Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Could the Syrian Civil War Spread?

Paul S. Rowe


By Paul S. Rowe 

November 23, 2012

The Arab Spring brought momentous political change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in 2011.  But in Syria, the revolution has been postponed.  There, widespread demonstrations turned into an uprising in mid-2011.  The violent and repressive tactics of the Asad regime aimed at pre-empting its own downfall have led Syria into a civil war that has now raged for the past 16 months. 

The brutal tactics employed by the Syrian government have led to the deaths of over 37,000 people and created a massive flow of refugees to neighboring Turkey.  Government forces have engaged in wholesale use of destructive heavy weaponry, most notably in the cities of Homs and Aleppo.  Artillery and weapons fire have destroyed the old city souk of Aleppo and countless heritage buildings, while house-to-house fighting has made it impossible for most people to carry on with normal life.

Violence has begotten more violence.  Photographic and video evidence implicates the opposition in massacres of government soldiers.  The opposition is divided and rebel forces do not have a chain of command to report to, nor do they have the resources necessary to take care of prisoners of war in the midst of the conflict.  Their tactics and lack of organization have not made them popular on the ground.  On Nov. 11, the opposition factions came to an agreement in Doha in an attempt to unify their forces under Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, and the Arab League has recognized the group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  But the effectiveness of this new government-in-waiting remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, the civil war grinds on.

While the civil war itself provides good reason for humanitarian concern, perhaps the greater problem is the likelihood that the violence in Syria could spread to destabilize the region.  Already, Syrian forces have staged attacks across the border against Turkey and Israel.  As the Asad regime becomes more desperate, it is more likely to exact a heavy price for its downfall—targeting its many rivals, enemies and neighbors.

There is a sectarian dimension to the conflict in Syria that is already spilling over into Lebanon.  Although Lebanon’s sectarian divisions are well known, it is important to note that Lebanese political factions are also divided based upon their relationship to the Syrian regime.  Another chapter was added to the long history of targeted assassinations in Lebanon linked to the Syrian government when Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces was killed by a massive car bomb on Oct.19.  The assassination has undermined the Lebanese government and led to mutual recriminations among the Christian, Shia and Sunni Muslim communities in that country.

The further polarization of Sunni and Shia movements in Lebanon seems likely given their links to the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.  The crisis ushered in by General Hassan’s assassination threatens the dominant position of Hezballah in the Lebanese government and will only motivate the Shiite resistance movement to redirect public outrage over the incident.  Backed into a corner, Hezballah is not above escalating the crisis to a regional level in order to shrug off growing public discontent with its links to the Asad regime.  This might take the form of deliberate provocations over the border against Israel, especially if Israel takes direct action against Hezballah’s sponsor, Iran, for its suspected attempts to develop nuclear weapons.  A distraction over Israel would only help the Asad administration to dig in its heels and distract the international community from the ongoing tragedy inside Syria.

For all these reasons, the civil war in Syria is an urgent foreign policy priority for the newly re-elected Obama administration.  There is no clean and simple way to manage the situation, but increased financial support for the Syrian coalition in addition to air support for no-fly zones in areas of Syria would be the wisest strategy to seek the overturn of the Syrian regime.  Undoubtedly, support for the fractious and unreliable Syrian opposition is a gamble:  it threatens to alienate Russia, which has supported Asad’s government, and it throws U.S. support behind an unproven organization.  But if the civil war is allowed to spread beyond Syria’s borders, the strategic implications for the U.S. and its allies may be even graver.

—Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History, Geography, and Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada.

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