Syria was always going to be a special exception to the Arab Spring. In contrast to Egypt and Libya, its religious and ethnic framework, political alliances, strategic location and above all else its potential to instigate heat waves across the region was always going to make regional and foreign powers tip-toe that much more carefully.
However, directly or indirectly, the battle in Syria is hardly restricted to Syrians themselves. A deep underlying proxy war is already taking place in Syria that brings together many influential parties with their own interests in the conflict and the eventual outcome in Syria.
Relations between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Turkey rapidly faded after the start of the revolution. Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and other pro-rebel foreign powers and Turkey itself, have been supporting the rebels indirectly from Turkish territory.
Regional powers have restrained from direct intervention in Syria, but a Syrian mortar attack that landed in the Turkish border town of Akcakale last week killing 5 Turkish civilians, resulting in retaliatory attacks by Turkey for a number of days, showed just how quickly the fire of civil war can burn across a far reaching forest.
Cross border tensions in the north are hardly new and other stray Syrian bullets and mortars have already fallen across the border in Turkey, and in Jordan and Lebanon for that matter, not forgetting the hotly-disputed downing of a Turkish jet reportedly in international waters fresh in the memory.
But the deaths in Akcakale were a red-line and Turkish parliament was quick to authorise symbolic cross-border operations if the needs arise to serve as a strong warning, even if in reality Turkey is far from jumping in to the drums of war.
Matters were hardly helped as further stray Syrian mortars landed in Turkish fields in the Hatay province on Saturday, just days after Syria had offered a rare apology and vowed not to repeat the incidents.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Syria would pay a “big price” and that Turkey would not shy away from war if provoked, stating “those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake.”
Clearly, Turkey and its allies do not have the stomach for direct intervention at the current time, due to the intense regional escalation it would cause. On another day, Turkey may well have had the pretext to strike back with more fire-power or even declare all-out war, but such a solitary move without some allied coalition would be detrimental to Turkey both politically and in terms of its own stability and security.
UN and NATO response
Both the UN and NATO issued a strong rebuke to Syrian actions.
NATO demanded “the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally” and pressed the Syrian regime to “put an end to flagrant violations of international law.”
While the UN Security Council strongly condemned the provocations by the Syria regime in rare agreement after hours of negotiations and stated that the incident “highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbours and on regional peace,” and “demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.”
If it was not for the staunch support of Russia and China, a Western backlash on Assad would have been much more stern and direct. However, the UN text that was issued showed the increasingly difficult predicament of Moscow as it was forced to make concessions over the cross-border crisis whilst trying to maintain calm.
The war in Syria has already split the West along Cold War lines and polarised the region. The latest escalation in tensions between Syria and Turkey threatened to introduce a whole new dimension to the Syrian conflict but is not a unique danger.
Clashes have already taken place in Lebanon between pro-Assad and pro-rebel groups inside Lebanon and border skirmishes are not rare as the battle has ubiquitously spilled over. Both Iraq and particularly Lebanon have similar sectarian connotations that introduce vested interests in the Syrian conflict.
The influential Shiite group Hezbollah based in Lebanon and closely aligned with Iran, has reportedly assisted Syrian forces but in spite of stirring of old sectarian wounds in Lebanon, the major factions have shown restraint with the bitter 15-year civil war still etched in the memory.
Baghdad, who is closely entangled with Tehran, has come under pressure from its dismayed US ally for its Syrian position and pressed to cease underhand support of the Syrian regime or allow Iran logistical access to send arm shipments to Syria. While Nouri al-Maliki is careful not to alienate foreign partners, they are clearly in favour of the current regime and not the Sunni dominated rebel movement. Some even ascribe the resurgence of Sunni attacks and groups in Iraq to the deepening sectarian conflict in Syria and the rise of Sunni power in Syria.
Israel with its occupation of the Golan Heights on the direct doorstep of the Syrian conflict, and with Iranian supported Hezbollah on the other flank, knows it can also be easily dragged into the battle.
While the Syrian crisis may have split the Arab world largely under sectarian lines, it is perhaps the Kurdish issue that may prove the most destabilising of all.
The Kurdistan Region has provided a natural helping hand to its Syrian Kurdish brethren, with Syrian Kurds using the security and political vacuum to claim de-facto autonomy and break from the shackles of Arab suppression.
On the other hand, Assad’s forces, weary of Turkish intervention or even the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, have strategically ceded Kurdish border areas to avoid bloodshed with the Kurds and to delimit the rebel movement and at the same time create their own buffer zone.
Turkey has already suffered to a great extent with the establishment of the Kurdish region and renewed support of the PKK in Damascus, which was a ploy by Syria to only deter a Turkish incursion but was also a tool to punish the Turks for their support of the Sunni rebel movement.
Turkey is acutely aware, that with PKK attacks on a rapid rise in Turkey and Kurdish passions running high across the Syrian-Turkish divide, a unilateral incursion may open up unwanted new fronts.
A Turkish move into Syria could well see Iran ratchet its increased support for Kurdish rebels or embolden the Syrian forces with renewed military assistance.
With Iraq, Iran and to a lesser extent Lebanon on one side, Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt have promoted and aided the rebel cause through proxy forces while at the same time trying to keep the conflict at arm’s length.
Syrian game changer
No war drives on indefinitely and something will have to give sooner or later. While the West and pro-rebel regional forces have been largely passive, how long can the world view a humanitarian crisis, a growing refugee influx and escalating violence in Syria as an internal issue and without ultimate intervention or the setup of some kind of no-fly zones?
The fall of Assad’s regime in Syria will have far reaching ramifications, may well see the break-up of Syria and drastically alter the political, strategic and sectarian map of the Middle East.
Both within the current crisis and in the aftermath of the war, regional powers will flock to make their stake and influence in the new Syria. Syria is far too important both now and the future to be simply left aside as a distant war.