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International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

Violence from the Syrian civil war spilling over into neighboring countries

Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has amplified tensions in neighboring Lebanon. As the largely Sunni rebels fight the largely Alawi Shi’a ruling regime in Syria, the constantly simmering Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Lebanon is now boiling. In the city of Sidon in the south of the country, 12 people have died after Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, a prominent Sunni cleric, called for a holy war against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, mostly because of Assad’s use of Shi’a Hezbollah forces in fighting the rebels.

The Syrian conflict has now spilled over into much of the Levant; Syria-related fighting is occurring not only in Lebanon, but also in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This spells a slow end for the civil war, which has now stretched on for over two years, as it warns of it becoming a regional conflict rather than a national one.

Hezbollah’s involvement is intertwined with the Iranian government’s, as the world’s most powerful Shi’a militant group and the world’s most powerful Shi’a majority nation, respectively. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has long been confirmed as aiding the Assad regime. But now that Hezbollah is so mired in the conflict, and now that it has spread into three separate territories, even more countries in the region may get involved.

Iran and Hezbollah are little loved in the Middle East. Two of the region’s most powerful countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are Sunni dominated, and attempt to counterbalance Iran’s power plays whenever possible. One of the region’s only other Shi’a majority countries, Bahrain, is currently ruled by a Sunni minority government, which is wary of Iran’s influence on a Shi’a majority population already rioting for regime change. Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement may cause these three countries to militarily intervene on the side of the rebels, escalating the rhetoric that has been present since the start of the conflict.

Last week, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi insisted, “Hezbollah must leave Syria—these are serious words. There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.” Morsi did not say what steps Egypt would take should Hezbollah remain and the conflict continue. Nevertheless, tensions between Egypt and Syria are escalating.

This would mean that the only major power pivot in the Middle East that would not be involved in the Syrian civil war would be Turkey. Of the four key players in the Middle East—Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey—Turkey would be the only wild card, should the Syrian conflict turn into a regional one. On the one hand, Turkey had reasonably good relations with Iran. They coordinate to fight militant groups from their shared Kurdish minority, and are bound economically by the Tabriz-Ankara oil pipeline. On the other hand, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his backing Justice and Development Party are staunchly Sunni, and have condemned the Assad regime’s repressive actions.

Even if only three of the four major Middle Eastern players step in, the results would intensify the Syrian civil war into a full-scale regional conflict.

Syria is the only Middle Eastern country with a sustained civil war occurring as a derivative of the Arab Spring. For most, the main events of the Arab Spring have been over for months, if not years. But just when these countries may have thought that they were to be free of the worst of the civil discord, they may be pulled into a regional cyclone with Syria at its eye.

By Laura Gates

Source: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Haaretz, The Guardian, Hurriyet, Reuters

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