Beyond Syria: Collateral Damage and New Alliances

Photo: Under a striking, overcast sky, a long line of women wait to register with UNHCR in the Lebanese town of Arsal.

by Wayne White

The reverberations of the desperate war inside Syria have increasingly radiated outward. In addition to the massive Syrian refugee exodus, Lebanon and Iraq in particular have been impacted adversely by heightened instability and violence. Yet actions associated with both have only increased their vulnerability. By contrast, the Turks and Iraq’s northern Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have boldly ramped up their mutual cooperation, in part to form a common front to counter an unwelcome rival Kurdish alliance taking shape inside Syria.

Despite rising violence in Lebanon, so far Iraq has been the most heavily affected overall of Syria’s neighbors. In addition to the almost daily backdrop of horrific bombings and attacks by gunmen on Shi’a and government-related targets (like those of Dec. 16 killing 65), there has been a surge in execution-style killings and beheadings, with bodies dumped in various locales (characteristic of the dark days of the 2006-2008 sectarian violence). Recently, Iranian workers on a gas pipeline in north central Iraq were also the objects of a massacre. Al-Qaeda associated elements have been the prime culprits, but Shi’a militias have become more active as well.

With more than 8,000 Iraqis already dead this year from extremist violence, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned earlier this month of more danger from a jihadist “Islamic emirate” that could take hold in much of Syria. Yet, the Baghdad government’s own marginalization and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been the leading cause for the powerful revival of Sunni Arab extremism in Iraq and its close linkage to the parallel phenomenon in Syria.

Meanwhile, hardline Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri (who has inspired Shi’a militias in Iraq for years) issued a fatwa on Dec. 15 pronouncing “fighting in Syria legitimate” and declaring those who die there “martyrs.” This fatwa probably will send many more Iraqi Shi’a into Syria to join over a thousand already believed to be fighting for the regime. But it also could intensify seething sectarian tensions within Iraq.

Other notable developments affecting Iraq, however, involve its northern Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). KRG President Masoud Barzani made his first visit to Turkey in any capacity since 1992 in mid-November. The obvious aim was to support Turkish President Erdogan’s peace efforts focused on the extremist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as well as to help Ergodan secure more Kurdish favor in Turkey’s March 2014 municipal elections.

Such high-profile assistance from Iraq’s Kurds would seem odd but for two other pressing matters. First, both Turkey and the KRG were alarmed by the declaration before Barzani’s visit by Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria of an interim administration for an autonomous Kurdish region there. Although repressed in the pre-civil war era, these militias are believed to have made their move with the approval of the Syrian government, and to have received aid from Assad’s allies, Iran and the Maliki government (relationships both Erdogan and Barzani oppose). Moreover, the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks fear the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), with links to the radical PKK, is behind the recent unity move.

For Damascus, any such agreement probably represents a cynical wartime concession of iffy standing simply to harness the bulk of Syria’s 2 million Kurds against anti-regime Sunni Arab rebels. Support from the regime probably also made possible the only UN airlift of winter relief supplies for any area outside government control into this predominantly Kurdish region. The only other airlifts to rebel areas associated with the Syrian regime have involved bombs.

Syrian Kurdish militias have been battling various rebels for over a year. On Dec. 13, cadres of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reportedly seized 120 Syrian Kurdish hostages near the Turkish border north of Aleppo, the latest of a number of such kidnappings. There has also been heavy skirmishing between the ISIL and extremist al-Nusra Front rebels and Syrian Kurdish militias along the edges of the Kurdish-controlled zone.

The second key driver in Barzani’s and Erdogan’s warming ties is oil. For years, Maliki’s government has been at odds with Barzani’s KRG over the KRG’s efforts to award its own contracts for large-scale oil and gas exports. KRG patience may have run out. In late November, Turkey and the KRG apparently came close to finalizing a comprehensive oil and gas deal — the latest move in Ankara’s cooperation with the KRG that has angered Baghdad.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz assured Iraqi officials on Dec. 1 that “any exports must be with the approval of the Iraqi government.” But with Iraq still balking over fears of greater KRG autonomy, the Turks and the KRG are keeping the pressure up; on Dec. 13, test flows of limited amounts of KRG crude were sent through a new pipeline already completed to carry Iraqi Kurdish exports Turkey sorely needs to diversify its energy dependence and secure oil and gas at a likely discount.

