Sixteen months after it began, the conflict in Syria has now transformed into a full-scale war.
The bombing last week in the heart of Damascus, which killed the ministers of defense and the interior along with two senior security officials, has shattered any remaining hope that the U.N. peace plan can be implemented.
Accounts of the situation on the ground speak of increasing violence and its spillover into neighboring countries. Analysts say that the situation has the potential to inflame sectarian tensions in the region.
In Lebanon, violence broke out in Tripoli between Shia and Alawite groups, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and armed Sunni groups, who largely support the opposition.
In June, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that the Syrian uprising could affect Iraq as well.
“If this conflict is to turn into an all-out sectarian or civil war, Iraq would be affected, Lebanon would be affected, Jordan will not be immune,” Zebari said.
He added, “We don’t want to see chaos reign, you see, in the region, in the neighborhood, and that’s why Iraq should have a say, a role in what is going to occur in Syria. No country can ignore or bypass Iraq in this regard.”
Zebari later claimed to have “solid information” that members of al-Qaeda were operating in Syria. “Our main concern, to be honest with you, is about the spillover — about extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries,” he said.
The foreign minister noted that the Syrian government failed to clamp down on Sunni Arab insurgents entering Iraq, and that now “their direction is the other way around.”
“If this conflict is to turn into an all-out sectarian or civil war, Iraq would be affected, Lebanon would be affected, Jordan will not be immune,”
The direction could reverse again, warns Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.
“In the short run, the Syrian insurgency could serve as a magnet for fighters, but may spill over into Iraq after the Assad regime falls,” he said. “Baghdad faces the worrisome possibility that emboldened and battle-hardened Sunni insurgents in Syria will target the [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki government.”
Many also worry that the Syrian crisis has the potential to further entrench the ongoing tension between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government in Baghdad. The KRG has developed close ties with Turkey, a fierce opponent of the Assad government, while the Iraqi government is under the heavy influence of Iran, who supports the Shia government in Damascus.
“We have a political crisis; this definitely reflects on the security situation,” Zebari said. “And these groups will find ways to operate, to strike in order to widen the gap between the political leaders.”
Mardini predicts that “as the crisis in Syria continues, sectarian identities will become more salient in Iraq.”
He notes, “The Shia-Sunni divide will harden. This will affect Iraqi politics and make it harder for Sunni and Shia groups to break from their base and cooperate.”
According to Mardini, recent attacks in Iraq may reflect a renewed confidence among Sunni extremists due to the situation in Syria. He adds, “How the Iraqis respond to future sectarian attacks as the Syrian crisis continues will be more important than the attacks themselves.”
Other analysts, such as David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, downplay the impact the Syrian crisis has on the relationship between the KRG and Iraqi government.
“I don’t think the KRG will allow Syrian developments to disrupt its already tense relations with Baghdad and Sunni Arabs,” Pollock said. “Rather, the KRG will try to remain on the sidelines of Syria precisely because of the risks of aggravating tensions with other regional parties.”
Pollock noted the caution necessary from the KRG at this time, with strengthened ties with Turkey possible that could just as easily be undermined with increased support of Syrian Kurds.
On Friday, reports from the Kurdish areas of Syria indicated that militia groups of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) “liberated” the cities of Amude and Efrin from pro-Assad forces.
Michael Knights, an Iraq and Syria expert with the Washington Institute, thinks the KRG will seek to minimize the blowback from these recent advances in the Kurdish areas of Syria.
“I don’t sense that Syrian Kurds play into KRG calculations much at all,” Knights said, noting that the KRG’s interests are more focused on Turkey than the Kurdish areas of Syria.
“The Syria issue is another point of consensus with Turkey — that Assad must go — but is a strictly secondary concern for the KRG,” he said. “The KRG and Baghdad have enough issues to argue about; Syria is very low on the agenda.”
Still, senior KRG officials are watching the situation in Syria closely. Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations, said, “Whatever happens in Syria will have a direct impact on what happens in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, and also on other neighboring countries.”
“No. The Kurds have suffered far more to be convinced to join a process without knowing what it has in store for them and their future.”
The Syrian Kurds have wisely hedged their bets throughout the uprising, supporters say, with the PYD and KNC presenting themselves as neutral between a regime that has not granted them their proper civil liberties and a loosely organized opposition with mostly nationalist and Islamist elements.
Bakir noted this hesitancy to support one side or the other without guarantees of rights or potential negotiations over future autonomy. “Some people want the Kurds to blindly support any effort,” he said. “No. The Kurds have suffered far more to be convinced to join a process without knowing what it has in store for them and their future.”
Bakir went on to say that the KRG has a clear position that is not aligned with what Baghdad would like to see happen in Syria. The KRG, he says, encourages the KNC to reach an understanding with the Syrian National Council to ensure they are on good terms for the future.
Others have criticized Iraq’s response to the Syrian crisis. Nawaf Fares, the recently defected Syrian Ambassador in Baghdad, called Iraq’s stance on Syria “contradictory to the truth,” and stated that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is bowing to pressure from Iran to remain neutral.
But Labid Abawi, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, emphasized Baghdad’s opposition to Assad. “Our position has been clear — we don’t side with Assad; we side with the people. But at the same time, we want to see a peaceful outcome to this, not a violent outcome or civil war,” he said.
Abawi said that Assad believes he still enjoys the support of his people, which has been a roadblock to progress in the country, and that a peaceful transition of the regime out of power is the best solution.
“If we use Kofi Annan’s plan or any plan to convince or force Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power to a national transitional unity government, then the entire system will not collapse, and we can maintain stability even after the regime,” the deputy minister stated.
He added, “But if civil war continues and Assad and the regime collapses under the pressure of the violence, then the whole system will collapse and there will be chaos — exactly what happened in Iraq.”