The regional implications of Syria’s civil war

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The intensifying civil war in Syria has raised concerns over the potential for the country’s problems to spill over its borders, destabilising an already volatile region. Already the country has found itself thrust centre stage in the deepening regional tussle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with, on the one hand, Iran retaining its steadfast support for the regime (exemplified by the visit of the head of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, to Damascus on Tuesday), and Saudi Arabia reportedly funneling arms and financial support to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, it is Syria’s immediate neighbours that will be watching developments over their borders most keenly, aware that Syria’s combustible sectarian and ethnic fault-lines—around 12% of the population are Alawite (an offshoot of Shia Islam); 75% Sunni; 10% Christian and 3% Druze, with 8% also Kurdish—are often replicated at home.

Lebanon exposed

This is especially the case in Lebanon. Indeed, so engrained are these divisions that the institutions of state are pre-allocated to the three largest confessional groupings: the presidency for a Christian, the premiership for a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament to a Shia—a division of power that can be traced back to the unwritten national pact of 1934. As a result, the increasingly sectarian nature of the affray in Syria—with Sunnis taking centre stage in the revolt against the Alawite-led Syrian regime—is now occasionally being mimicked in the streets of Lebanon, with Tripoli in particular witnessing violent Alawi and Sunni clashes (forcing the Lebanese army to intervene). However, Lebanon’s already evident sectarian divisions are given added flavour by the central role that Syrian influence plays in domestic politics—in large part a product of the long Syrian military presence in Lebanon (which lasted between 1976 and 2005). Indeed, the country’s two main political groupings are coalesced in alignment for and against Syria, with the Sunni-led March 14th coalition composed of parties that pushed for the Syrian withdrawal seven years ago, and the March 8th coalition comprised largely of parties (including the two main Shia groupings, Amal and Hizbullah) that wished to retain strong ties to Syria.

However, as is often the case in Lebanon, political alignments are perennially slippery, with March 8th, for example, including a prominent Christian former general, Michel Aoun, who led a rebellion against the Syrian occupation in 1989. Indeed, the future of the March 8th alliance, which is currently holding the reins of government, has been called into question of late after a furious row between Mr Aoun’s bloc and Amal over the relatively obscure matter of the country’s state electricity company. Meanwhile, the March 14th has become an opposition more in spirit than body, with many of its key leaders (including Saad al-Hariri, the previous prime minister) out of the country after a number of assassination attempts on its members. In sum, despite the extraordinary ructions in Syria and the influx of some 100,000 Syrian refugees into Lebanon, the country’s perennially squabbling politicians have carried on much as before.

However, one party, Hizbullah, has remained largely on the peripheries of the country’s political in-fighting, and it is this group that will be watching the deteriorating fortunes of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad most closely. Syria is a vital conduit for the supply of Iranian arms and funds to Hizbullah, and the prospect of the Assad regime’s fall has placed the group in a quandary. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has, true to form, sought to place the blame for the uprising on US and Israeli meddling; however, he has also been careful not to entirely alienate the rebels, by calling for a peaceful, negotiated solution. In a further complication, a large number of predominately Syrian Sunni refugees—most of whom are stridently opposed to the Assad regime—have fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a Hizbullah stronghold. In the end, should the Assad regime fall, Hizbullah may well be forced to reassess its “splendid isolation” in Lebanese politics, and instead choose to shore up its domestic alliances, across confessional groupings, in an effort to buttress its position at home (especially with the Israeli military likely to exploit any perceived sign of weakness).

Iraq aloof, but the KRG smells opportunity

In terms of its religious and ethnic mix, arguably Iraq bears the closest resemblance to Syria, although the lopsided modality of rule in Iraq prior to 2003 was a mirror image of Syria’s—with the Sunni minority ruling over a Shia majority. However, since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country’s most powerful players have been Shia politicians and religious figures, which may well explain the reluctance of the country’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to forcefully back the Sunni-dominated FSA. Indeed, the growing evidence that local and foreign jihadis have joined the ranks of the rebels will only add to his chariness, especially in light of the suffering that al-Qaida has inflicted on his own country. In addition, the leadership will be keen to avoid overly antagonising its neighbour Iran, by calling for the removal of the Islamic Republic’s closest Arab ally—as well as extensive religious and political ties, Iraq also imports substantial amounts of electricity and fuel products from Iran. However, it is equally worth noting that the current Iraqi government has also in the past become embroiled in angry spats with the Assad regime, notably over the latter’s alleged support for Baathist insurgents in Iraq, and we thus expect the Iraqi government to maintain a measure of neutrality—indeed, the country may benefit substantially from stepped up trade ties, as Syria seeks alternative trading partners following the partial closure of its northern border with Turkey and southern border with Jordan.

