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11.01.12

Syria Conflict Contagious in the Region

Recent cross-border violence present threat that neighboring countries will be drawn into the bloody conflict. Mike Giglio reports.

In Turkey, in early October, a stray artillery shell flew across the Syrian border and killed four civilians in the quiet town of Akcakale. Turkey decided it had to fight back, launching missiles at Syrian forces that were fighting rebels along the border nearby. Since then, the exchanges have continued at a regular pace—Turkey fired on Syria again on Monday after another errant shell smashed a power line in the Turkish border province of Hatay.

By mid-month, tensions from the Syrian conflict had boiled into Lebanon, where a car bomb ripped through central Beirut, destroying a city block and assassinating a top intelligence official who had been investigating allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After the attack, violence flared as angry mobs protested against the Hizbullah-led government, denouncing it as a Syrian pawn.

In Jordan, meanwhile, U.S. special forces have been welcomed to help prepare the country’s military for the potential spread of Syria’s trouble across its border—and a skirmish last week between Jordanian forces and a group of jihadist fighters traveling to join the rebellion showed how unexpectedly that the trouble can come.

Each new incident has stoked long-running fears that the war in Syria will eventually draw its neighbors in. Now, those fears are turning increasingly to Iraq, whose own bloody history is often held up to Syria as a cautionary tale. Recent reports have suggested that the demons from Iraq’s past are surfacing across its northwestern border in Syria, where Iraqi Shiite and Sunni fighters are continuing their sectarian fight. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Iraq’s Shiite militiamen are joining Syria's war as unofficial allies of Assad, while their Sunni enemies have flocked to join the rebel cause.

Inside Iraq, meanwhile, continued bombings have left many Iraqis feeling like the country’s own religious fault lines are becoming more volatile—and that the conflict in Syria may be at least partly to blame.

For months, Syria’s rebels have been saying that Assad’s troops are being aided by Iraq’s powerful Shiite militants, who came to dominate official and unofficial corridors of power in their country as the U.S. began its drawdown. In interviews with the Daily Beast, everyone from rank-and-file fighters to the generals at the head of the main rebel military council have made this claim.

Each new incident has stoked long-running fears that the war in Syria will eventually draw its neighbors in.

They fear that the foreign fighters are working to bolster a government backed primarily by Syria’s Alawite minority, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam that makes up Assad’s power base. Assad has become increasingly reliant on that base—and their fear of the country’s Sunni majority, which makes up the bulk of the armed opposition—as his fight against the rebels grinds violently along. Activist groups estimate that at least 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, many at the hands of government war planes and artillery shells.

The Syrian opposition has stressed from that start that it welcomes all Syrians to its cause—and that the country’s minorities, which also include sizeable numbers of Christians, Kurds and Druze, would be protected after Assad’s government falls. But as the war drags on, and the rebels have found their calls for Western military assistance ignored, they have turned increasingly to backing from Sunni fundamentalists in the form of soldiers and, reportedly, weapons and cash. In an interview this summer, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told the Daily Beast that remnants of al-Qaeda—the Sunni terrorist group that views the Shiites as enemies—were even traveling from Iraq to Syria to wage jihad against the Assad government.

The Turkish city of Antakya, which sits just 12 miles from the border with Syria, is often abuzz with rumors of foreign Sunni fighters who have stopped there on their way to being smuggled into Syria. One self-described “mujahedeen,” meeting for coffee in the café of a four-star hotel in the center of town, had a Tunisian passport and spoke Arabic with a Maghreb accent. He painted his decision to fight in Syria as the next step in a line of armed struggles, including the conflicts in Chechnya and Libya, in which his religious beliefs had led him to take part. “God led me to this,” he said.

With its strategically central location—wedged between Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea—sectarian divide and long history of influence in the affairs of its neighbors, Syria’s conflict was viewed as a potential regional flashpoint from the start. The revolution began as a pro-democracy protest movement in March 2011 that drew inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But unlike in those countries, where dictators were quickly swept aside or hunted down, Syria’s struggle has spiraled into a brutal war, with violence mounting by the day. With no clear end in sight, many observers believe that the conflict in Syria will begin to look increasingly like a regional one. "We have expected other countries to get drawn in," says Firas Abi Ali, the deputy head of Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London. "The question is, to what extent."

Abi Ali says civil war could erupt in Lebanon if the Syrian conflict drags on another year, while in Iraq, the number of sectarian bombings will likely rise.

The bombing in Lebanon—which many, including members of the Lebanese government, have blamed on agents of Assad—and the influx of foreign fighters into Syria provides a window into how the Syrian conflict is likely to spread. Instead of inspiring war between countries, Abi Ali says, the situation is more likely to devolve into a “blurring of the lines of the Syrian conflict and where the Syrian conflict ends.”

In Turkey, for example, despite loud warnings and heavy retaliation every time a Syrian shell lands across its border, few analysts expect the country to go to war with Syria without a mandate from the United Nations, where the Security Council remains bitterly divided over the prospect of military action in Syria.

Instead, Turkey has openly played host to the rebellion, allowing the opposition Syrian National Council to make its headquarters in Istanbul while the official military brass of the rebel Free Syrian Army base themselves in a refugee camp near Antakya. Reports have also surfaced that Turkey has been quietly supplying the rebels with intelligence and even arms, though there has been no official acknowledgement from Turkey or undeniable proof. "I wouldn't be surprised if arms are coming through Turkey, but that doesn't mean that the government is providing them," one Turkish official told The Daily Beast, in a guarded analysis of the situation.


Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, have been alleged to be funneling weapons and cash to the rebels, though both countries have officially denied this as well.

At the same time, it is widely believed that Iran is playing an active role in helping to prop up Assad’s government, and U.S. officials have said that members of Iran’s infamous Revolutionary Guards corps were among a group of so-called pilgrims captured by opposition forces this summer. (They remain in rebel custody.) And Hizbullah—the Lebanese Shiite militia group and political party that is a long-time ally of Damascus and Tehran—has been vocal in its support of Assad while denying that it is providing his government with military help, even as it schedules burials for so-called martyrs who have died recently inside Syria.

In Iraq, the government’s position on Syria remains hard to gauge. On Monday, in the second such incident this month, officials made headlines for forcing an Iranian plane flying over Iraq’s airspace to land for inspections before it proceeded to Syria. The Iraqis said they wanted to verify that the aircraft was not carrying weapons bound for the Assad government—the search apparently came up empty—in a move that seemed designed to ease U.S. concerns that Iraq was letting Iran use its airspace to fly weapons to Syria. The Iraqi government, and particularly Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have been accused in the past of being too close to Iran.

Some analysts think Maliki may be wary of a potential rebel victory in Syria’s war. “The Iranians are spinning a very aggressive narrative about what the implications of a Sunni in Damascus will be for Shiites generally, and for Iraq specifically,” says John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “And I think it’s gaining traction with Maliki.”

But no matter where Maliki might stand on the issue, Hannah notes, the Iraqi government, like others in the region, is unlikely to wade into the dangerous conflict in Syria in any official way. “I think that this is going to stay in the shadows,” he says.