slow.

The internal sectarian dynamic is causing immense regional spillover effects, creating or inflaming cleavages.

In Lebanon, on the surface, things look quiet. The government, led by Najib Azmi Mikati, is doing its best to insulate the Cedars republic from the Syrian war. What it cannot do is prevent Hezbollah from an active engagement across the borders. The military wing of the movement is providing pro-government militia training, weapons and logistical support - in accordance with Iranian strategic imperatives. A further risk down the road is the fate of the arsenal of chemical weapons. Should these fall into the hands of Hezbollah, Israel would have much to worry.

In Iraq, most policymakers are aware that the country (and Lebanon) are the two most vulnerable states, should Syria fall and be torn apart. This acknowledgement is seemingly pushing for Sunni-Shia rapprochement, induced by the fear of going back to a post-2005 scenario. This is far from representing a guarantee of coexistence and refrain from using the sectarian card in domestic political games in the near future.

Lastly, Turkey sees the collapse of its “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine, both outside and inside: hosting the Syrian National Council, Ankara fears for the security of its territory, being aware of terrorist infiltrations as well as of Kurdish attacks. The Kurdish issue was one the AKP had seemed optimist about in the early days of the last elections. Now, however, feeling already in the 2014 presidential electoral campaign, Erdogan has renounced to try to break an agreement with the Kurds. Episodes of tension and violence between the Kurdish minority and the Turkish army are increasing by the day. The fear in Turkey, vis-à-vis Syria, is that should the regime collapse, the Kurdish issue would explode throughout the region. It is no mystery that within such a scenario, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) would try to turn Syria into a strategic front against Turkey. On their side, Iraqi Kurds are starting to plan the foundation of a Kurdish Syrian region.

The region is experiencing a massive wave of changes, which, far from representing minor adjustments from the Arab Awakening, are causing a deep and continuing reconfiguration of relations, power and outlooks. While the Middle East has often times been defined as “in turmoil” and inherently unstable, this time around we know one thing for sure: the longer the war in Syria, the higher costs will be for the region as a whole. The complexity of the challenges emerging from any scenario that will develop in Syria is an aspect that should be taken into account in all those instances where the international community discusses its role vis-à-vis an intractable crisis.