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The regional impact of the conflict in Syria

The ongoing civil war in Syria, without a solution in sight, could have a dangerous impact beyond its borders

Hicham Mourad , Wednesday 26 Mar 2014
Views: 2836
Views: 2836

Syria is de facto divided between the regions controlled by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and those dominated by the various forces of the armed opposition, which are often in disagreement and in conflict among themselves. This situation, in the case of a prolonged conflict, increases the risk of the state's disintegration along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines.

Tensions and sectarian strife that accompany the war in Syria have exacerbated the same kind of tensions in neighboring countries, which have a fragile political and sectarian balance. In the frontline is Lebanon, which hosts nearly one million Syrian refugees. The historic relationship between Lebanon and Syria runs deep, and the influence exerted by Damascus on Lebanese domestic politics is well known. The involvement of several thousand fighters of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah in the war in Syria is the most obvious example, and as a consequence the spillover of the conflict onto Lebanese territory, in the form of attacks against the Shia militia or sectarian clashes.

The same danger, albeit on a smaller scale, threatens two other neighboring countries: Jordan, which hosts some 600,000 Syrian refugees, and Iraq, which has 217,000. The threat of contagion is, however, more present in the latter because of its precarious political and sectarian balance. Power is held by the Shia majority (60-65 percent of the population) who follow a favourable policy towards the regime in Damascus, held by the Alawite minority (12 percent of the population), an offshoot of Shiism. The fear of a Sunni insurgency in Iraq, like the one conducted against Bashar Al-Assad, largely explains the policy of Baghdad towards the Syrian conflict. This is especially true as one of the factions of the Syrian armed opposition, among the most dangerous, operates simultaneously on the territories of both countries. It is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an ultra-radical jihadist group.

Sectarian dimension in the Syrian war is combined with an ethnic one related to the Kurdish minority (10-15 percent of the population). Kurds, concentrated in the north, on the border with Turkey, and in the northeast, in the border region of Iraqi Kurdistan, have acquired a de facto autonomy as a result of the withdrawal of government forces from their regions and the consequent conclusion, in June 2012, of an agreement promoted by the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masud Barzani, between their two political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC). This agreement, having encountered difficulties in its implementation, was followed by another, the following month, which has created an authority, the Kurdish supreme committee, to govern the territories under the control of the PYD and the KNC. After fighting, all the predominantly Kurdish-populated areas fell into the hands of their militias, the units of popular protection. Only two major Kurdish cities, Al-Hasaka and Al-Qamishli, remain under government control.

It is not a secret that the conflict in Syria gives wings to the demands of Kurds for autonomy, or even independence, and strengthens the separatist ambitions of Iraqi Kurdistan and the nationalist demands of Kurds in Turkey. The Kurds now have more hope for the creation of a Kurdish state. A dream that is, however, far from easy to materialise, given the enormous obstacles that stand in its way. In any case, the post-conflict Kurds will be a political force to be reckoned with.

Another major geopolitical consequence of the Syrian conflict is the confirmation of the rise of the main actors in the Arab Gulf region, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This phenomenon was already underway because of the political and security instability and economic decline in Arab countries where popular uprisings toppled the regimes. This is especially the case of the heavyweights of the Arab regional system, Egypt and Syria. Both, with Saudi Arabia, were in recent years a triumvirate leader in the Arab world. Political, security, economic and social turbulence in Egypt for more than three years has caused its decline on the regional scene. Furthermore, Cairo now relies on Gulf oil monarchies to revive its economy, bled white since the popular uprising of 25 January 2011.

As for Syria, after having been a major Arab player, has become, due to the civil war, prey to all kinds of foreign political and military intervention from Arab, Middle Eastern and international powers. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main suppliers of funds to the armed opposition. Thus, the centre of gravity in the Arab world has shifted from the Mediterranean 'Mashreq' to the Gulf region, relatively spared from the upheavals of the 'Arab spring' through the introduction of social reforms financed by the oil wealth.

However, the Gulf states are not totally immune to the effects of the 'Arab spring' and the Syrian conflict. Bahrain in particular witnessed in March 2011 an insurrection led by the Shia majority (70 percent of the population) against the royal regime dominated by Sunnis. The revolt was put down by the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who came to the rescue of Manama. But the problem remains.

The armed Islamist opposition against Bashar Al-Assad, who tends to dominate the scene of the uprising in Syria and is financed by Riyadh and Doha, may also have a boomerang effect on the Gulf states. Some radical jihadists fighting in Syria are from Arab countries, including the Gulf region. Their return to their countries of origin before or after the end of the conflict is likely to fuel a wave of terrorist attacks and political instability. This perspective explains the decision of Riyadh, on 7 March, to declare terrorist two armed groups in Syria who are inspired by Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Nusra front. The latter, one of the main armed opposition forces in Syria that has several commanders who are Saudi nationals, had benefited in recent years from the largesse of Riyadh.



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