2. The Regime Has Exported Syria’s Crisis
The borders that distinguish Syria from all of its neighbors are, in the grand historical scheme, somewhat arbitrary: They were drawn by France and Britain at the end of World War I as they exercised the victor’s prerogative of carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire, and they bear little relation to the region’s historical ethnic and sectarian fault lines. As a result, Western powers have been concerned that an escalation of Syria’s civil war will inevitably jump its borders, with consequences across the region. And it appears that the Syrian regime and rebels between them, have made it so. The Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria’s southeast are intimately connected with the Sunni tribes in Western Iraq that have long opposed the Shi’ite dominated government in Baghdad — and the level of insurgent violence in Iraq is steadily escalating, although that may have as much or more to do with the authoritarian governance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as with dynamics in Syria. The connection has been more direct in Lebanon, where the city of Tripoli has seen 17 people killed and more than 120 wounded in fierce clashes between local Sunni supporters of the Syrian rebellion and local Alawite supporters of Assad. While the Lebanese military has imposed a tenuous truce, fears are widespread that the conflict next door could rekindle Lebanon’s generational civil war that ended in 1992.
(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
By shrewdly ceding control of towns in the Syrian northeast to Kurdish forces, Assad has created a problem for Turkey, which remains locked in an ongoing bloody cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency with its domestic Kurdish challengers, the militant separatist PKK. Indeed, Assad’s forces handed over a number of towns to the Syrian ally of the PKK, known by its local acronym PYD, prompting alarm in Ankara and an uptick of attacks on Turkish soil. Turkey now finds itself having to navigate an increasingly complex reality in Syria which has uncomfortable resonance with its domestic political situation. Indeed, besides the Kurdish issue, Ankara also finds its support for the Syrian rebellion challenged by Turkey’s half-million strong Alawite community, and also among the Alevi sect whose members comprise some 25% of Turkey’s population.
But the most immediate problem for Turkey is the steady stream of refugees arriving at its borders — at a rate of some 5,000 a day over the past week. More than 200,000 Syrians have fled the country since the start of the rebellion, almost half of them to Turkey — and most of the rest to Jordan and Lebanon, although in the consummate irony, some 15,000 are reported to have fled to Iraq (from which hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled to Syria over the past decade).
Both Turkey and Jordan are warning that their capacity to absorb the rising number of refugees is finite, pressing Western powers for more humanitarian assistance — and, in the case of Turkey, for the creation of a “safe zone” for refugees on Syrian soil, but protected by Western militaries. But that’s an option over which U.S. officials have been skeptical until now.
By regionalizing the Syrian crisis, the Assad regime raises pressure on his neighbors and foreign powers to find a way to end the conflict, while at the same time making them more leery of direct military intervention.