On Friday, a large bomb in the Christian section of Beirut killed an important Lebanese security official along with many others. People were quick to point fingers at Lebanon’s largest neighbour, including one parliament member, who said: “It is such a big explosion that only the Syrian regime could have planned it.” Whoever masterminded the attack, it is clear that the Syrian conflict has spilled well beyond its borders.
As the violence in Syria builds, powers outside the region are unable or unwilling to do much more than send in more weapons and watch what happens next. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – and its election year political implications – leave Washington even less keen than before on direct engagement with the various groups collectively known as Syria’s opposition. In Europe, leaders have their hands full with the eurozone crisis. China has no interest in greater involvement, and the Russians are content to sell
Bashar al-Assad more weapons.
But this is no ordinary civil war. It is a conflict of growing consequence for much of the Middle East. In short, Syria’s stalemate is becoming not only more costly but more dangerous, for the entire region.
Cross-border clashes involving Turkey’s military are unlikely to provoke a full-scale war, but they are generating more than enough uncertainty and anger to keep both sides on high alert. Ankara and Damascus are no longer communicating directly, and Turkey has adjusted its military rules of engagement to treat the proximity of Syrian troops near the border as a threat to Turkey’s national security. As with any such standoff, the risk that a simple miscalculation will trigger an escalation that no one can control is growing.
Then there is the Kurdish issue. In response to Turkey’s support for Syrian rebel groups, Mr al Assad has struck an implicit deal with a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the PYD, a group that has exploited the growing power vacuum in
northern Syria to increase its activity there. The Turkish military is already struggling to contain a new wave of PKK attacks within its borders – the deadliest since the 1990s. If the Assad regime increases its support for the PKK and new terrorist attacks originating from Syria hit Turkish cities, Ankara will find it tough not to escalate its low-level battle with
Syria’s turmoil is creating anxiety across other borders as well. In Lebanon, instability in the north of the country has allowed Syrian rebels to create a logistical arms base.
If the Lebanese government cannot act to stop this, Mr al-Assad may well order cross-border attacks, exacerbating already intense political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s long-term concern rests with the makeup of the regime that succeeds Mr al-Assad. If a radical Sunni Islamist – perhaps even Salafist – movement comes to prominence, it could provide support for Sunni Islamists inside Iraq.
In addition, though Israel’s government would love to see the back of the Assad regime, the risk of Syria becoming a failed state will pose a new and direct threat to Israel’s national security. Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri has publicly signaled that a presence in Syria is a jihadist priority. Extremists need not take power in Syria to pose a threat. They need merely find room to operate if and when the country becomes ungovernable.
Finally, Jordan’s Hashemite regime finds itself increasingly surrounded by unfriendly governments. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and regional demand for democratic change is a problem, but the presence of Islamists in Syria could create challenges inside Jordan that its government has only begun to address.
In short, it’s one thing for outsiders to resist direct involvement in a Syrian civil war. But as the conflict generates new risks across the region, it will become much more difficult for foreign powers to remain aloof.