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How the Syrian Civil War Is Engulfing the Entire Middle East

Syria's crisis has spread to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq—and it's only going to get worse.

A bloodied Syrian flag.
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After over two years of burning from within, the Syrian civil war’s violence is now spreading to neighboring countries, sparking a regional crisis. Consequences of the blood-soaked struggle between rebels and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are visible in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the occupied Golan Heights, and the occupied Palestinian territories, and all indicators suggest the destruction will only ripple further.

After the conflict began in March 2011, it quickly evolved from an unarmed uprising against an autocratic regime to a full-scale armed rebellion. The United Nations estimates that over 80,000 people have been killed on both sides.

Much like the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the crisis in Syria threatens to swallow its neighbors in a violent tsunami of competing sectarian interests. The civil war is a microcosm of a broader clash for hegemony between American imperial design and its Russian and Iranian adversaries.

From placards to RPGs

When protests first broke out in Damascus and Dera’a over two years ago, Syrians had been living under martial law for 48 years under a dictatorial father-and-son operation that smacks of monarchy. Protesters were peaceful, demanding the release of political prisoners and democratic reforms.

Fully aware of the awesome revolutionary wave that had swept the Middle East and North Africa and already dethroned two Western-backed rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, Al-Assad’s regime responded with force while introducing cosmetic reforms that left his grasp on the country unscathed. A handful of political prisoners were freed and granted amnesty, and the government cabinet was dismissed.

Desperate to preserve his reign and fend off rising Islamist factions, Al-Assad did what illegitimate rulers across the region had been doing for over half a century: he accused the wide umbrella of anti-regime factions—democrats, leftists, secularists, and Islamists alike—of being Israeli agents. In response, the Syrian opposition put down its placards and took up arms.

Turkish Neo-Ottomanism

The Turkish government, under the lead of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately endorsed the Syrian opposition. The country’s much praised “zero problems” with neighbors policy went out the window, and Syrian refugee camps quickly sprouted across the area hugging the Turkish side of the border.

Turkish policy-makers are driven by a number of motivations. On a personal level, there is a certain air of revenge; Damascus had supported the Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey until 1998 and harbored the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdallah Ocalan. Only when Turkey threatened Syria with force was Ocalan expelled from Damascus and support for open rebellion stopped, though clandestine funding and intelligence probably continued to flow to the PKK’s armed faction.

Considering regional shifts, on the other hand, the 11-year parliamentary dominance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ushered in strategic and ideological changes that envision a different role for Turkey in the broader Middle East. Politically Islamist, economically neoliberal and socially conservative in character, the party’s advent has led Ankara to abandon tiring efforts to join the European Union. Rather, its gaze has turned eastward, and Turkish leaders are ostensibly seeking to assert regional hegemony over its Syrian neighbor at the expense of Iran and Hezbollah.

But Turkey’s vocal support and behind-the-scene interventions have not been without consequences. The clout Erdogan had been building up on the Arab street by standing with Palestinians has been called into question by Turkish meddling in Syria. The diplomatic scuffle following the 2010 murderous Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara flotilla had increased Erdogan’s popularity immensely. But siding with the Free Syrian Army unconditionally will likely prove problematic in a region that is increasingly divided on Syria.

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