The impact of the Syrian conflict on neighbouring states

A short piece I did on the impact of the Syrian Civil War on the Middle East region in June 2013. Offers some insight into whats going on in light of recent reports of possible US/NATO military action against the Assad regime in response to the chemical attack last week in Damascus' Ghouta area which left 500-1,300 people dead. 

The conflict in Syria has been ongoing since 2011 and has left approximately 100,000 people dead, tens of thousands more wounded and displaced millions, internally and externally. The war is being fought between the Syrian government (mainly Alawite) and a predominantly Sunni rebellion. The Syrian government forces comprise the military, police and civilian militia which are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party. The regime is also allied to Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shiite militia group, which has deployed hundreds of its fighters to Syria in recent months.

Internationally, the government is supported politically, financially and militarily (with weaponry) by Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent, China. The rebellion is led by a number of groups. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) represents the majority of the rebel fighters, including the well-known Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are also various extremist Islamist brigades (comprising both local and foreign jihadists) with the most prominent being the large and well-resourced Al-Nusra Front, which is partially aligned to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Kurd factions in the north east have also armed and are generally supportive of the rebellion; however, they are largely motivated by independent goals and disagree with the Islamists and the NCSROF about their post-conflict political vision. The war in 2013 has fluctuated greatly between periods of rebel gain and regime gain; however, at present, the Syrian regime is making significant strides in the Damascus, Homs and Aleppo governorates and there are increasing signs that the opposition is splitting into various factions.

It is currently unclear how much longer the war in Syria will last. The duration of the conflict is dependent on many factors, including the potential involvement of a foreign power, such as the US, in the fighting or an increase in supply of rebel or regime forces by their respective international partners. Decisive battlefield victories by either side could force a negotiated settlement or result in the military defeat of one side or the other. At present, the Syrian conflict endgame is unknown. What is known, however, is that the war is having an increasing impact on Syria’s neighbours, namely Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and this is likely to worsen in at least the short- to medium-term.

In addition to its geographic proximity, Lebanon’s ethnic and religious composition closely resembles that of Syria, and political parties in the state are defined, in part, by their support of or opposition to the Syrian regime. This is largely a result of Syria’s recent historical connection to the country; Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1990) until 2005 when it withdrew following the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. The country’s two primary political blocs are the March 8 and March 14 alliances. The March 8 is led by Hezbollah and Amal, two Shiite Muslim parties, which have close links to the Alawite Muslim-dominated Syrian regime, and the March 14, which is led by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Future Movement that is supportive of the Syrian rebellion. Although these two blocs have been at odds since 2005, the war in Syria has served to further polarise the two. The government’s inability to settle even the most basic of disputes has worsened even further, leading to a postponement of the planned June legislative election and the extension of the current Parliament’s mandate to late 2014. Furthermore, following the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March the blocs have failed to agree on a consensus cabinet to replace the outgoing government.

Growing security issues have also been a consequence. Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon placing enormous economic pressure on the country. This large presence of refugees (that currently accounts for 10 percent of the total Lebanese population) has resulted in rising tensions with locals. Syrians have been increasingly targeted in armed attacks and kidnappings, and refugees have been widely blamed for the spike in criminal incidents in the country. In addition, the east and north of the country have witnessed a spike in violence involving rival armed groups. Tripoli, in particular, has been affected by numerous bouts of fighting between militiamen aligned or sympathetic to the various combatants in the Syrian conflict. Clan violence, sporadic targeted kidnappings of opposition members and conflict spillover in the immediate border region in the Bekaa and North governorates have also been regularly reported.

