World Affairs

Syria, as the Apple of Discord in the Middle East

Looking into the history of human civilization, one can see that it was mainly characterized by the state of war rather than conditions of eternal or relative peace between participants of international relations. Thus, it can be concluded that conflict as a kind of interactions between states is an inherent feature of international relations. It can be argued that by nature conflicts remain the same, nowadays; on the other hand, the implications of contemporary conflicts are different, and until a certain extent, conflicts are different, as well. In this regard, under the conditions of globalised and inter-connected world, conflict or civil war in one country has ruinous implications through the whole globe. The best example of such wide-spreading implications is the recent civil war in Syria. The aim of the present essay is not to prove that Syrian civil war is a conflict of the new type, but to explore the implications of this war on the neighboring countries. Thus, the central thesis of this research is that Syrian refugees flood neighboring countries resulting in spilling of violence, which eventually threatens to enmesh Iraq and Israel in Syrian civil war. This thesis will be proved through exploration of the current situation of with Syrian refugees in various neighboring countries and their further impact on the political status quo in the region.

The humanitarian disaster.

Although, at first, Syrian conflict was not considered to be one of the worst revolutions among the Arab Spring wave, it proved to be one of the most protracted and bloody among them all. Already after 22 month of warfare, the conflict proved to cause one of the greatest humanitarian disasters ever seen in history (Starr 2012, 52). In this regard, it was not horrendous enough that during the civil war more than 60,000 people were killed, but even more lives were affected and endangered.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Panos Moumtzis, the main concern about the situation is in “that the speed with which this crisis is deteriorating far exceeds the ability of the international community to cover the needs” (Kumar Sen 2013, np).

Aforementioned statement is easier to understand through figures reflecting the existing tendency of refugees’ constant and rapid increase. It is estimated that as a result of the war around 2.5 million people were displaced inside Syria alone. Those people who left the country by January 2013 estimated around 612,000; and 3,000 people continue to flee the country on the every-day basis (Kumar Sen 2013, np). The target destinations for the refugees are the neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.

The fast increase of the refugee number and geographic location of the Syria and neighboring countries under severe conditions of the Middle East deteriorate the situation. In this regard, no single country can deal with the number of refugees approaching their countries. In this regard, while, in some countries, refugee camps struggle with essentials of food and water supply, other countries have no refugee camps, on the first place. According to the UN estimations, only around 30% of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees live in the refugee camps, the rest live in abandoned houses or urban areas (Kumar Sen 2013, np).

The existence or absence of refugee camps has different implications on the internal state of each country, in particular. For instance, in Jordan, refugees are transported from the border to the Za’atari Refugee Camp or they may leave the camp if they find Jordanian citizen, who would sponsor their stay in the country (Kauffman 2013, 18). This dual approach was meant to re-distribute the burden between the government which was asking for international help in the provision of refugees and assistance of the local community. On the other hand, it resulted in dual implications of both having refugee camps and letting refugees live in the urban areas. Inevitably, the presence of refugee camps results Jordan’ budgetary and infrastructure restraints socio-ethnical tensions in the local communities, not to mention the fact that “the large influx of Syrians in urban areas is driving up rents and food costs and driving down low-end wages” (Kauffman 2013, 18).

While in Jordan, there are refugee camps, in Lebanon, the situation is worse, since no camps are available. The lack of camps is not simply ruinous due to inability to provide essentials for the refugees, but because without camp guards local security is under the threat (Starr 2012, 134). In this regard, in Lebanon, the refugees who live among the local population have caused a significant clash between local groups for and against Assad regime. These confrontations have resulted in various forms of violent clashes and gun battles on the street, contributing to already existing “domestic sectarian strife” between Hezbollah and its opponents (Kumar Sen 2013, np). Lebanon managed to keep relative internal neutrality concerning the Syrian war for about 14 months until May 2012, when a famous anti-Assad Activist (Sunni wing), Shadi al-Moulwi was detained in the northern part of Tripoli by a pro-Hezbollah organization – the General Security Directorate (GSD) (Barnes-Dacey 2012, 2).  This action provoked the local population which was mainly Sunni:

Violent clashes swiftly broke out with the city’s small pro-Assad Alawite community,

leading to weeks of violence that left 15 people dead. Tensions escalated when the

Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) shot dead two people including a prominent anti-

Assad Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed…Clashes spread to Beirut” (Barnes-

Dacey 2012, 2).

In the case of Iraq, the situation is even more complicated. Just as Lebanon, it aimed at keeping neutral position, and it has the same problem with Sunni-Shiite confrontation within the country. Although, unlike Lebanon, gunbattles did not take place, the frustration is rising. The March killing of 48 Syrian soldiers in Iraq suggest that the country is gradually being dragged into Syrian civil war (Dunlop 2013, np). The killed soldiers were treated in Iraqi hospital and were on the way to Syria when they were killed in ambush of Syrian rebels. As a result of the ambush, nine Iraqi guards were killed (Dunlop 2013, np). This event can be viewed as part of the refugee matter because it refers to the wounded individuals coming for treatment to the neutral territory. On the other hand, this incident has quite complex ongoing implications. First of all, it argues that neutrality of Iraq is under question. Remaining free flying zone for Iranian jets and treating Syrian soldiers might be viewed as more supportive position of the Assad regime (Starr 2012, 71). On the other hand, the incident is “likely to increase tensions between Shiite-led Baghdad and Sunni-majority Syrian rebels, and could heighten tensions between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites” (Dunlop 2013, np).

