Debit/Credit Payment

Credit/Debit/Bank Transfer

The Contagious War—Syria’s Conflict Spreads to the Region

May 28, 2013
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Upsetting the Balance

www.wikipedia.org/ IDF

For decades, Syria has played a complicated role in the Middle East. In some ways, Syria under President Bashar al-Assad has been peaceful. Under Assad, Syria pulled its troops from Lebanon and drew closer to Turkey. It is often pointed out that the Syrian border with Israel has remained remarkably quiet as well; noteworthy since Syria invaded Israel more than once in the first 25 years after Israel declared independence. On the other hand, Assad has been a vicious trouble-maker. Streams of terrorists have traveled into Iraq via Syria, killing American soldiers and Iraqis. Assad backs the terror group Hizbullah in Lebanon, which effectively wrested control of the country using violent intimidation. And that’s not even counting Assad’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons before Israel destroyed the program.

Assad’s alliance with Iran and his strong support for terror groups that attack Israel have placed him squarely in the rejectionist camp for years. Yet he managed to never do enough to set the region on fire for real. That made him the so-called “devil you know,” which is supposedly better than the unknown devil lurking in the darkness. Ironically, it is only now as Assad’s power is crumbling that his country has managed to draw every single one of their neighbors into conflict. Syria’s geography is a key reason for this. Syria, quite simply, is in the middle of most of the Middle East. Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq all share borders with Syria, and that has been a real problem.

Accidents or Attacks?

Jim Vallee/ shutterstock.com

Those border regions in Syria have become fighting grounds one by one. Rebels sneak across the borders into Turkey or Jordan, and that’s not counting the battles that take place right near the borders with Israel and Iraq. As a result, not all the gunfire has landed inside Syria. Accidental fire from Syria hit an Israeli jeep one day, while artillery fire struck in Turkey on another. Not surprisingly, this has not been acceptable to those countries. Turkey hinted at a threat of war last fall after Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian mortar fire. The Turkish Today’s Zaman paper reported that the ruling political party in Turkey said their country had no desire for a war with Syria. Still, the paper noted Turkey’s parliament gave its approval for Turkish troops to enter Syria if the need arose. Those rising tensions followed an incident in which Syria downed a Turkish plane and previous cross-border violence.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Israel returned fire after shots were fired from Syria at an Israeli patrol, according to the IDF website. The report in March said that IDF soldiers “responded with precise fire towards the Syrian post, destroying it.” That was the second incident of fire from Syria in a 24-hour stretch. Considering the state of ongoing conflict on Israel’s border with Gaza in the south, it’s understandable that Israel has sought to prevent a new status quo of violence emerging from Syria in the north. They aren’t risking the chance that cross-border fire is merely accidental and not intentional.

www.wikipedia.org/ IDF

And in some cases, it certainly has appeared that Syria has intentionally crossed its own borders. In March, the United States confirmed that Syrian helicopters and jets actually fired rockets into Lebanese territory. Another attack in April was reported by the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon, saying that six Syrians were wounded in Lebanon. The presence of Syrians in Lebanon, of course, is a key part of the problem. The Daily Star noted that the Lebanon–Syria border is a smuggling point, presumably helping Syrian rebels. But Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was quoted by the newspaper as saying the Syrian attacks were unjustified.

All this spillover violence still isn’t the most extreme example of how the war in Syria has already spread. While it remains unclear exactly what or who carried out an attack inside Syria, The New York Times claimed Israel actually bombed anti-aircraft weapons inside Syria that were headed for Hizbullah. That element of the fighting is yet another factor beyond the borders—as Syria collapses, Israel and others fear Syria’s once potent weaponry will fall into terrorist hands. That includes the risk of chemical weapons reaching terror groups—a major “red line” for Israel. In an interview with Fox News Sunday last summer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they don’t want to have to take action in Syria and that there were other options besides seizing the chemical weapons. Nonetheless, Netanyahu said of chemical weapons reaching terrorists, “It’s a great threat. We’ll have to consider our action… Do I seek action? No. Do I preclude it? No.”

That remains perhaps the greatest chance that what is already a spillover conflict could turn into all-out regional war. If chemical weapons start moving, Israel will doubtless feel the need to act. There is also the very real possibility that radical Islamic terrorists currently backing the Syrian rebels could turn their sights to Israel and start a conflict that way. Regardless, all the predictions of future wars outside Syria’s borders ignore the fact that the region is already at war—inside Syria.

An Islamic Civil War

Mosque in Damascus: Sergey Petro/ shutterstcok.org

In many ways, most wars are multi-national today as allies get involved, weapons are shared and sold, and the United Nations often has something to say about it all. But Syria is more complicated than normal, and that’s because the fight isn’t really just about Syria. Dr. Jonathan Spyer, an analyst and expert on the region, told The Mideast Update earlier this year that he believes the fight is an outgrowth of a much older battle between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. For centuries, the two main sects of Islam have fought and connived against each other, with today a particularly hot flashpoint in that conflict. It’s important to note that Shia Iran has been a key player in the Syrian civil war, sending weapons and training to its ally Assad. Meanwhile, Sunni groups ranging from Saudi Arabia to Qatar have backed the Syrian rebels. And the Shia–Sunni fight of today is nothing new.