Lebanon has been paying ever more dearly for the ongoing sectarian violence just across its lengthy Syrian border and Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria. Indeed, given Lebanon’s own complex sectarian mosaic, overspill was inevitable, with an ongoing litany of clashes, killings, threats, and squaring off otherwise among Sunni, Alawite and Shi’a communities radiating out from the border.

Tensions and sectarian violence, however, also have been rising in core areas of Lebanon. In the northern city of Tripoli, with a majority Sunni Arab community, a Lebanese soldier died and 7 others were wounded in a Dec. 5 clash with extremists sympathetic to the Syrian rebels. More than 100 have died in Tripoli so far this year in gun battles and a bombing pitting Sunni militants against the army, the police, Tripoli’s minority Alawite community, or Lebanese Shi’a elements. As a result, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, recently turned security there over to the army for 6 months.

Probably most damaging for Lebanon has been Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, sending thousands of seasoned fighters to reinforce those of the Assad regime. Hundreds of its combatants have been killed in action, and heavily Shi’a-populated areas of Beirut in particular (home to many Hezbollah fighters) have not simply remained a quiet “home front” away from Hezbollah’s war across the border.

Bombings like the one against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and nearby buildings on Nov. 19, which killed two dozen, have hammered Shi’a neighborhoods. On Dec. 4, a Hezbollah commander back from the Syrian front, Hassan al-Liqqis, was gunned down in front of his residence. Hezbollah blamed the Israelis, but it is more likely he was another victim of rising home-grown violence. Today, Hezbollah claims it thwarted an attempted car bombing believed to have been aimed at one of its bases in the largely Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa Valley 20 miles east of Beirut.

Many assumed through the 1st year of the Syrian conflict that refugees would comprise the main burden faced by Syria’s neighbors, but the savagery and destruction wrought by the Syrian regime especially magnified even that challenge far beyond early worse-case scenarios. The virtual explosion of the rebel al-Qaeda factor, Hezbollah’s robust intervention, and the anti-rebel stance taken — or forced upon — most of Syria’s Kurds was not foreseen. All this further complicates ongoing efforts to find some path out of the Hellish Syrian maelstrom, be they Western efforts to oust Assad & Co. or the recently revived international efforts to bring the parties together for talks in Geneva. All things considered, the prospects for an effective way forward out of this crisis remain grim.

Photo: Under a striking, overcast sky, a long line of women wait to register with the UNHCR in the Lebanese town of Arsal on Nov. 13.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. I just have to ask, who was the wonder mind that thought this insurrection up in the first place? Looking at the death & destruction as a result, who ever it was, should be taken to task and sent to a padded cell for the rest of his/her/their live[s]. A new game plan with new people who know what they are doing, not the ones who shill to the highest bidder. As for the article, informative, but depressing for the outcome, effecting those civilians caught in the middle.

  2. This is a pretty skewed analysis. Your facts about effects in surrounding countries are correct, but I’m wondering why it is ‘cynical’ of the Assad regime to support the Kurds in the North (whose interests were outright rejected by the ‘opposition’) but not for the Erdogan Regime to make nice with the Kurds of Northern Iraq while continuing their genocide against the Kurds inside Turkey. Any doesn’t it seem rather cynical of the Barzani Regime to make nice with the Turks so they can sell their oil without consulting with the National Government of Iraq?

    And by the way, it wasn’t Bashar Assad who invited Al Qaeda into the region, and he isn’t funding them either. In fact, the Free Syrian Army got a big boost when Qatar started providing a paycheck to any unemployed Syrian who wanted to sign up. And by the way, I wonder what Ambassador Ford was doing in those meetings with the ‘protesters’ just as the insurgency began to take off? The Saudi’s are now funding the insurgency, and they sure want control of Syria very badly. According to a recent speech by Secretary of State Kerry, we are with them 100%

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