Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Conflict spreads from Syria

Concerns are growing that the Syrian crisis will soon cross borders, though the Syrian revolutionaries dismiss such fears, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian people have lived through two difficult years that have transformed the country into a battleground for a proxy war for many regional and international parties, with Iranians, Iraqis, Russians, Saudis, Qataris, Turks, members of Hizbullah, the Al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) all fighting in the country.

The uprising began with demonstrations against the arrest and torture of a group of children, and it has continued with the acts of a people wanting to overthrow the last Arab dictatorship.

Once the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad began using its military machine at full capacity, the people paid a high price. Nearly 100,000 Syrians have been killed, one million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, millions have been displaced inside the country, and their future is as frightening as their past.

For two years, the West has shown hesitation in dealing with the Syrian crisis, attempting to adopt “balanced” policies on the conflict and refusing to arm the opposition.

It has insisted that a political solution must be found, in the hope of compelling both sides to reach a peaceful settlement. However, it has not contributed to ending the violence, and the regime has ignored its policies because it views them as a threat to its existence.

Instead, it has escalated the violence whenever the revolutionaries have accomplished a new victory, and intervention by its allies has prevented the regime’s defeat.

The absence of a clear western strategy in dealing with the Syrian uprising has sent out mixed messages to countries in the region, with each doing what would best accomplish its own goals. This has served the interests of the Syrian regime and has intensified the violence.

The Syrian conflict has flung the doors open for interference by regional and international players, deepening and aggravating the crisis. There have been signs that the conflict could expand to the entire region, making the West realise that the regional expansion of the Syrian conflict could only be a matter of time.

 Interference in the conflict by Iran and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah could transform the crisis into a trans-border conflict.

For the time being, neither Turkey nor Jordan has sent combatants into Syria, and neither have the Gulf states seeking to overthrow the regime. These countries have not sent weapons openly to the revolutionaries, and only the strategic axis stretching from Tehran via Baghdad to Hizbullah in Lebanon has given sustained military support to the regime.

This axis has been trying to redraw the strategic balance in the region through political and logistical support for the regime, as well as indirect military support. The positions of some countries in this axis have also triggered domestic unrest.

In Lebanon, tensions are rising between Shiite Hizbullah, which supports the Syrian regime, and Sunni Lebanese political groups. Although the Lebanese leadership has declared it will “disassociate itself” from events in Syria, Hizbullah, which is pro-Iran, has assisted the Syrian regime politically and logistically since the start of the uprising.

Hizbullah members told the media recently that the group was training 20,000 fighters to intervene in the Syrian uprising, a larger contingent than took part in the conflict with Israel in 2006.

This threatens transferring the war to Lebanon, which has already witnessed bloody clashes between Shiites and Sunnis in Tripoli in the north of the country.

At the beginning of this month, the FSA said Hizbullah was planning to send some 5,000 combatants to Syria in order to prevent the revolutionaries from retaking Homs, where the regime has been losing control.

It added that Hizbullah was training fighters in the Western Beqaa region of Lebanon before sending them to Syria, and that it had set up observation posts and deployment positions near Syrian border villages to prevent the revolutionaries from using the road connecting Damascus with coastal villages that are the birthplace of the regime and the reservoirs of its militias.

The FSA urged the Lebanese government to take steps against Hizbullah. Meanwhile, the UN has asked Lebanon to stay out of the crisis in order to avoid a possible spillover.

At the same time, Iran has continued to give political and military support to the Syrian regime. The armed Syrian opposition has arrested members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and returned them in a prisoner-exchange deal, and reports indicate that Iran has been involved in supplying the regime with weapons and military equipment.

According to the Syrian opposition, IRG members are fighting alongside the Syrian military.

Tehran has requested that Syrian and Bahraini issues be added to the agenda of the talks with the 5+1 countries on Iran’s nuclear programme, even though there is no direct connection between the two issues.

In the same week, a key adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khomeini suggested that Syria should be ‘annexed’ to Iran as a 35th Iranian province.