“I would see the Syrian situation as part of a larger regional picture,” said Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC [Interdisciplinary Center] Herzliya in Israel. “Not only as a catalyst of broader regional events, but also as an example of what’s going on in the broader region.” Spyer noted that as the so-called Arab Spring revolutions have led to the collapse of secularist dictatorships, they are being replaced with Sunni Muslim governments. Egypt is a prime example. This growth in Sunni regimes, according to Spyer, has set the stage for a broader fight with Shia Islam. In other words, Syria isn’t the only country acting as a Sunni–Shia battleground: Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen face similar sectarian conflict. “I think that this growing sectarian conflict is going to reshape and define the emerging strategic relations of the Middle East in the period we’re now heading into,” said Spyer. “And I would say that Syria is a single manifestation, so to speak, of a much broader process now opening up.”

www.wikipedia.org/Voice of America News

Spyer isn’t alone in his estimation. Israeli Director of the Military Intelligence Directorate Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi thinks much the same. In a report posted on the IDF website, Kochavi was quoted as saying, “Today, the Middle East is being redefined into Shiite and Sunni camps, which explains things like why Hamas has distanced itself from Iran in recent months and is moving closer to Egypt and Turkey, or why Iran is arming the Shiite minority in Yemen.”

The conflict in Syria is a microcosm of this already ongoing fight. Earlier this year, the US expressed frustration at Iraq for practically allowing Iran to send fighters and weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace. Spyer said that Iraq has drawn closer to Iran and of course there’s a reason for it—the current head of Iraq is Shia. “As a fellow Shia ally of Iran, the Iraqis, too, are playing their part in the fight to keep Assad in place,” said Spyer. The Iraqi relationship with Syria has led to an attack on Syrian troops—inside Iraq. CNN reported that gunmen attacked a convoy of Syrian soldiers, leaving more than four dozen dead.


On the other side of Syria, the situation with Lebanon is even more intense. Besides the Syrian airstrikes in Lebanon, media reports have indicated that Hizbullah has sent militants into Syria to back Assad against the rebels. And internal violence in Lebanon has been linked to the Syrian civil war. Spyer said that “to some degree,” Lebanon has already been sucked into the Syrian conflict. Lebanon, much like Syria, consists of rival religious groups, with both Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as Christians. Spyer said that “I think that they really have no choice but to back Assad” since Syria enables Hizbullah to acquire weapons from Iran, although Hizbullah does not want to destabilize Lebanon in the process. Yet, rather than Hizbullah destabilizing Lebanon, Spyer believes it could be efforts by the Sunnis in Lebanon seeking to retake control of Lebanon that could cause real havoc inside the country.

So with all this internal fighting between Muslims, does Israel end up the real winner? Actually, no. In fact, according to Israel’s top military intelligence official, it could be worse.

Syria’s Impact


The regional fighting between Sunni and Shia Islam, to a degree, should shift some of the focus away from Israel. So far, however, that hasn’t really been the case. While it’s true that some of Israel’s enemies have either lost power or are threatened in the Arab Spring, the growing Islamization of the region’s governments has made the region much less safe for Israel. Once a cold peace ally, Egypt is now a potential threat, and the Egyptian-owned Sinai, a terrorist breeding ground. For the first time in years, Israel has to be genuinely concerned about its border with Syria as terrorist groups currently backing the rebels have moved into the region. One of the major Islamic groups fighting in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, is formally aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Obviously, they don’t want peace with Israel after Assad is gone. And in that IDF website report, Kochavi, the top military intelligence man in Israel, said he believes that as the region divides more and more along religious lines, it is the non-Muslim, Jewish Israel that could be viewed even more hatefully than before.

And that’s assuming Syria’s civil war has some type of genuine conclusion. Spyer, in his comments to The Mideast Update, mentioned the concern that Syria could fracture into multiple “quasi-states” with Sunnis owning some territory and Assad owning some. “That’s a recipe for continued conflict, it’s a recipe for proxy war,” said Spyer. “…I think we could be looking at a possibility of an ongoing proxy war drawing in both regional and global powers [such as Russia].” In other words, the regional fight inside Syria—with its impact on Israel and the rest of the Middle East—could only prolong itself and intensify.

That will leave the Israelis and the West needing to be extra vigilant—to watch over Syria’s chemical weapons, to see what terror groups are plotting, to prepare against Iran or Hizbullah making a bold move amidst the chaos. They didn’t start this spreading war, but it’s up to Israel and the West to try and keep this contagious Syrian conflict in quarantine.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

Latest News

Current Issue

View e-Dispatch

PDF Dispatch

Search Dispatch Articles

  • Order