Syria as my last article showed is bleeding but its neighbours too are badly affected. As Lakdar Brahimi, while in Beirut canvassing support for his proposal for an Eid Festival ceasefire in Syria warned «This crisis cannot remain confined within Syrian territory»… «Either it is solved, or it gets worse… and sets [the region] ablaze». This was for most observers no more than a statement of the obvious when one looks at the developments in the countries of the region…
Taking first Lebanon, the assassination of the intelligence Security Chief Gen. Wissam al-Hassan on 19th October was laid at the door of Syrian intelligence and was said to have been prompted by Wissam’s arrest of a former Lebanese minister with close ties to Syria on the charge that he was smuggling arms into Lebanon on Syria’s behest. Former Prime Minister Hariri’s son who leads an important political faction called for the day of Wissam’s funeral to be observed as a day of rage and while the ensuing demonstrations did not reach the scale of the demonstrations that filled the street of Beirut after Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination they were still impressive. Today in Lebanon the traditional Maronite-Muslim divide has been replaced by the Sunni-Muslim divide. The Sunnis are going into Syria to help the opposition while it is an open secret that Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon is sending men and material to aid the Assad regime. Saad al-Harriri, theoretically the inheritor of his father’s mantle has to live in Paris because of threats to his life and has not been able to provide the sort of leadership that the Sunnis need. There are real fears that marginalised Sunnis will become more radicalised. Many people feel that having had bitter experiences in the past the people of Lebanon will not allow themselves once again to be drawn into a sectarian civil war. The prospect however looms large and may well be realised if the war in Syrian continues.
Jordan, while coping with an internal crisis of its own, also has to contend with an Al-Qaeda threat from across the Syrian border. Eleven Al-Qaeda adherents were arrested two weeks ago for having brought explosives and weapons from Syria to attack shopping centres and western diplomats and thus destabilise the country. Equally importantly Jordan has become one of the countries from which militant Sunnis are travelling to Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime. Palestinian camps in Jordan have seen funerals for those «jihadists» martyred in Syria. Prominent Jihadist ideologues such as Al-Tahawi have said «Jihad in Syria is obligatory for any able Muslim…»
American military has now moved into Jordan ostensibly to help with the refugee crisis but also to be able to take such action s may be needed if Syrian chemical weapons are used or fall into the wrong hands. With some 200,000 refugees from Syria already in Jordan the strain on social services is high and is likely to become unbearable if the Syrian imbroglio is not peacefully resolved. At the Zaatari refugee camp set up to house Syrian refugees the 30,000 inhabitants complain bitterly about the food and the quality of services provided with some returning to Syria to fact what they call a «fast death» rather than endure the «slow death» that they say is their fate in the refugee camp.
The jihadist appeal that is troubling Jordan is of course is not confined to Jordan. It is driving the flow into Syria of Jihadists from all neighbouring countries but also from countries the countries in the Gulf and even from Pakistan.
Next to Lebanon, the country most seriously affected in my view will be Iraq, which has a three-way involvement in Syria each one deeply destabilising. On the one hand the Kurdish Regional government has set up camps at which the Peshmarga are training hundreds of Syrian Kurds. Barzani has called meetings of the various Syrian Kurd factions to persuade them to unite but with little success. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Erdogan has warned in a recent statement that no autonomous Kurdish region in Syria akin to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Administration would be permitted. There is no doubt in my mind that if an autonomous West Kurdistan emerges in Syria the Turks will take military action just as they are doing in Iraq.
The second is the call by Sunnis both the Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other factions for the Sunnis to come to the assistance of the Insurgents in their battle against the Assad regime. In July this year the Iraqi foreign minister said «"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida's terrorist network have gone to Syria», and expressed concern that the spill over would be that extremist terrorist groups would take root in neighbouring countries. The Sunni reaction was to be expected. It was the Syrian route most fighters from neighbouring countries had taken when the Iraqi Sunnis and Al-Qaeda in Iraq were battling the Americans.
The third and potentially most explosive is the influx over the last few months of Iraqi Shias into Syria to support the Assad regime. An Iraqi observer has correctly observed that «Syria is now open to all fighters, and Al Qaeda is playing on the chords of sectarianism, which will spur reactions from the Shiites, as happened in Iraq,» Partly this is owed to the fear of Iraqi Shias fuelled by Iran that the Shiite faith itself is under threat in Syria and that this battle is to be regarded as existential. Iraqi Shias are making their way to Syria directly and via Iran where the Iranian government arranges to fly them to Damascus. Iraq remains under pressure from Iran to allow the free flow of arms and men from Iran to Syria and under pressure from the USA to stop this traffic.
For the Iraqi Shias as for the Shias in Lebanon or other countries in the region the most potent issue will be the preservation of Bibi Zaynab’s tomb in Damascus. This revered shrine houses the grave of the Holy Prophet’s granddaughter and is second only to Najaf and Karbala as a holy site for Shias around the world. There have been attacks around the shrine and now there are confirmed reports that Iraqi and Iranian devotees have taken upon themselves the defence of the shrine. An Iraqi cleric has expressed the view that «The destruction of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Syria will mean the start of sectarian civil war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia». One can only agree and recognise that no other venue has the same symbolic importance.
From the political point of view perhaps the country most affected is Turkey. Its much-heralded policy of «zero problems with neighbours» moved forward successfully as Prime Minister Erdogan cultivated a cordial relationship with Assad and became in many ways his closest friend in the region. But Assad’s refusal to recognise the need for change in the face of the uprising forced a change in Turkey’s policy. Many say that Turkey’s ‘zero problems» policy lies in tatters as it finds itself at odds not only with Syria’s Assad but also with Russia and Iran because of its policy of accommodating and supporting the insurgent groups and being the conduit for the material assistance the insurgents are getting. It is now engaged in almost daily artillery duels with the Syrians, has stopped Syrian over flights and has blotted its relations with Russia by fore landing a flight from Moscow to Damascus and alleging that the aircraft contained military supplies for the Assad regime.
It has had little success in persuading the United States and its other NATO allies to create a Libya like «No-Fly Zone» in Syria and has therefore no chance to send back into Syria the refugees who now number well over a 100,000.
Most worrying for Turkey however has been the creation of a Kurdish dominated virtually autonomous area along its border with Syria. The Turks are convinced that the Kurdish PYD, which appears to have the upper hand among the Kurdish factions, is just another name for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party against which the Turks have been waging a battle for decades. The PKK has made its position known with one of its leaders stating that "The PKK feels solidarity with all Kurds and we will support the Syrian Kurds. If the Turkish army attacks them… we will carry out very violent reprisals on Turkish territory."
Within Turkey the opposition has made it clear that it is against Erdogan’s policy. There are fear that the Alawis- a distinct sect of Islam, not the same as the Allawites in Syria may still feel some sympathy for the Assad regime. They are estimated to form about 15% of the Turkish population. It does not appear however that this is something that Erdogan is particularly concerned about. There is however no doubt that for the Turks the Syrian situation has brought highly adverse consequences both internally and externally and that the continuation of the bloody conflict will only worsen the situation.
(to be continued)