Syria: There Goes the Neighborhood

Christopher Dickey on the threat of the Syrian war to neighboring states.

Muhammad Hamed, Reuters / Landov

Ever since the fighting started in Syria last year, there’s been talk that its neighbors would get sucked into the fray. Well, now they have: Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq—all relatively weak and unstable in their own particular ways—tried to keep a distance from this war. But the conflict has come to them with a vengeance in the form of refugees, tribal links, political deals, and covert operations sponsored by other countries. We haven’t yet seen them in open combat, but there’s every reason to expect there’s worse to come.

“We have to set very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she prepared to attend an emergency conference in Turkey on Saturday to address the Syrian crisis. “Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people.” Clinton didn’t elaborate, but such is the state of the fighting that American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar might have been the target of her remarks, and not just adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah.

The Middle East has a long history of strong nations fighting proxy wars on the territory of enfeebled ones. Ask the Lebanese, who lived through a full 15 years of savage conflict among a kaleidoscopic array of contending factions with various foreign backers in the 1970s and '80s. Much the same is happening now in Syria. But Lebanon was a tiny country where the fighting could be contained like a plague in a Petri dish. Syria is much bigger, with more neighbors, more players, more pathogens. The Turks, Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, Americans, Russians, and Israelis all have powerful interests in the outcome of the fight, and amid the confusion, the contagion spreads to those neighbors with the least resistance.

Jordan is a case in point. From afar, its King Abdullah and his beautiful Queen Rania appear to have weathered the storms of the Arab spring. But unrest in the country has been growing, and not just among disaffected urban kids with education and aspirations. The tribes that have been the bedrock support of the Hashemite Kingdom are restive and complain they are neglected. Divides run deep between the “East Bankers”—of largely Bedouin ancestry—and Palestinians who came to Jordan by the hundreds of thousands as refugees from Israel and, later, from Kuwait. Today, the demographic question in this country of 6.5 million people is so sensitive that it’s impossible to say for sure whether people of Palestinian descent are a huge minority or, as some believe, a majority of the population.

Not the least of the Jordanian government’s concerns is that the strife in Syria will force hundreds of thousands of new Palestinian refugees, who have lived in Syria for years, to flee to Jordan. That would deeply threaten what’s left of the kingdom’s political and social equilibrium, and already there are stories from the frontier that Syrian refugees are being allowed to cross, but Palestinians are not.

King Abdullah, after what might be called a show of concerned neutrality (condemning al-Assad, but avoiding overt acts to overthrow the dictator) has now demonstrated clear collaboration with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army who are fighting to oust the Damascus regime. Earlier this week, the Jordanian government helped mislead the international press into believing Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab had defected and was safe in Jordan when, it now turns out, Hijab was still in hiding in Syria. The stories were a deception to get the Syrians to call off their search and help the FSA smuggle Hijab and his family across the border into Jordan. In the region’s open code of intrigue, that’s a dead giveaway that Jordan is tied to the rebels. (One might add to this the long historic ties between the Hashemites and the Muslim Brothers when they first rose up against the al-Assad dynasty in the 1970s and early '80s. The al-Assads won’t forget that. But, in a further complication, the Brothers now challenge Hashemite authority in Jordan too.)

According to a source with close ties to the palace in Amman, the Saudis have been pressuring the king to allow arms and soldiers to move through Jordan’s northern border into Syria, but the Americans have pushed back, not least to try to protect the teetering monarchy. Doubtless Abdullah would like to do the bidding of the Gulf, which literally underwrites his regime, and the United States, which has been Jordan’s protector, but they are not bidding him to do the same thing. The king “doesn’t have the strength on the inside to maneuver his way through difficult allies,” according to this source.

The Jordanian and U.S. militaries made a conspicuous show of their close ties in May, when Jordan hosted a multinational joint exercise involving 12,000 troops under the auspices of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Central (SOCCENT). The name of the operation, Eager Lion, was widely remarked in the region: lion, in Arabic, is assad. Pentagon reporters who covered the exercises on land, sea and air parroted the official line that “while it’s not the primary intention, the exercise is meant to be noticed by Syria and Iran especially.

Meanwhile the Syrian refugees continue to come to Jordan in droves. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set up new camps and registered 40,000 people, but the actual number of Syrians in Jordan certainly is higher.

In Lebanon, too, the influx of tens of thousands of refugees, including many Palestinians, presents a potential threat to stability. But the intimate, parasitic relationship between Syria and Lebanon forged by the al-Assads over the last 40 years poses a much deeper problem. The most powerful military force in Lebanon is Hezbollah, which was built up by Iran in the 1980s and has been sustained by Tehran and Damascus ever since. It used relentless guerrilla attacks to drive Israel out of Lebanon in 2000; then fought off a full-scale Israeli assault on the ground in 2006.

But this Shiite army in Lebanon now sees the very real possibility that if Assad falls it will be surrounded by a sea of very hostile Sunni regimes. So Hezbollah reportedly has helped seal off the parts of the border between Lebanon and Syria that were used to sustain the besieged rebels in and around Homs. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, keeps reiterating his support for al-Assad. But Hezbollah is fighting, at best, a rear-guard action, and when Hezbollah feels cornered there is no telling how it will strike out, or against whom.

The most endangered Syrian neighbor of all, however, may be Iraq. The war it’s facing next door involves many of the same factions and even some of the same individuals who helped tear the country apart in the middle of the last decade. And the tensions brought on by the Syrian fighting already have threatened to put Iraqis at each other’s throats once again. Last week, when the Baghdad government sent troops toward the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq with the stated purpose of defending the frontiers from Syrian incursions, the Iraqi Kurdish army, known as peshmerga, turned out to confront the Baghdad troops. They are now encamped opposite each other in a tense standoff.

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An Iraqi with close ties to top officials in Baghdad recently laid out some of the complex emotions and strategic calculations provoked by the rebellion in Syria: “You have to remember that among many people in the government there is residual good feeling toward the elder al-Assad,” that is Hafez Assad, the late founder of the dynasty. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lived for years in Syria under the al-Assads’ protection when he and his Dawa Party were fighting, unsuccessfully, to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, also depended on the al-Assad regime’s support for many years before the American-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam. Those historical debts of gratitude are hard to deny.

At the same time, says my well-connected Iraqi friend, “we’re on the front lines. We know how porous the borders with Syria are, and we know what the consequences can be.” According to this source, many Iraqi officials decided as long as a year ago that “the point of no return had been crossed” and that al-Assad was finished, but no one has a clear idea how to manage the transition. And while all parties dither, radical Sunni jihadists—the al Qaeda types who have done so much harm in Iraq over the last decade, and continue to detonate bombs all over the country—apparently are gaining strength in Syria amid the chaos. “We are concerned that Syria could turn into a safe haven,” says my friend. “If the border breaks down and the jihadis have free reign in Syria you can imagine the consequences.”

In fact, the consequences for the region of this widening Syrian war are becoming all too easy, and all too horrible, to imagine.