Thursday, June 28, 2012

Syria's fragile neighbours still fear Assad's waning power

Here was an irony that only a Syrian nationalist could appreciate. This week it was reported that some 200 Syrians had crossed into Turkey's Hatay province to escape the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. The group included a general, two colonels, two majors and about 30 other soldiers. The province was once a part of Syria, before being occupied by Turkey in 1938 and annexed. For decades, Syrian nationalists have considered Hatay stolen territory.

Now it has become a place of salvation for many Syrians, but also a focal point of the growing tension between Damascus and Ankara - exacerbated in recent days by Syria's downing of a Turkish warplane. On Tuesday, Nato met to discuss the incident, and the signs are that Turkey is moving towards further military involvement in Syria, even as all countries along Syria's border are looking for ways to shield themselves from the fallout of the escalating conflict there.

The destruction of the aircraft came after less publicised antagonistic measures by Syria and Turkey, each of which constituted a casus belli. The Syrian regime has allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has long been engaged in an armed insurgency against Ankara, to set up bases along Syria's border with Turkey. The Turkish government, in turn, has permitted the transit of weapons through its territory to the Syrian opposition, and hosts numerous opposition figures.

After the Nato meeting, Turkey amended its rules of engagement along its southern frontier, announcing that if Syrian troops approached the area, they would be considered a threat. This probably means the Turkish army will set up a de facto safe haven inside Syrian territory, under the umbrella of its guns, in which the opposition will be free to act. For now, this avoids a ground offensive that would alarm Syria's Kurds and most probably bring Ankara into direct confrontation with Iran, a leading backer of Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian regime has tried to destabilise the countries across its borders, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, to protect itself. From Mr Al Assad's perspective, if the international community comes to view the end of his regime as the precursor of a regional explosion, then outside states will back off from pushing for his departure.

This strategy has elicited international anxiety, but it is already turning into a game of diminishing returns. The dynamics of the emerging war in Syria are primarily internal, even if external actors are seeking to protect their stakes in the country. In other words, whatever Mr Al Assad does is only heightening the animosity to his leadership at home, even as his forays into destabilising the region will only confirm that he is a menace who must be toppled.

If there is any international consensus over the Syrian situation, it is that the conflict should not spill over into Syria's neighbourhood, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, which are vulnerable because they are all religiously and ethnically mixed.

The state of affairs in Lebanon has well illustrated the dangers of a breakdown, but also the unexpected defence mechanisms guarding against this. Syria was almost certainly involved, through its Lebanese partners, above all Hizbollah, in creating a political stand-off that led to armed clashes in the northern city of Tripoli several weeks ago. Yet Hizbollah, even as it has backed Mr Al Assad in line with its Iranian patron, is also keen to avert a sectarian confrontation in Lebanon, which might ultimately swallow the party.

That is why Hizbollah, for reasons of self interest, has played a crucial role in advocating an continuing national dialogue between Lebanese politicians and parties. No one has any expectations that this will lead to long-term amity, but the sessions are supported by a population profoundly fearful of civil conflict. Hizbollah will bolster the Assads, but it knows that the regime may not be long for this world. Therefore, the party has to prepare for the aftermath and ensure that it does not find itself isolated in Lebanon.

Lebanese efforts to neutralise the unrest in Tripoli and the after-effects of frequent transgressions by Syria's army along the border have shown that Syria's influence in Lebanon is waning. However, the relationship between the Lebanese religious communities is hardly reassuring. For the foreseeable future, the country will have to deal with a Sunni community invigorated by Mr Al Assad's difficulties, and a Shia community bracing for the loss of an ally whose downfall will raise fresh fears of communal marginalisation.

On Tuesday, for instance, gunmen apparently affiliated with the Amal Movement attacked a television station that had broadcast an interview with a Salafist sheikh who has been highly critical of the two Shia parties. Precisely what role the leaderships of the two parties had in the violence is unclear, but it did show how precarious the security situation in Lebanon has become.

In an effort to express European concern, last week three European foreign ministers - Karl Bildt of Sweden, Nikolay Mladenov of Bulgaria and Radoslaw Sikorski of Poland - visited Beirut together. One message they brought was that the Lebanese have to pursue the national dialogue. The Europeans, and indeed most other countries, are notably worried about the passage of weapons into Syria through Lebanon. But preventing this is not easy. Sunnis in the north of the country will not end assistance to their Syrian brethren when they see that Hizbollah has for years benefited from weapons supplies delivered through Syria, and retains near autonomous military status.

The grinding collapse of Syria will continue to buffet the countries nearby. But amid the gloom there are glimmers of common sense, as no one truly wants to follow Syria's path. Common sense, and fear, are not enough to guarantee peace, but sometimes they go a long way.

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