The Lebanese polity’s widening polarisation, the weakness of its security forces and the country’s proximity to the conflict zone are all likely to keep the country susceptible to the conflict in neighbouring Syria over the medium-term at least.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict the Turkish government has emerged as a vocal critic of the Assad regime. It currently allows rebel forces a safe haven and offers these forces critical resupply channels through its territory. The war itself has had a significant impact in areas along the country’s lengthy border with Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are currently based in camps near the border and more people continue to flow into the country in response to heavy fighting in Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Conflict spillover has also occurred on occasion. In October 2012, Syrian military shelling landed in Turkey killing five Turkish citizens. As a result, Turkish forces responded against Syrian military personnel. This followed a June 2012 incident during which Syrian military forces shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean. In May 2013, two car bombs detonated in Reyhanli in Turkey’s Hatay province killing 43 people. The Turkish government blamed militants aligned to the Syrian government for the attack, which followed two months after a car bomb detonated near the border crossing point between the two countries near Cilvegozu and Bab al-Hawa in the Reyhanli vicinity. Thirteen people were killed, including three Turkish civilians and ten Syrian nationals. The Turkish government blamed the attack on persons linked to the Syrian military and intelligence services.

These limited cross-border incidents have threatened a wider confrontation; however, these are currently assessed as being insufficient reason for Turkey to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, concerns persist that any significant aggravation against Turkish territory or interests linked to the Syrian regime may lead the Turkish government to intervene more directly in the conflict. This possibility becomes increasingly likely should Turkey perceive that its national interests are being threatened. Turkey has also been accused of supporting Islamist militants in northern Syria against Kurd groups. Seeking to contain its own Kurd separatist campaign in the south east, Turkey is likely to continue to support armed groups in Syria against its traditional opponents. This support could have long-term consequences for the Turkish government depending on the outcome of the conflict in Syria.

The impact of the conflict in Syria on the security and political situation in Iraq is difficult to quantify. Since 2003, the country has been affected by severe and heightened sectarian tensions and insecurity, which has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. Identifying any broader impact is therefore difficult in a country which continues to experience near-daily violence involving Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities. What is clear is that the war in Syria has impacted directly on the shared border region with Iraq. Fighting between rebels and Syrian regime forces has been regularly reported in close proximity to the border, leading to the closure of the shared border at times. Cross-border armed incursions have also occurred. In March, unidentified gunmen ambushed an Iraqi security force convoy transporting recently wounded Syrian regime personnel to the al-Waleed border crossing for repatriation back to Syria. The attack left approximately 40 Syrian soldiers and officials dead. Further incidents are anticipated along the shared border but given the low population densities in eastern Syria, a significant escalation in cross-border spillover is not anticipated as it is in Lebanon which is located in close proximity to major Syrian urban centres.

Sunni militants in Iraq have attempted to establish closer links to their compatriots in Syria. In April, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that his group was joining with Syria’s Al-Nusra Front to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The announcement was denied by some members of Al-Nusra Front and served to split the Syrian group between those that reject a connection to the Iraqi jihadists and those that support the move. The actual immediate value of this announcement is questionable. While hundreds of jihadists have deployed to Syria to aid the rebel cause, ISI and Al-Nusra’s immediate priorities remain quite different and focused on domestic pursuits. The potential impact of the connection between the two organisations is only likely to become clear once the war in Syria concludes. Should the rebels emerge victorious, ISI could, potentially, have a major staging area in Syria in Al-Nusra-controlled territory from which to launch attacks against the Iraqi government. Should the Syrian regime emerge victorious, Islamist militants are likely to return to Iraq and will in all likelihood join established extremist groups, such as the ISI/AQI, in their insurgency against the Iraqi government. The post-conflict scenario presents Iraq with a major and potentially destabilising period.

