Syrian Civil War Could Destabilize Entire Middle East

The Middle East has long been a source of conflict and turmoil. When the Arab Spring came, the citizens of Middle Eastern nations said "enough!" to long years of authoritarian governance and instead chose democracy.

Syria is currently one of the nations in the Middle East to have staged demonstrations and protests in the Arab Spring and not see much change. The situation has progressively become worse. Syria is at risk of destabilizing the entire region due to the following concerns: victory for Syrian rebels could serve as a breeding ground for extremism; there could be a possible Syrian-Turkish clash as Syrian refugees flow into Turkey; the conflict could flood Jordan and Palestinian refugee camps with small arms; it could inspire a similar civil war in Lebanon; and the situation could, finally, lead to renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Together, these five concerns can be called the "Syrian Sweep," because they have the potential to sweep the entire region into complete chaos. For example, the situation in Libya is currently affecting the situation in Mali in ways that no one expected. The same thing could happen with Syria because the world is already having a tough time figuring out the best way to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is scary to think how the deliberation would unfold if these five concerns became realities.

If the Syrian rebels are victorious in their quest to eliminate al-Assad, Syria could resemble the situation in Libya post-Qaddafi. Various forces of armed militia would control areas of the country absent any substantive government control. The U.S. government believes that one of the strongest opposition forces in Syria, the Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusra, could be an extension of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra was officially designated a terrorist organization by U.S. in December 2012. There is concern that all Islamic rebels in Syria could unite under the same terrorist banner. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron was afraid of all Men uniting under one banner ... and we all know how that ended.

Extremely recently on February 28, 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that $60 million pledge of "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels does not indicate a departure from traditional Western policy on Syria. Kerry also stated that the aid has negligible impact on preventing the humanitarian crisis from spilling over into other countries. If this is the case, should the U.S. be doing more than giving aid when it knows the aid will not prevent the Syrian Sweep from expanding? Why give this type of aid at all if it is not going to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis? It seems that the U.S. should focus on ways to help end the crisis, not throw aid into the mix and hope for the best.

The UNHCR details here that Jordan has 253, 668 registered Syrian refugees; Lebanon has 202,222; Turkey has 184, 585; and Iraq has 102, 829. These numbers are astounding. As more and more Syrian refugees enter Turkey, the country runs the risk of its own violent situation. Turkey has remained tough in its rhetoric against al-Assad’s regime and has supported the opposition. But if border skirmishes keep happening, like this one in the border town of Ras al-Ain in December 2012, Turkey might be forced to rethink its strategy and rethink the safety of its own citizens over Syrian refugees. The focus could shift from supporting the opposition within Syria to protecting its own citizens from violence that the refugees continue to flee from and bring with them.

Regarding the mobility of small arms, the revolution has brought about an influx of weapons to Syrian rebels. These weapons can be sold on the black market and/or flow into Jordanian and Palestinian refugee camps. For Jordan, it could mean a return to heavy fighting between the central government and tribal groups in areas such as Maan over the smuggling of these arms. For Palestinian refugee camps, the presence of small arms could spawn the resurgence of militant factions, which would obviously lead to more violence with the state of Israel. No one wants more violence between Israel and Palestine while the world is trying to figure out if Syria is going to cause the entire region to deteriorate.

The situation in Syria features predominantly Sunni rebel factions battling a regime controlled by Alawites, a cousin of Shiite Muslims. al-Assad’s main allies are Shia Iran and Hezbollah, a Shia group in Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Skeikh Hassan Nasrallah recently warned that sectarian infighting in Lebanon could escalate if the Syrian conflict continues. On the group’s Al-Manar TV station, Nasrallah stated: "There are some who are working night and day and pushing the country toward civil and religious strife, and specially Sunni-Shia strife."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stated recently "If the world does not agree to support a peaceful solution through dialogue … then I see no light at the end of the tunnel. Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off. The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq."

These five concerns should be a clarion call to the international community that real steps need to be taken to remove al-Assad from power and transition Syria into a stable situation.