Syrian Conflict Risks Destabilizing Region

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As refugees flee Syria and civil strife there becomes more and more violent, politicians and observers from the region are beginning to express concern about what instability in Syria means for their own countries. In Turkey, there is much hand-wringing about what path the Kurdish minority in Syria will follow should the Assad regime collapse. The stream of displaced Armenians escaping the violence in Syria has also created problems for relations between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And in perennially fractious Lebanon, political leaders are calling for domestic unity at a time when many fear the country is ripe for more conflict.

On the Kurdish question, according to a widely reported article by the Deutsche Welle, “As the Assad regime loses ground in the Syrian civil war, ethnic Kurds are gaining more and more leverage….The Kurds are considered to be the world’s largest ethnic minority without their own country….at the moment, it seems the Kurds are in the strongest position in their history to make the dream of national sovereignty come true. However, the Kurds also have a long tradition of inner conflict….Many observers, therefore, are skeptical that a Kurdish state could become a reality. But one thing, at least, is clear: Efforts to found their own nation would turn Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran against them.”

In Turkey, there are concerns that the newly found autonomy of the Kurds in Syria will have an adverse effect on their kin living in Turkey. In an article for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, Semih Idiz points out “The biggest fallout for Turkey from the Syrian crisis will not be the refugees streaming in across the border, but developments relating to its perennial ‘Kurdish problem.’ Refugees will eventually go back. Turkey’s Kurdish problem, whose foreign dimension has taken on unexpected turns with developments in Syria, however, is here to stay….With developments unfolding as they are in Syria now, the problem is being aggravated further…. The prospects for solving the Kurdish problem soon, therefore, do not appear good, which unfortunately points to more bloodshed and increased ethnic estrangement.”

Then there is the question of the other minorities that call Syria home, many of whom supported Assad’s regime as a hedge against the Sunni majority. The Armenian minority calls Aleppo — Syria’s largest city and the site of ongoing armed conflict — its home. Some, like Today’s Zaman’s Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu, are worried about the implications of what is currently going on in Syria for this community: “The growing violence in Syria is strongly affecting the ethnic and religious elements in the country. This tension and upheaval raise concerns and worries among the Armenians in the country as well; for this reason, a portion of the Armenian population is seeking refuge in Armenia….It should also be noted that some Armenian groups have acted in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime so far. This is a huge handicap because the initial signs of the problems that will be exacerbated in the post-Assad era have become visible in the ongoing clashes where the Armenian people are subjected to violence by the opposition groups.”

No country in the region is more likely to be affected by the developments in Syria than its neighbor Lebanon. As Asharq Alawsat’s Emad El Din Adeeb notes, “It is important not to overlook what is happening Lebanon today, where the situation is escalating and intensifying in a manner that goes beyond the usual ‘war of words’….The real problem is that the regime in Syria no longer has red lines restricting its movements; it no longer has regional or international political considerations to take into account when it makes decisions. In short, there are no moral scruples preventing the regime from using fighter planes against its own people, and no political deterrents preventing it from expanding the scene of conflict to incorporate other countries.”

The fear is, with news of kidnappings on the rise, the conflict has already spilled over into Lebanon and promises to tear apart the carefully balanced political system, where as the Arab News staff helpfully point out, “Different government posts are reserved for members of specific religious groups. For example, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Officials worry that the carefully crafted agreement could come apart if sectarian tensions spill over from Syria. In the Al-Meqdad case, they are Shiite and the people they kidnapped are Sunni. Bashar Assad is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, while the rebels are primarily Sunni.”

By most accounts, this inability to instill trust in institutions other than their confessional ones has become Lebanon’s Achilles’ heel and risks tearing the country apart. Reflecting on these dynamics, in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Hussein Shobokshi writes: “The crippled Lebanese state has stood by helpless amidst the endless threats and insolence of various groups and trends. Attempts at good governance and patience have produced only one result: a decline in the prestige and a severe lack of trust in the Lebanese state, and a reliance upon other parties to accomplish what is required. Lebanon is a state that has been abused by its own politicians; a dreadful blight upon such a beautiful country. Lebanon’s politicians, by persisting with their unique mentality, will only succeed in restoring ‘colonialism’ to Lebanon, and we will see this in the coming days.”

Similarly, the Daily Star’s Rami Khouri believes Lebanon’s “frail statehood” accounts for much of the instability in the country and even in its neighborhood: “Most observers saw the heightened tensions in Lebanon during the past week largely as a result of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon. Others whispered that it was the other way around — that Lebanon’s chronic sectarian tensions have now spilled over into Syria, where the signs of a Sunni-Alawite war are on the rise….Spillover is not the most important issue today, but rather the vagaries, weaknesses and intermittent failures of central government systems that have never fully mastered the mechanics of stable and sovereign statehood that serves all citizens equally.”

Recognizing the danger inherent in such factionalism and in an attempt to head off some of the problems associated with it, Naharnet has reported some leaders have urged their followers to follow unity over division: “Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani hoped on Monday that the Lebanese are aware of the impending dangers of divisions among them. Qabbani hoped that all Lebanese would become aware of the looming dangers resulting from their divisions because division is the cause of strife, the National News Agency said.It said the Mufti made his remark to Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi who telephoned him to extend his Eid al-Fitr greetings….The Mufti said in his Eid sermon at Mohammed al-Amin mosque on Sunday that all Lebanese should be blamed for the country’s plight.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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