By Wayne White (Source: LobeLog)
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.
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
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
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
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
About the Author: 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.
... Payvand News - 12/18/13 ... --