However, the leadership of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is proving to be considerably less cautious. Sensing an opportunity to expand its regional influence (and, potentially, an alternative export route for its substantial oil reserves), the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, has admitted that Syrian Kurds that have fled to the KRG-governed areas are being given military training, although they will only be deployed back to Syria to fill any “security vacuum” following the withdrawal of Syrian troops. However, that time may be fast approaching, with three areas now seemingly under Syrian Kurdish control, and the largest city in the Kurdish-majority area, Qamishli, under attack by several hundred Kurdish fighters. However, in reality, Mr Barzani will struggle to impose his authority in any post-Assad settlement: the Syrian Kurds are relatively loosely organized, and the dominant group in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (DUP; which is linked to Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK), is likely to have its own agenda, separate from that of the KRG.

Turkey fretful

Either way, however, the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria—let alone one under the control of a PKK-affiliate—is a substantial concern for Turkey. Although it has sought to forge close ties with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA—both of which have established bases in southern Turkey—its relations with Syria’s Kurds are, perhaps unsurprisingly testy (despite the fact that the SNC is nominally headed by a Kurd). Aware of this shortcoming, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited Irbil (the capital of the KRG-run region) last week to meet with Mr Barzani and also to hold a joint meeting with the SNC and an umbrella Kurdish group, the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC). However, the KNC does not include the DUP, and in all likelihood Turkey will maintain a watchful approach, keeping its troops on the border and seeking to beef up the legitimacy and organisational capabilities of the SNC.

Eventually, though, if the slaughter persists (and refugees continue to pour over the border), Turkey may become increasingly tempted to carve out, with NATO support, a safe haven in the north of Syria—a move that would not only have a humanitarian motive, but would also, it may be noted, bring some of the major Kurdish population centres in northern Syria under its control. Quite where this leaves Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy is another matter, especially regarding Iran: already, its active support for the FSA will have disappointed Iran, and any actual incursion into northern Syria could be fatal for bilateral ties.

Jordan burdened

In the case of Jordan, its concerns are less security-related and more humanitarian and economic. According to Jordanian officials, some 150,000 Syrian refugees have entered the country over the past year, but the government has remained wary about allying itself with the Syrian opposition movement—although it did allow the Syrian prime minister, who defected to the opposition on August 6th, to pass through its territory, he is expected to settle in Qatar. Most early arrivals have been staying with family and friends, but the government is now trying to confine the refugees to camps, with the first purpose-built camp at Zaateri opened in late July. However, although foreign donor aid has been stepped up to support official relief efforts, the impact on Jordan’s already frail economy of the loss of not only a key export market, but also a key transit point for onward exports to Turkey and beyond, will be substantial. As a result, impatience within the Jordanian leadership at the failure of the international community to end the war in Syria will grow and, aware of the prevailing mood among its Arab and Western allies, it is likely to gradually align itself with the anti-Assad camp. However, as so often with Jordan, it will depend on others to change the situation on the ground.

Careful what you wish for

Arguably, however, the region is as ill-prepared to deal with a post-Assad Syria as it is at present in ending the ongoing civil war. Although their military capabilities are no doubt improving, the various Syrian rebel groups do not yet comprise a cogent governmental alternative—in contrast to, for example, the National Transitional Council of Libya in 2011—let alone offering a potential unifying leader. The danger is that, without any single person or party to back, the region and the wider international community will instead support differing groups that most closely reflect their own priorities. With no single player in charge, Syria could be condemned to further disorder, prompting further flows of refugees over its borders and only adding to the problems of its neighbours.