NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria have claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across the country, most of them suicide bombings and car bombings.
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More than 100,000 Syrians have fled their country's civil war to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, creating a considerable humanitarian and political problem.

Syrian Crisis:
As Civilians Flee, Terrorists Move In

In discussing the ongoing conflict in Syria, much of the attention has focused on the fighting between President Bashar Assad’s forces and the rebels, as well as the ultimate fate of the Assad regime. Whatever the results of this conflict, however, it has already sent shockwaves across the Middle East.

Relations between Shiite-led Iran, Assad’s closest ally, and regional Sunni heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the opposition, have deteriorated as they find themselves on opposite ends of the conflict. And tensions have spread into neighboring Lebanon, where clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian regime fighters have left dozens dead.

Two developments of particular concern for Syria’s neighbors, including Israel, are the flow of refugees out of Syria alongside the influx of jihadist elements into the country.

Refugee Crisis

As the bloodshed in Syria drags on and the violence worsens, more and more civilians – by now well over 100,000 people – are fleeing the country. Some 30,000 Syrian refugees are officially registered with the U.N. in Lebanon, 42,000 Syrians have reached Turkey, roughly 8,000 are in Iraq, and 35,000 refugees have been recorded by the U.N. in Jordan, though the Jordanian government reports 90,000-150,000 Syrians inside the country.

Beyond the obvious difficulties for the refugees themselves, this mass exodus creates significant problems for the host countries, adding instability to an explosive environment. Tensions over shortages of food, water and housing have given rise to clashes with local authorities, and fighting between refugees and local residents has also been reported.

Jordan and Lebanon are especially worried about the situation. Both countries face serious economic problems regardless of the refugee crisis, which is further taxing their scarce resources. And both fear that the turmoil in Syria will spread, unsettling their already turbulent politics.

For Lebanon, any demographic shift due to incoming Sunni refugees puts at risk the country’s fragile sectarian balance between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze.

In Jordan, King Abdullah is trying to cope with rising discontent over the economy and stalled political reforms. The last thing he needs is the burden of tens of thousands of refugees. Furthermore, the entry of Palestinian refugees – half a million of whom reside in Syria – could worsen Jordan’s deep domestic schism between citizens of Palestinian descent and so-called East Bank Jordanians, on whom the King relies to maintain power.

Aware of this risk, King Abdullah has vowed to “keep the door open to our Syrian brothers, while at the same time preserving the country’s national interests.”

Jihadist Influx

Alongside the Syrian rebels fighting President Assad’s forces, a new element has entered the conflict in the past few months. Islamic extremists, including those operating under the banner of al-Qaeda, are joining the battle against Assad in growing numbers. These jihadists, many of whom are veterans of the ongoing strife in Iraq, pose a problem not only for the Syrian regime but for the security and stability of the entire region.

Sunni extremists have taken up the cause of toppling Assad and his regime – dominated by the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot – as part of their larger jihad against non-Sunnis. Al-Qaeda’s black flag has been spotted in Syrian villages and among rebel fighters, and there are reports that representatives of the group have tried to win control of towns and villages.

A group called Al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, the major al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across the country, most of them suicide bombings and car bombings. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that bombing attacks in Damascus and Aleppo “had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-like attack.” “We believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” he added.

The result is a further escalation of the conflict along religio-ethnic lines and a headache for the U.S. and Syria’s neighbors. U.S. officials have cited the presence of al-Qaeda-linked groups as a reason to avoid arming the opposition, and Israel has warned that these groups are liable to turn the border with Syria into a base for anti-Israel operations.

Indeed, statements from al-Qaeda members vindicate these warnings. “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine,” said one al-Qaeda operative.

Risks to the Region

The longer the bloodshed in Syria goes on, the lower the chances of a stable and unified Syria if and when Assad falls. But the risks to the region are no less grave. Thousands of refugees are creating a considerable humanitarian and political problem, while terrorist groups – currently taking a more prominent role within Syria – could eventually branch out to attack other countries.

“The sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there is a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said.

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