EU fears spillover from Syrian war could draw in entire region


EUROPEAN DIARY:Brussels is worried about a domino effect as the crisis spreads outside Syria’s borders, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

AFTER 19 months of relentless turmoil in Syria, European diplomats are becoming increasingly concerned about the spillover from its civil war into neighbouring countries.

The mood of anxiety in Brussels has intensified in the wake of the assassination last Friday of a top Lebanese intelligence figure and the killing of a Jordanian soldier in a weekend skirmish with Islamist fighters.

“We’re watching exactly what we hoped would be avoided, which is Lebanon being slowly dragged into the Syrian conflict,” says a ranking European official. “If nothing happens quickly, we will watch the domino theory applying in the whole area.”

The bomb attack in Beirut, which killed Wissam al-Hassan, head of Lebanon’s national intelligence service, has been blamed on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

This is in line with perceptions that he is seeking to buttress his own vulnerable position by expanding the conflict into Lebanon’s volatile and battle-scarred hinterland.

Lebanon is deeply polarised between pro-Assad and pro-rebel groups. According to Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, the attack last week has stirred the tension.

“These divisions have become ever more entrenched over recent months, raising fears that the country could suffer its own descent into internal conflict,” he writes in a note.

At the same time, the Islamists accused of stoking trouble in Jordan in recent weeks are said to be affiliated with the Syrian rebels.

Then there is the friction between Turkey and Syria. Not only has Syria fired into Turkey, the regime’s withdrawal from key border posts has given a free hand to armed allies of Ankara’s internal enemies in the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party.

These developments and the inflow of some 100,000 refugees are perceived to have prompted a subtle turn by Turkey to adopt a more cautious stance.

Diplomats believe Turkey is discreetly reaching out to Iran, Syria’s main regional ally, with the message that the conflict could foment problems with its own Kurdish population.

Furthermore, there is fear that violent contagion from the chaos in Syria may ripple also into Iraq.

“People are very worried about the situation and becoming more lucid about the risks,” says the European official.

In spite of the mounting sense of urgency, danger and dread, high-level diplomats say little immediate change is in prospect in the international response.

The western powers have scant appetite for military intervention, US foreign policy is in lockdown before the presidential election and Russia shows no sign of tempering its support for the Assad regime.

Without any game-changer, the focus is likely to remain on the diplomatic drive to coax fractious rebel forces to unite behind a common manifesto and on unofficial efforts by unnamed friendly countries to arm them via “traditional weapons smuggling”.

The humanitarian situation is worsening all the time. More than 30,000 Syrians have been killed, some 400,000 refugees have fled the country and one million people are displaced within it. Winter looms. Misery and hardship are everywhere.

This bleak panorama reflects an inherently complex dynamic both inside and outside Syria.

Assad has lost control of large tracts of the country but the conflict remains deadlocked. Regime forces are better armed and more organised than their counterparts were in Libya, and they have demonstrated their power to win back terrain lost. Damascus retains the ability to pay fighters in loyalist militias.

This feeds into western apprehension about any military strike. The European official says Nato is simply not ready to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria à la Libya.

The main “technical” problem here is that Syria operates sophisticated Russian ground-to-air missile systems, meaning it could quickly shoot down western aircraft.

The upshot is that a “fire and forget” intervention with minimal casualties – a “push-button” war, essentially – is not feasible.

At the same time, European observers say sharp divisions between the rebels are a big hindrance to their cause.

Talks sponsored by the Arab League in Cairo last July were marred by fistfights and scuffles between restless opposition figures. Reports cited women weeping as men exchanged blows in the conference hotel.

There is talk in Brussels of a fresh push to reinvigorate these engagements next month but it recognised the opposition is in utter disarray. The formation of some kind of a government-in- exile remains a distant hope. As many as 30 separate movements are angling for advantage.

All of this plays into Assad’s bloodied hands, as does the growing sense that the conflict has become a proxy for bigger regional and global squabbles.

For the supporters of the rebels in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it represents an effort to get at Iran.

At a wider geopolitical level, the war underscores the old schism between Syria’s biggest supporter, Russia, and the US.

It cannot go unnoticed that China stands by Russia in its refusal to endorse a UN Security Council resolution against Syria.

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