World

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.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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.

Blowback has not been limited to the diplomatic arena either: on May 11, a pair of car bombs in Turkish border town took the lives of at least 40 people. Reyhanli, a Turkish village that has hosted Syrian refugees and rebels alike, “was not chosen by coincidence,” said Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc. He vowed that Turkey was ready to “do whatever is necessary” if it turns out that the Syrian regime is behind the “terrorist attacks.”

As of February 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 182,621 Syrians refugees in Turkey. Age-old racial tensions surfaced as a result, and “anti-immigrant, anti-Arab discourses have surfaced among the Turkish public,” according to researcher Senay Ozden.

Spilling Into Lebanon: Reflections of Civil War

Lebanon, so often serving as a battlefield for other warring countries, has always been helplessly wed to its Syrian neighbor. Long divided along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s own civil war is largely analogous to the enduring violence in Syria. Predictably, Lebanese fighters have begun to saturate the battlefields. Sunnis from Tripoli and surrounding areas in northern Lebanon have been joining the opposition in droves, and the Shia organization Hezbollah has been sending thousands of fighters to defend the regime as well as to areas heavily populated by Shia Lebanese living and working in Syria.

Only on May 25 did Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah formally acknowledge his organization’s intervention in Syria. On June 4, Damascus claimed victory in the strategically keystone town of Qusayr, where Hezbollah fighters have poured in for weeks. According to the Guardian, “Rebel groups…confirmed that they had pulled out of the town…taking refuge in hamlets near Syria’s third city, Homs, 20 miles to the north.” The opposition immediately claimed that “Syrian forces [were] aided by Iranian militias” and “thousands of Lebanese mercenaries.”

After a 17-day offensive, regime forces and their Hezbollah allies, having ostensibly chalked up a victory in Qusayr, have proceeded to use “missiles to bombard Eastern Bweida,” a nearby village where displaced civilians and rebels alike have taken refuge.

But Hezbollah’s intervention has sparked problems on the home front. Anti-Assad Lebanese organizations—some of which resent the Syrian regime for its decades-long occupation of Lebanon, with others supporting the Islamist factions of the opposition—have attacked Shia-majority neighborhoods and vowed Hezbollah would pay the price.

On June 1, a series of rocket attacks against Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and elsewhere threatened to ignite decades-old tensions between Lebanese sects.

Hegemonic Designs

As the United States, Russia, Iran, and Israel all sketch out their own designs for Syria’s future, the country has become the latest battlefield in an ongoing struggle for regional hegemony in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama, who previously said chemical weapons were the “red line” vis-à-vis intervention, has found himself in a precarious situation. Britain and France alike have claimed to discover incontrovertible evidence that Al-Assad’s forces have employed chemical weapons against civilian populations. Aware of the inevitable difficulty of selling chemical weapons claims to the American public with deception fresh in its mind, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Obama administration is not yet convinced. Nonetheless, he added, “the president’s red line is real; the president said it would be a game-changer.”

America’s closest ally, though, has already intervened in Syria. Israel has bombed Syrian territory at least three times since this year. The latest airstrike in early May targeted a military research center in Damascus, killing dozens. Israel and the United States immediately defended the strike, arguing that Israel has a right to take preemptive action to prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

“The policy of preventing leakage of significant weaponry and advanced systems to Hezbollah is right, otherwise we could encounter it here in Israel,” said former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Iran, on the other hand, declared its readiness to train the Syrian army, though Western officials have been accusing Tehran of interference since the outbreak of the fighting two years ago. Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah, depends on the land route through Syria for the delivery of arms and munitions. Al-Assad’s collapse threatens to usher in a new leadership hostile to Iran, which would leave Hezbollah alone to fend off Israel.

Following the Israeli strikes on Syria, Russia announced that it will deliver a number of weapons to Damascus, namely state of the art S-300 air defense missiles. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, known for his ultra-rightwing stances on defense and intervention, warned Moscow in response. “As far we are concerned, that is a threat,” he said.

Meanwhile, conservative Gulf kingdoms joined the chorus behind the rebels, pitting the US, its Sunni allies, and Israel against Al-Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah. The spill-over endures across the map of the region.

Other Spill-Over

In the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the June 1967 war, a dislocated population of Syrian Druze are struggling to overcome deep divisions over Al-Assad. Salmen Fakher Al-Deen, a researcher at Al-Marsad Arab Center for Human Rights, told Alternet that the Golan Druze community was divided down the center. Standing aside the immense fence that demarcates the Israeli-Syrian buffer zone, he denounced Hezbollah’s intervention: “I used to support Hezbollah when they fought Israel, we all did. But as a Shia force, Nasrallah has no right to send fighters into Syria to kill Syrians.”

A number of clashes have occurred during weekly anti-Assad protests that have recently surpassed the hundred-person mark. Many still pledge their allegiance to Al-Assad, however, and have defended Hezbollah’s actions. “We love Hezbollah, they support us and only Al-Assad and Hezbollah can liberate the Golan from the Israelis,” said Nazm Al-Khater in an interview with Alternet.

In neighboring Jordan, protests erupted in Amman in late April to denounce the American military presence of around 200 troops on the northern border with Syria.

Additionally, the large Syrian presence in Jordan has resulted in tensions from Jordanians upset by the heavy concentration of refugees in their country.

Elsewhere, some 152,000 Syrian refugees have registered with the UN refugee agency in Iraq. But Iraq, already plagued by sectarian violence, is struggling to host the mostly Sunni refugees. Indeed, April and May 2013 were the most violent months since 2008, and at least 7,000 Syrian refugees decided it was safer to return to rebel-held areas of Syria.

Civilians Foot the Bill: Refugees Across the Map

As the war in Syria shows no signs of letting up anytime soon, civilians are paying the highest price. On top of the 80,000 deaths, the UNHCR estimates that there are nearly 1.4 million refugees.

Many of these were Palestinians who were already refugees in Syria following the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. Already living in impoverished refugee camps, thousands have fled to Lebanon to a less-than-welcoming greeting. In the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, for instance, the 500,000 Lebanese citizens are now living with 42,000 new Syrian refugees on top of the thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Baddawi and Nahr El-Bard refugee camps.

Doctors without Borders reports that Tripoli’s hospital is serving an average of 1,730 patients monthly, adding that “approximately 20 [of which are] wounded Syrians and more than 340 refugees with medical and pediatric emergencies.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the immense burdens carried by civilians. As rebels and regime forces alike commit widespread human rights abuses towards the end of crushing one another, those caught in the crossfire are suffering. The future is not hopeful: whether Al-Assad can hang on to power or not, all indications suggest that the violence will continue to engulf the Middle East.