Iraq has also become involved in the Syrian conflict. At the beginning of the month, Iraqi forces bombed the Syrian border town of Al-Yarabiya, killing several FSA fighters.

The Syrian opposition has viewed this as an invasion by Iraq of Syrian territory, and it has said that Iraq is now not only intervening in a proxy war on behalf of Iran but that it is also taking part in a war in support of the Syrian regime.

The West has accused Iraq of facilitating the transportation of Iranian combatants and weapons from Tehran to Damascus, with the US protesting against Iraqi moves and the Syrian opposition saying that Iran has been directing Iraqi and Hizbullah leaders.

Iraqi support for the Syrian regime has raised political tensions in Iraq between the pro-Iranian government that supports the Syrian regime and the country’s Sunni-majority and Kurdish provinces.

The Iraqi government has ignored demands for a fairer sectarian balance in Iraq, and it has stepped up its suppression of Sunni demonstrations, threatening a further round of violence in Iraq triggered by the situation in Syria.

If the violence restarts in Iraq, neighbouring states such as Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries could find themselves involved in a destructive cycle. The battle will not only be about Iraq’s immense oil resources, but also about the future balance of power in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Israel has been on a state of alert owing to fears that the Syrian revolutionaries could turn their guns on it if they succeed in overthrowing the regime in Damascus. These fears have been compounded by a decision to halt patrols by the international peace-keeping forces monitoring the ceasefire between Syria and Israel.

The decision came as a reaction to the arrest by armed opposition groups of 21 peace-keepers from the Philippines for three days last week. There has been concern that the UN monitoring forces may fall apart, leading to the spread of the Syrian crisis to Israel and resulting repercussions.

The effect of the war in Syria on regional countries has been broadly two-fold, including military and security issues and economic and social burdens.

There are now 1.1 million Syrian refugees in the four neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, adding up to a significant human, economic and social burden for these countries.

The UN, Arab and Western countries, as well as several Arab and international relief agencies, have been trying to alleviate the effects of these human waves such that they do not trigger security and other problems.

However, the assistance has so far been insufficient, and Antonio Guterres, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), recently warned of a possible “explosion” in the region.

“I believe that if the conflict in Syria continues, there is a danger that the Middle East will explode,” Guterres said. “Then there will be no way of dealing with the humanitarian, political and security challenges.”

He said assisting in ending the conflict in Syria “is not only a moral obligation, but is a necessity to keep world peace and security”.

The Syrian opposition believes Hizbullah, the Iraqi government and the Iranian leadership have all adopted sectarian positions regarding the Syrian revolution, since sectarianism is the common denominator between the three.

Each wants the Syrian revolution to erupt into a trans-border sectarian war as a way of justifying their intervention in regional affairs and their attempts to dominate various Arab countries, the opposition says.

The US has made mistakes in dealing with the crisis, and for two years it has refused to intervene to end the conflict. It has blocked deliveries of advanced weapons to the revolutionaries out of fears of possible terrorism, leaving the stage wide open to regional states to intervene and ignite the situation further.

It has also made the Syrian regime feel relatively safe, causing it to escalate the violence. Some revolutionary forces have also raised their combat levels. As a result, attention has been distracted from overthrowing the regime towards fighting jihadist groups, muddling the situation and confusing its supporters.

The political and armed opposition in Syria says that developments in the country constitute a revolution against a tyrannical authoritarian regime and that this has nothing to do with regional conflicts, whether such assumptions are made by the UN secretary-general or by Western politicians and observers.

It adds that it would be capable of achieving the goals of the revolution if regional forces did not intervene to support the regime.

The West is fearful that the Syrian crisis could spill over into neighbouring states and spark unrest. But observers believe the US should be able to end the crisis by correcting its mistakes and deciding its priorities based on the balance of power in the region.

According to the Syrian opposition, toppling the regime is the only way to stop a descent into potentially devastating regional violence.


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