Finally, should the war in Syria end with a rebel victory, the establishment of a Kurd autonomous region in north eastern Syria remains a good probability given the Kurds already well-established and organised presence there. Any establishment of a Kurd region, akin to the one currently in place in northern Iraq (Kurdistan Regional Government), is likely to bolster general Kurd goals for a single Kurd state and will raise tensions with Turkey and Iran, which are both battling Kurd separatist ambitions in their south east and north west respectively. It is too soon to determine what approach Iran and Turkey, or Iraq for that matter, will take towards any future Kurd federal government in Syria or the Kurds generally; however, given past precedent the policy is likely to be confrontational.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has experienced a major influx of refugees with approximately 500,000 displaced people moving into the country since 2011. The Jordanian government has dealt adequately with the crisis and established a number of camps for the refugees. Apart from the movement of displaced persons into the country the Syrian conflict has had a limited impact on Jordan to date with only sporadic rocket and mortar fire affecting the immediate border region. Some refugee areas experience occasional unrest related to living conditions. These security incidents are expected to continue in the near-term. The good management of the crisis is largely a result of the government’s non-intervention policy with regard to the Syrian conflict and due to the ability of its security forces. The well-resourced and trained Jordanian military and police have increased their operational presence in the north of the country since 2011 to manage the flow of refugees, check incidents of conflict spillover and limit Jordanian nationals (would-be militants and smugglers) from entering Syria.

The medium- to long-term impact of the war on Jordan remains uncertain. Like Iraq, any post-conflict scenario may witness a return of Jordanians fighting in Syria to Jordan. Existing anti-government sentiment among Jordan’s Salafist community may increase further and develop into a more confrontational position, including armed agitation. Further to this, Jordan has allowed the US military to base a small contingent in its territory to assist its own security forces. While this presence does boost the country’s overall defensive posture it also opens it up to possible retaliatory unrest/violence from anti-Western groups based in the country and wider region, which are already heavily critical of the country’s pro-Western stance.

Israel is watching the unfolding Syrian conflict with significant concern. Of particular worry for the Jewish state is the possible deployment of chemical weapons in Syria or the transfer of these and other heavy weapons to its opponents in Lebanon, specifically Hezbollah. Israel has already increased its military’s alert levels in northern Israel and conducted at least three separate air attacks against suspected arms shipments in Syria (31 January and 3 and 5 May 2013) raising the ire of the Syrian regime, which has threatened to retaliate against any future Israeli action. Israel is likely to continue to act aggressively against possible shipments to Hezbollah, with which it fought a month-long war in 2006, as it likely assesses the Syrian regime's ability to respond as limited. While the Syrian regime is not expected to take on Israel while battling its domestic opponents, it has, however, given anti-Israeli militant groups the green light to conduct attacks against Israeli interests in the Golan Heights. However, no attacks have been forthcoming as yet.

At present, the impact of the Syrian crisis on Israel remains relatively contained. Israel has formidable military capabilities and can likely repulse or deal with any militant raid or Hezbollah offensive against its territory. It is likely to continue to act aggressively against any potential threats to its security, be it in Lebanon (against Hezbollah) or Syria, and further air strikes should be anticipated. In time, extra-territorial Israeli military activity could prompt Hezbollah to respond; however, as the militant group is also currently battling rebels in Syria, on behalf of the Syrian regime, the group is unlikely to deliberately instigate a conflict at present. In a post-Syrian conflict scenario the possibility of a confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel is high, particularly if the Syrian regime emerges victorious. The make-up of the post-conflict Syrian government is also important for Israel. Should the current regime remain in place, the status quo with the Assad regime is likely to re-emerge – essentially a state of affairs where both sides maintain an aggressive policy stance towards the other but do not instigate a conflict due to the costs of doing so. Should the regime fall and a rebel government emerge, the reaction from Israel will depend on the make-up of that government. A rebel government with a strong Islamist character is not in Israel’s interests.

The conflict in Syria will have a lasting impact on the country and the region regardless of its outcome. The large presence of refugees is expected to take a significant financial toll on and influence security environments of the various states along Syria’s border. Sectarian tensions exacerbated by the war will remain elevated for the medium-term and will serve to influence political systems and international relationships. These influences are expected to be largely negative and pre-existing tensions, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, could worsen further and develop into open conflict.

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