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Turkey-Syria clash showcases dangers of spillover

Associated Press Modified: October 5, 2012 at 1:46 am •  Published: October 5, 2012
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BEIRUT (AP) — Retaliatory Turkish artillery strikes deep into Syria have showed the speed with which the bloody civil war can entangle its neighbors and destabilize an already volatile region.

Beyond the cross-border flare-up, the 18-month battle to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad has already deepened sectarian rifts in Lebanon and Iraq, raised tensions along the long quiet frontier with Israel and emboldened Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

"There is not a single country bordering Syria that we can honestly say they are not facing a realistic threat to internal stability and national security," said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

From the start, Syria's conflict burst over its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians sought refuge across the country's borders with Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Stray bullets and mortar rounds, sometimes with deadly result, have struck Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

But in a dramatic escalation on Thursday, Turkey fired back for the first time after an errant Syrian mortar shell killed five people in a Turkish border town Wednesday. Turkey shelled Syrian military targets, and Turkey's parliament approved future retaliation under such circumstances.

Turkey said it did not amount to a declaration of war, and Syria offered a rare apology — a sign that both want to defuse tensions.

Assad's foes, including Turkey, have been unwilling to intervene directly in Syria, and the Damascus regime has tried to make sure it stays that way, avoiding major provocations that could inadvertently trigger foreign intervention.

With Thursday's parliament decision, Turkish leaders expanded their options for dealing with Syria but avoided a full-scale military confrontation, said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London.

Some of Syria's other neighbors, particularly Lebanon, have also shown restraint, in part to try to avoid inflaming sectarian divisions within their own countries that mirror the divides in the Syrian civil war.

Many of those rising up against Assad are Sunni Muslims, while Syria's ruling elite is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Syria's Christian and Kurdish minorities have largely been trying to stay out of the line of fire.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have an ethnic and religious mix similar to Syria's, and in Lebanon, sectarian tensions have been rising. Since May, repeated street clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon's majority Sunni port city of Tripoli have killed more than two dozen people.

In a further complication, the pro-Assad Hezbollah militia, which is believed to be sending fighters to help the embattled Syrian regime, is a major political and military force in Lebanon.

However, Lebanon's major players have largely resisted the temptation to exploit the Syrian conflict for political gains at home, several analysts said.

Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, is still deeply etched in the collective memory, and there seems to be little appetite for another round.

"I don't think anyone in Lebanon, among the major political leaders, the major political factions, wants to support a sectarian war (at home)," said Michael Young, the opinion editor for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

But Lebanon's fragile coalition government may not be able to withstand a protracted conflict next door, and any miscalculation could ignite violence.

"What the crisis is doing is eroding the resilience of the state," said Emile Hokayam of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. "Small security incidents may escalate just because of bad management."

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