In this context, the 105,000 refugees that are already in Iraq might become another complication. From one perspective, providing shelter to the refugees corresponds to the neutral status of the country and would fit the regional and international profile the new Iraqi government is trying to build (Starr 2012, 82). On the other hand, the presence of those refugees, who are most likely of mixed religious belonging might not only cause tensions within the refugee community, but escalate clashes between local Shiites and Sunnis. In this regard, the  confrontation might escalate not only into another Lebanon, but even into another civil war in Iraq, which with all Western and local efforts would be simply disastrous for the country and region, in general (Starr 2012, 175).

Overall, from all mentioned above, it can be argued that refugees increase in the neighboring countries has numerous negative implications on the existing internal environment of these countries. First of all, refugees become a substantial burden on local governments’ budgets and infrastructure capabilities. Secondly, they create uneven redistribution of the available resources, goods and services on the local markets both food and accommodation-wise. Thirdly, these two aspects lead to the third one – clashes with the local population due to the difference in ethno-cultural features. These three aspects are natural for any refugee situation, but, as it was shown above, the most ruinous and dangerous is the fourth aspect of refugees’ presence in already unstable countries of the Middle East. Thus, the final aspect of refugees’ impact on the host countries is in spillover of violence, in the local communities, through the incorporation of existing and common contradictions from the country of the conflict to the host country (Starr 2012, 203). The cases of Lebanon and Iraq show how refugees’ presence might escalate conflicts within the country, but can it involve another country in the civil war? If so, then how? Or, probably, more important is why?

Why would Iraq and Israel get involved?

For Israel, any events taking place in the neighboring or any other country are viewed from the perspective of its national security and territorial unity. In this regard, Syrian civil war and related issues are of particular importance. The focal point in this context is Golan Heights, which re of strategic importance for Israel because the owner of those heights would get a strategic advantage over Israel (Karpin 2013, 87). In this regard, any threat to this area would be viewed as a threat to the whole state. November 2012 incident when Syrian fighters were shelled by Israeli soldiers, when the confrontation from the civil war spread to the territory of the Golan Heights (Deitch 2012, np). In this regard, the spokesman said that “he did not know if the targets were Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad or forces loyal to him” (Deitch 2012, np). This episode shows that, for Israel, the whole matter is about survival of Israel state in the existing borders.

Taking into consideration the last sentence, it may be assumed that Israel will get involved in the conflict if it becomes a direct threat for the state. In this context, it may happen if fighting spreads further to the territory of the Golan Heights or if its status might be challenged. In this regard, the main reason why Israel opposes the idea of facilitating refugees on Israeli territory is because of two reasons. First of all, it does not want escalation of religious tensions already existing within the country. Secondly, the government does not want more Muslim population in the country, who might further claim the Golan Heights, as their former territory of residence, since this territory was taken from Syria in the past (Karpin 2013, 63). Even without taking refugees into Israeli territory with further ruinous implications, sooner or later refugees and misplaced Syrians will be looking for the territory to live in, and having previous experience with Palestine refugees was already controversial for the state (Karpin 2013, 69). Thus, the issue of refugees is of particular attention for Israel, but it would not make the country go to war.

On the other hand, violence spillover to other countries of the region due to the refugees’ presence in those countries might make Israel interfere. In this regard, if Lebanon scenario evolves in Iraq and the situation escalates to the point of Lebanon and Iraq interfering into war on the side of Assad, the scale of war would gain regional dimension (). Under those conditions, Israel would be threatened by escalation of the war in its direct and multi-facet neighborhood, which as it always happens in the Middle East would end up with confrontation of Israel, especially if Iran would start taking more aggressive part in the war. One of the possible scenarios of events development is actually potential decision of Assad to distract attention from the civil war by starting external war with Israel, which again could be supported by other countries depending who wins the struggles caused by Syrian refugees present in those countries (Karpin 2013, 72).

As it was mentioned in the previous part of this research, the presence of Syrian refugees in Iraq already cause tensions between local Sunni and Shiite populations and divides the country between supporters and opponents of Assad regime. It may seem that simple presence of refugees is not enough for causing tensions inside the country, but it is enough for local people start reconsidering position of their country and for extremist elements to use confusion and the lack of exact policy as means of manipulation (Karpin 2013, 112). If the question of support is posed in the framework of religion and belonging to a certain branch, then Baghdad, predominantly Shiite, would follow Shiite Iran and support Alawite Assad, and oppose Syrian population, which is mostly Sunni (Karpin 2013, 107). Thus, if this religious tension escalates in Iraq it might result in the civil war in the country and subsequent entrance into war on the side, which would correspond to religious beliefs of the winner in Iraq. The same might be the case of Lebanon. Thus, direct involvement of the third parties in the war would be unavoidable if the situation in each country escalates.

Overall, from all mentioned above, it can be argued that Syrian civil war is “a conflict with regional dimensions, which will most likely affect religiously and ethnically mixed countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon” (Dunlop 2013, np). Even such seemingly innocent reminding of the war as refugees seeking asylum and trying to survive might escalate further conflicts in the host countries in this or that way. Although, from the Western perspective, it may seem quite extraordinary for people to fight for supremacy of one religious branch over another, the previous experience of Iraq and Afghanistan should teach us that in the Middle East religion is the first reason and means for conflict escalation and it should be treated with caution.

The given above arguments aimed at showing the potential implications of the refugees spreading in the neighboring countries and subsequent spillover of violence into these countries, but it should be outlined that the main reason for the violence spread is not refugees’ fault. The main reason for further deterioration of the situation in those countries is their initial unstable situation and actual existence of tensions which were not forgotten. In the case of Iraq, the present parity of power is temporary and existed for only two years. The experience of the Second Gulf War is still fresh. In the case of Lebanon, the situation is constantly escalated by Hezbollah manipulations. Concerning Israel, its actions are conditioned by a single priority – survival of the state. If participation war becomes more strategically effective, then it shall participate.







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