The civil war tearing Syria apart is threatening to erase century-old borders across the Middle East as what began as a peaceful rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad escalates into a regional religious and ethnic battle.
In Tripoli, Lebanon, Assad’s Sunni Muslim enemies and Shiite supporters, divided by an avenue named “Syria Street,” shelled and shot each other last week, leaving at least 23 people dead. Bloodletting between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites has reached its most sustained level since the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, killing almost 300 people last week. In northeastern Syria, Turkish Kurds are battling Sunni Arabs.
The widening warfare threatens to feed the Kurds’ dream of forging their own state from parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran; encourage ethnic cleaning in Syria; reawaken Lebanon’s dormant civil war; overwhelm Jordan’s minority Hashemite monarchy; and compound Israel’s security problems.
If the shock waves from Syria aggravate the growing battles among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the disruption to oil supplies would be felt worldwide, perhaps most keenly in China, the world’s second-largest economy.
“The incredible destabilization of Syria is spilling over into Lebanon, Jordan and has an impact obviously on Israel,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. “The United States is committed, not only in its defense of Israel, but in its concerns for the region, to try to address this issue.”
The conflict has set off a debate in Europe and the U.S. about whether and how to intervene. The European Union yesterday ended a weapons embargo to Syrian rebels, giving the go-ahead to sell them arms, over the objections of some members. President Barack Obama has refused to authorize such sales out of concern weapons could end up in the hands of anti-American extremists.
After the EU move, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said today his country will send long-range anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian regime, describing the move as a “stabilizing factor.”
“We’re looking at the possible beginnings of some real kaleidoscopic change in which states disintegrate, break apart, new entities are formed,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “No one knows where this is leading. This is the larger game in Syria.”
Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan policy group funded by Congress, has examined the impact if the Middle East map drawn by European powers during World War I begins to break apart. Syria “sits at the intersection of every major strategic axis in the Arab East,” he said in a working paper.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, speaking at a press conference in Turkey today, expressed concern that “tens or hundreds” of Tunisians who are fighting in Syria may pose a threat to Tunisia when they return home.
The Middle East’s entrenched ethnic, political and religious rivalries weren’t a major consideration when a well-heeled British diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes, and his French counterpart, Francois Georges-Picot, secretly redrew the region’s borders in an agreement concluded on May 16, 1916.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the two Europeans divided Greater Syria into modern-day Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, along with part of Turkey, based on colonial convenience. Israel and Jordan were later carved out of British Palestine.
“There was nothing inherent or natural about” the Sykes-Picot agreement, said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, “It’s a very fragile state structure.”
Freeman predicts that “the unraveling will begin with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds,” a prospect that worries Turkey, whose own restive Kurds are seeking autonomy.
Turkish Kurds clashed in January near the Syrian border with Sunni Arab militants who were “supported, at least tacitly, by Turkey,” Heydemann said.
Iraqi Kurds also have backed efforts by their Syrian counterparts to seize control of border crossings between the two countries. If Kurds succeed in expanding their territory around oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, it could mean “Iraq further disintegrating, Syria further disintegrating,” Freeman said.
Syria already is being carved up along sectarian lines, Serwer said, not “on the basis of some theological distinction, but on some very concrete political and strategic interests.”
Assad’s regime is trying to secure a corridor from Damascus through Homs to the Mediterranean coast, passing through the home area of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The area includes the port city of Tartus, home to Russia’s only naval base in the region.
The largely Sunni rebellion is trying to prevent consolidation of that Alawite corridor. “There’s a lot of ethnic cleansing going on,” Serwer said. “What you’re getting is a de facto ethnic partition along sectarian lines.”
While Kerry expressed concern on May 22 that the fighting “would lead ultimately potentially to the splitting apart of Syria itself,” the Obama administration also worries about the territorial integrity of Lebanon and the stability of Jordan, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports.
Syria’s border with Lebanon has frayed as Hezbollah fighters have poured into Syria to guard Shiite villages and fight for the Assad regime. The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites are in Syria battling anti-regime Sunni fighters affiliated with the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda and supported by Persian Gulf states, the State Department official said.
At least 28 Hezbollah fighters were reported killed on May 20 in the town of Qusair in the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawites, near the Lebanese border.
Iraq, too, is feeling the shock waves. Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, attacks from Baghdad to Basra in the south killed more than 700 people last month, according to the United Nations, the highest monthly death toll since the worst sectarian violence in 2007. Sunni mosques have been attacked, and Shiite neighborhoods have been ripped apart by car bombs.
“What’s happening inside Syria is having its own impact inside Iraq, one of the factors that’s creating a resurgence inside Iraq as Sunnis try to take back Iraq” from the Shiite government, Freeman said.
Sectarianism has been deepening across the Middle East and North Africa since 2000, Heydemann writes. Sunni Saudi Arabia and then Qatar have begun wielding greater influence; ruling Sunnis have crushed Shiite dissent in Bahrain; Iranian religious conservatives have consolidated power, and Turkey’s Islamist party, the AKP, has triumphed in elections.
The massive protests that unseated leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 accelerated the trend, said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington policy group that promotes peacemaking efforts.
Though the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya began as non-sectarian and egalitarian protests against official corruption and misrule, “a kind of a stark sectarianism emerged,” especially as the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt, he said.
For now, Heydemann and other analysts consider the continued Balkanization of Syria more likely than its outright collapse. Ibish sees Syria fragmenting like Lebanon, with “a central government with tenuous control over some cities, and enclaves across the country with more or less autonomy. It certainly wouldn’t appeal to people, but lives could go on.”
Serwer said there’s a danger of regional contagion if “soft partition” in Syria creates Kurdish-controlled areas, Sunni-controlled areas, and an Alawite enclave.
“When the Sunnis in Iraq look at that, they’re going to say, ‘Why can’t we have that?’” Serwer said. “They’ve tried in the past, and they’re likely to try again.”
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