How Syria conflict affects its neighbours
Syria's five immediate neighbours have all been deeply affected by the conflict that rages there. For some, serious instability is already a reality.
Formerly an ally of Syria, Turkey turned against Bashar al-Assad within months of the conflict breaking out, publicly condemning the brutality of Syria’s response to the uprising. Turkey has allowed the Syrian political and military opposition to base themselves on its territory, given sanctuary to defectors and served as a conduit for arms to reach rebels inside Syria, inflaming Syrian anger. Turkey has called several times for President Assad to step down, and for a safe zone for refugees to be established inside Syria.
The conflict has created a crisis for Turkey though, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing across the shared border to seek shelter. The longer the conflict lasts, the more refugees will flood into Turkey, which is footing the bill. There is a large Kurdish separatist presence in north-east Syria, and Turkey, where Kurds form the largest minority group, fears the repercussions if Syrian Kurds are allowed to establish an autonomous region there.
Tensions between Syria and Turkey have also been heightened by intermittent shelling across the border from Syria, which has killed five civilians, and the shooting down of a Turkish warplane in Syrian airspace in June 2012, killing the two crew. In mid-May a bombing at Reyhanli , blamed by Ankara on Syrian agents, killed about 50 people. Turkey has expressed fear about the possible use of chemical weapons against it by Syria, prompting the US to deploy patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syria border.
Of all Syria’s neighbours, the conflict there is affecting Lebanon the most. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have been exacerbated by those in Syria, and fighting has spilled across the Lebanon-Syria border. President Assad’s regime is strongly backed by the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which sits in the Lebanese government. Thousands of Hezbollah fighters have crossed into Syria to help the Syrian army against rebels, taking a central role in the battle for Qusair, while rebels have fired rockets into parts of eastern Lebanon where Hezbollah holds sway.
Hezbollah relies on the Syrian government for the supply of heavy weapons, which allow the movement to both confront Israel and maintain its political clout within Lebanon. Deadly fighting between Alawite supporters of President Assad and Sunnis, who back the opposition, has erupted in neighbouring areas of Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, and the fall of President Assad’s regime would threaten to ignite more widespread clashes. Lebanese Sunnis have also crossed into Syria and account for many of the foreign fighters among the rebels there. Lebanese Sunni border villages are also a crucial point of transit for men and weapons into the opposition. Lebanon, which already hosts nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees, has become home to a large number of Syrian refugees, fuelling social tensions and putting an additional strain on its infrastructure and resources.
Israel is watching events in Syria very closely, where a change in regime would carry with it major repercussions. Although technically in a state of war with Syria since 1948, the border between Israel and Syria had been Israel’s quietest since the last time the two countries fought in 1973. That changed with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, with shells and gunfire hitting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, triggering Israeli return fire.
Israel’s biggest short-term fear is advanced weaponry being transferred from Syria to the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group Hezbollah, and it has carried out a series of air strikes this year against what it says were weapons convoys in Syria. Syria has accused Israel of siding with the rebels and has threatened to strike back if Israel takes any further similar action.
Israel is also worried about the transfer of Russian S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which could make air strikes much more difficult and theoretically reach deep into Israel, and about Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of rebel groups. If President Assad’s regime falls, extremist groups, including those linked to al-Qaeda, could attempt to launch attacks against Israel on the Golan Heights. There is also a slim chance that President Assad will attack Israel in a last-ditch attempt to rally support in Syria and among the Arab world. An end to President Assad’s rule though would also lessen Iran’s ability to back anti-Israel militant groups in Syria.
The conflict in Syria threatens to further destabilise Iraq, where sectarian violence has recently escalated to its deadliest levels for years. The majority Sunni-led fight against Bashar al-Assad has emboldened Iraq’s Sunni minority, which has claimed it is being discriminated against by the government and politically marginalised. Sunnis form the majority in the provinces in the west of Iraq, on its border with Syria, and the government in Iraq fears that these areas could become a safe haven for al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militant groups in Syria.
The border forms Syria’s longest, and thousands of Shia fighters from Iraq are said to have crossed into Syria to fight alongside President Assad’s forces. Politically, Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government has largely backed President Assad – the emergence of a hostile Sunni neighbour would be a worst case scenario for Iraq. If President Assad’s regime collapses, Iraqi officials fear it may be harder to keep western provinces from coming under the influence of Syrian Jihadis.
As with other neighbouring countries, there has been a steady influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, raising fears the unrestricted flow could make Iraq’s security situation worse. With the Syrian desert stretching well into Iraq, tribal ties also extend beyond the border, another reason why stability in Syria is important to that of Iraq.
King Abdullah suggested in November 2011 that Bashar al-Assad should step down. Though he was the first Arab leader to do so, he was careful to say that that was what he would do in his position, rather than calling on him to do so.
The countries shared trade of $0.6bn (£0.4bn) in 2010, Syria is a vital transport route for essential imported, hundreds of Jordanian students are placed in Syrian universities, and there are strong tribal and family ties that cross the shared border.
But Jordan is firmly in the pro-Western camp and in 1994 became the second Arab country, after Egypt, to sign a peace agreement with Israel, leaving Syria more isolated in its efforts to regain the occupied Golan Heights.
Jordan is also a basically Sunni country, while Syria's Sunni majority is ruled by a regime dominated by its Alawite minority. At times of tension in the past, Syria has accused Jordan (where there are pockets of Islamist militancy in the north) of stirring unrest among the Sunnis.
While Jordan’s the official policy is non-interference, it’s believed that many of the light arms bought for the Syrian rebels by sympathisers in the Gulf travel through Jordan. The BBC has spoken to Syrian rebels who say they have received training from US military personnel in Jordan.
Jordan is hosting approximately 500,000 officially registered refugees from the war in Syria (as of May 2013). The UN has said this number was likely to triple by the end of the year 2013.
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