Syrian civil war has gone from bad to worse, with casualties mounting and
horrors multiplying. Civil wars like Syria's are obviously tragedies for the
countries they consume, but they can also be catastrophes for their neighbors.
Long-lasting and bloody civil wars often overflow their borders, spreading war
2006, as Iraq spiraled downward into the depths of intercommunal carnage, we conducted
of spillover from recent civil wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa,
and elsewhere in order to identify patterns in how conflicts spread across
borders. Since then, Iraq itself, along with Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen,
have furnished additional examples of how dangerous spillover can be. For
instance, weapons from Libya have empowered fighters in Mali who have seized
large swathes of that country, while al Qaeda-linked terrorists exploiting the
chaos in Yemen launched nearly successful terrorist attacks on the United
is once again in the news as the conflict in Syria evinces the same dangerous
patterns. Thousands of refugees are streaming
across the border into Turkey as Ankara looks
at Kurdish groups using Northern Syria for safe haven. Growing refugee
communities are causing strain in Jordan and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the capture of 48 Iranians, who may be paramilitary specialists, could
further into the conflict. Israel eyes developments in Syria warily,
remembering repeated wars and concern over the country's massive chemical
weapons arsenal. For the United States, these developments are particularly
important because spillover from the civil war could threaten America's vital
interests far more than a war contained within Syria's borders.
course, much will depend on how exactly this spillover plays out -- and
certainly no one yet knows what will happen in the wildly unpredictable war for
control of Syria. But if past informs present, the intensity of the war effect typically
correlates strongly to the intensity of the spillover, often with devastating
consequences. At their worst, civil wars in one country can cause civil wars in
neighboring states or can metastasize into regional war. And it's the severity
of the spillover that should dictate the appropriate response.
are five archetypal patterns of spillover from civil wars.
Spillover often starts with refugees. Whenever there is conflict, civilians
flee to safety. The sad truth about civil wars is that often civilians are
targets: Without clear front lines and when "enemy combatants" can be any young
male who can pick up a gun, the danger is clear. So the goal of the warring
armies is often to kill as many of the other side's civilians as possible or at
least drive them from their homes. To avoid the rapine and economic devastation
that accompany these kinds of conflicts, whole communities often flee to a
foreign country or become displaced within their borders, as more than a million Syrians
addition to their own misery, refugees can create serious -- even devastating
-- problems for the nations hosting them. The plight of Palestinian refugees
and their impact on Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria since 1948 is a case in
point, contributing to instability in their host countries, international
terrorism, and wars between Israel and its neighbors.
this, refugees can often become carriers of conflict. Angry and demoralized
refugee populations represent ideal recruitment pools for the warring armies; the Taliban have
from angry young Afghan refugees raised in Pakistan, offering them a chance for
vengeance and power. Indeed, refugee camps frequently become bases to rest,
plan, and stage combat operations back into the country from which the refugees
fled. For instance, the camps set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo after
Rwanda's genocide quickly became a base of operations for fleeing Hutu rebels
civil wars have become breeding grounds for particularly noxious terrorist
groups, while others have created hospitable sanctuaries for existing groups to
train, recruit, and mount operations -- at times against foes entirely
unconnected to the war itself. The Palestine Liberation Organization,
Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, and al Qaeda, to name only a few, all trace their
origins to intercommunal wars.
after years of punishing U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, al Qaeda'a core is
weak, but its offshoots remain strong in countries wracked by internal conflict such
as Yemen and Somalia. The most
recent flare-up is in Mali, where fighters fleeing Muammar
al-Qaddafi's Libya fled with arms looted from his arsenals, and have seized
parts of Mali, in some areas even imposing a draconian form of Islamic law.
While there had been intermittent rebellions in Northern Mali for years, the civil
war in Libya vastly increased the capability of the rebels and created a worse
terrorism problem for the region, andpotentially for the world.
terrorist groups rarely remain confined by the country's borders. Some will
nest among refugee populations, launching attacks back into the country in
civil war, and inviting attack against the refugee populations hosting them. In
other cases, terrorists may decide that neighboring regimes or a segment of a
neighboring society are aiding their adversaries and attack them to try to
scare them into stopping their assistance.
often start by flowing toward civil wars, but later begin flowing away
from them. Jihadists first went to Afghanistan to fight in that civil war in
the 1980s but by the 1990s began using it as a base to launch attacks against
other countries -- including, of course, the United States on 9/11.
the Balkan countries demonstrated in the 1990s, seemingly triumphant
secessionist bids can set off a domino effect. Slovenia's declaration of
independence inspired Croatia, which prompted Bosnia to do the same, which
encouraged Macedonia, and then Kosovo. Strife and conflict followed all of
it is the desire of one subgroup within a state to break away that triggers the
civil war in the first place. In other cases, different groups vie for control
of the state, but as the fighting drags on, one or more groups may decide that
their only recourse is to secede. At times, a minority comfortable under the
old regime may fear discrimination from a new government. The South Ossetians,
for example, accepted Russian rule but rebelled when Georgia broke off from
the Soviet Union, as they feared they would face discrimination in the new Georgian
state. After Russia helped South Ossetia defeat the Georgian forces that tried
to re-conquer the area in 1991-1992, the next domino fell when ethnic Abkhaz
also rebelled and created their own independent area in 1991-1992. The frozen
conflict that resulted from this civil war finally burst into an international
shooting war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008.
of the most ineffable but also one of the most potent manifestations of
spillover is the tendency for a civil war in one country to galvanize and
radicalize neighboring populations. They regularly radicalize neighboring
populations when a group in a neighboring state identifies with a related group
caught up in the civil war across the border. These tribal, ethnic, and
sectarian feelings always predate the conflict, but the outbreak of war among
the same groups just across the border makes them tangible and immediate --
giving them a reason to hate neighbors and resent their own government.
may demand that their government or community leaders act to support one side
or another. Alternatively, they may agitate for harsh actions in their own
countries against groups they see as sympathizing with the enemy side over the
border. Thus, the Iraqi civil war of 2005-2007 galvanized Sunnis in Egypt, Jordan, the Maghreb, and the Persian Gulf states both to demand that their own
governments do more to support the Iraqi Sunni groups and (at least in the
Gulf) to demand harsher treatment of their own Shiite populations.
