Syrian Spillover and the Changing Face of the Middle East

For days, isolated clashes between the Alawite and Sunni militias raged on through the city streets in reaction to an ambush carried out by pro-Assad forces. Gunfights erupted between communities in adjacent neighborhoods, leaving 17 dead and many more wounded. Despite the pangs of familiarity, this firefight occurred in neither Aleppo nor Damascus, nor anywhere else in Syria for that matter. This particular skirmish took place in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, and would become one of the first major examples of the spread of sectarian tensions igniting throughout the region.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Image courtesy of Bidna Capoeira, © 2013. Some rights reserved.

While questions of Western involvement have recently brought Syria to the tip of everyone’s tongue, it is regional involvement that stands to affect the conflict the most. As they get more entangled, Middle Eastern powers are plunging themselves further into a sectarian war that could alter the social and geo-political makeup of the region for years to come.

The media have a tendency to portray conflicts in ways that can be easily digested by the public. In Syria, this has meant the reduction of several hundred opposition groups, often disparate in means and goals, into the more reader-friendly “Free Syrian Army”.  In reality, the FSA has suffered from major splintering and lacks an effective chain of command. Similarly, the press has enjoyed framing the Syrian War in terms of a standoff between Obama and Putin as some sort of Cold War revival.  While the tropes of “united rebel front against evil empire” and “the West vs. the Russian bloc” can afford us a cheap understanding of current affairs, the reality of the situation is far more nuanced. Syria has, in essence, become a regional proxy war driven largely along sectarian lines. On top of the utter devastation already experienced by the Syrian people, signs of the conflict’s spread into neighboring countries, especially Lebanon, continue to become more apparent.

Despite its humble beginnings as political protest, the Syrian conflict had within months developed into a full-scale civil war between the country’s disaffected Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite minority (an offshoot of Shi’ism). At first, there was a general hesitance in the region to take a position. Once the riots transformed into battles, and protesters into insurgents, however, it became clear where the divisions would lie. Interestingly enough, these divisions have aligned almost entirely with religious lines, with an Iran-led “Shi’a crescent” wholly supporting Assad, and the Sunni Gulf states (as well as foreign Sunni radicals) backing the opposition.

The past half-century has seen a major rise in political Shi’ism, a movement largely led by Iran that has in turn propelled the country into the forefront of Middle Eastern, and global, politics. It should come as no surprise then, that the Islamic Republic would have a serious vested interest in maintaining its sphere of influence. This influence is dictated in part by the currently uninterrupted path of Shi’a dominance through Maliki’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, and Hezbollah’s southern Lebanon. The replacement of Assad with non-complicit Sunni leadership could hurt what has been a mutually beneficial relationship between all Shi’a nations involved. More specifically, the ousting of Assad could cut some of Iran’s open supply lines to Hezbollah, thereby weakening its position against neighboring Israel and ultimately lowering both parties’ credibility within the Arab world. It can be clearly understood why Iran and Hezbollah have sent thousands of military personnel to directly intervene in favor of the Assad regime.

While Shi’a powers fight voraciously to preserve the status quo, rising Sunni powers are jumping at the opportunity to gain clout in the region. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have all individually provided financial, strategic, and military (arms) support to the rebels, and continue to condemn Assad’s supporters in the public domain. This not only helps build a path towards their political aspirations, but also serves as a diversion from internal unrest within their own countries. Although there is a level of competition between the states, their mutual goal of combatting what some call the “Shi’a ascendency” and taking Iran out of the driver’s seat of Middle Eastern politics creates an ipso facto Sunni axis in support of the Syrian opposition.

On a smaller scale, a similar trend of Sunni opportunism can be seen in both the influx of foreign radicals into Syria and the growing influence of Salafist leaders throughout the Arab world. The jihadists traveling to fight for extremist groups like the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant hope to seize the chance to reshape post-Assad Syria more to their liking. Similarly, fundamentalist Sunni leaders around the region have been intensifying sectarian rhetoric, consolidating their local support while simultaneously polarising the surrounding communities. Salafist radicalisation is a serious issue that threatens to expand this civil-turned-proxy war from the bottom up, and its effects are already visible in Lebanon.

The past year in Lebanon has been characterised by growing volatility. Strings of kidnappings have been staged by rival clans; skirmishes in Tripoli, Sidon, and Beirut have left well over a hundred dead; bombings in Shi’a and Sunni neighborhoods alike have raised the death toll even further. Just over a month ago, a dual car bombing in the heart of Tripoli killed close to 50 civilians and left several hundreds more wounded. Sectarian tensions within Lebanon had been mounting since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and Hezbollah’s subsequent rise to power following its brief war with Israel in 2006. Though the country’s Confessional system of government exists to prevent sectarian struggle during elections, it has also provided clear lines on which societal differences could deepen into rifts, given the right circumstances. Unfortunately these circumstances appear to be materialising. Rates of Lebanese Sunni crossing the border to support the opposition are increasing, along with the influence of Salafist religious leaders urging them to participate. Hezbollah has sent thousands of troops into Syria already, with leader Hassan Nasrallah promising to redouble the groups efforts. When these two forces have met on their home turf, the ensuing civil strife has been palpable.

Considering Lebanon and Syria’s shared history and porous border, the growing influence of Hezbollah’s troops within Syria and of radical Salafists within Lebanon, and the continued influx of refugees from all backgrounds (now numbering over 750,000 in Lebanon alone), one would be hard pressed to present a convincing argument as to why this escalation would subside anytime soon.

The spillover has not been confined to Lebanon either; Iraq, too has experienced an escalation of sectarian violence. A spike in casualty figures around the country recently left the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) crowning July 2013 as the deadliest month since June 2008—coinciding with the dissipation of the final wave of anti-US insurgency during the Iraq War. What’s more concerning is that much of the violence has been focused in areas possessing large contingents of a disgruntled Sunni minority, like Baghdad. This could well be an indication of an increasingly violent, cross-border Sunni-Shi’a divide which, again, spells trouble for the region as a whole.

Clearly it can be seen that spillover from the Syrian war has not been a small series of isolated events, but rather an underreported and growing societal divide that could soon become an international crisis. When an already divided state like Lebanon or Iraq is caught at the intersection of Shi’a political leaders’ fears of losing influence and Sunni political leaders’ hopes at gaining it, the people stand to lose the most. Syria has long since passed the point of a simple diplomatic resolution and is likely to continue to rage on even after Assad’s fall. If there is a desire to be proactive and save the people of the Middle East from further destruction, talks of policy prescription should revolve less around bombardment and more around containment.