As Syria steps up its bloody crackdown against anti-regime protesters, governments in the region are watching to see if President Bashar al-Assad will quash the uprising or if the country will descend further into chaos and civil strife.Syria’s neighbours don’t agree on much, but there is a broad consensus that Assad’s ouster would unleash a wave of sectarian violence and extremism that could be catastrophic to regional stability.
As the Washington Post notes, regime change in Syria would look a lot more like Iraq in 2003 than Egypt 2011. In Syria, where the Alawite Shiite sect rules both the government and the military, the end of the Assad regime would set the stage for the state to collapse and the majority Sunni population to take revenge on the country’s Shiite and Christian sects. Given Syria’s geographical position, a civil war would almost inevitably become a proxy battle fought by regional powers (Saudi Arabia/Iran).
The prospect makes all of Syria’s neighbours nervous. Here’s a look at some of their concerns:
Iraq: Iraq’s Shiite-led government fears that the collapse of Syria’s Shiite rulers would give rise to a new Sunni state along its long western border. The border was, until recently, the chief transit point for Islamic extremists joining the Sunni insurgency. Iraq and the U.S. both fear that a destabilized Syria would renew traffic across the border.
Israel: Although Syria and Israel are longtime enemies, the two countries have maintained a stable border for nearly 40 years. A new, popular government in Syria – particularly one led by or sympathetic to Islamists – could break the ceasefire and cause a war over the Golan Heights.
Iran: Iran fears losing its only Arab ally if the Assad regime should topple. Although Tehran has begun to reopen ties with Egypt, no other Arab country can give Iran the direct access to Hezbollah and Lebanon that Syria provides.
Lebanon: Instability in Syria is virtually guaranteed to exacerbate sectarian divides in Lebanon. Assad’s government has had its hand in Lebanese politics for many years, providing military support for the Hezbollah resistance movement against Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian populations, as well as Israel. Regime change in Syria would cut off a critical supply line for Hezbollah and weaken the organisation’s deterrence capabilities with Israel.
Turkey: Syria’s northern neighbour is concerned about the political aspirations of Syria’s ethnic Kurdish population, which is concentrated near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Political instability in Syria – combined with the weak Iraqi state – could lead to renewed calls for a Kurdish state.
Assad’s increasingly violent crackdown puts his neighbours in a tough spot. The international community has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria, but as the death toll rises pressure grows for regional leaders to break their silence. Arab League officials fear the situation may already be out of their control.
“Everyone is concerned about Syria but everyone is also worried about the day after,” a former Arab League official told the Financial Times. “Still, things are moving at a pace that is faster than anyone imagined and governments are making decisions hour by hour, not even day by day.”