At its most dangerous, this aspect of spillover can
contribute to civil wars next door. The Lebanese civil war that began in 1975
prompted the Syrian Sunnis to launch their own civil war against Bashar
al-Assad's father in 1976, a conflict that only ended with the horrific
massacre of 20,000-40,000 people at Hama in 1982.
perhaps the most dangerous form of spillover is when neighboring states
intervene in a civil war, transforming a local conflict into a regional one.
Perversely, the goal is often to diminish the risks of spillover such as
terrorism and radicalization. But it can take many forms: intervening in a
limited fashion either to shut down the civil war, to help one side win, or
just to eliminate the source of the spillover. Occasionally, a neighboring
state will see a civil war as an opportunity to grab some long coveted resource
even limited intervention by a regional power only makes the problem worse. Countries
get tied to "clients" within the civil war and end up doubling down
on their support for them. They assume that "just a little more" will
turn the tide in their favor. Worse still, they can see neighborhood rivals
intervening in the civil war and feel compelled to do the same to prevent their
enemy from making gains. So when Rwanda and Uganda intervened in Congo in the
mid-1990s to drive the genocidaires
out of the refugee camps and topple the hostile regime in Kinshasa that
supported them, so too did Angola, which sought to block them. As the conflict
wore on, several powers tried to carve out buffer zones where their preferred
proxies would rule -- and where they could grab some of Congo's abundant
natural resources. Seven of Congo's neighbors ended up intervening, turning the
Congolese civil war into what became known as "Africa's World War."
its worst, this pattern can produce direct conflict between the intervening
states over the carcass of the country in civil war. Syria first intervened in
Lebanon in 1975 to end the radicalization of its own Sunni population. But the
Syrians soon found that diplomacy, covert action, and support to various proxy
groups were inadequate and reluctantly launched a full-scale invasion the
following year. For its part, Israel suffered from terrorism emanating from the
Lebanese civil war and covertly supported its own proxies, launched targeted
counterterrorism operations, and even limited military incursions, before
deciding in 1982 to invade to try to impose a single (friendly) government in
Beirut. The result was a conventional war between Israel and Syria fought in
Lebanon. But even winning did little for Israel. Thirty years later -- 18 in
painful occupation of southern Lebanon -- Israel still faces a terrorism
problem from Lebanon, and the Jewish state's nemesis, Hezbollah, born of the
Israeli invasion, dominates Lebanese politics.
Bad Signs in Syria
2006 study also examined the factors that lead to the worst forms of spillover.
They include ethnic, religious, and other "identity" groups that are
in both the country caught in civil war and its neighbors; neighboring states that
share the same ethno-religious divides being fought over by the country in
civil war; fragile regimes in the neighboring states; porous borders; and a
history of violence between the neighbors.
Syria and its neighbors exhibit precisely these traits, explaining why we are
already seeing the typical patterns of spillover from the Syrian civil war, and
why spillover from the conflict could get much worse.
Syrian conflict has produced more than 120,000 officially registered refugees, but the
is closer to 300,000. Turkey has 43,000 registered refugees from Syria and
probably more than 25,000 that have not registered. The Turks believe that the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish terrorist group, is using this population to
infiltrate Turkey to launch a new violent bid for independence. Ankara is
convinced that PKK fighters allied with the Alawite regime have taken control
of parts of Syria, particularly in ethnically Kurdish areas of the country. In
response, Turkey is aggressively enforcing the sanctity of its border even as
it assists Syrian refugees who are taking the fight back home. Public opinion
in Turkey is strongly anti-Assad, and popular frustration grows as Ankara seems
unable to stem the violence.
is already struggling to avoid sliding back into its own civil war. It doesn't
need any pushing from Syria, but that is just what it is getting. Iraqi Sunnis
identify wholeheartedly with their Syrian brethren whom they see as fighting
against a Shiite-dominated government backed by Iran -- which they
as an exact parallel with their own circumstances. External support to the
Syrian opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni Arab governments is
through the Sunni tribes of Western Iraq, many of which span the Syrian border.
This support appears to be an important cause of the resurgence of al Qaeda in
Iraq and the worsening sectarian violence there. The Iraqi regime (rightly)
claims that it is fighting the same terrorists that the Alawite Syrian regime
is struggling with on the other side of the border. As the Alawites are a
splinter of Shiism, the growing cooperation between Damascus and
Shiite-dominated Baghdad is feeding
of a grand Shiite alliance led by Iran. All of this conjures a self-fulfilling
prophecy about sectarian war.
Iraqi Kurds are now contemplating a bid for independence in a way that they
haven't for many years. Key Kurdish leaders, including Kurdistan Regional
Government President Massoud Barzani, have concluded that they cannot work with
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- whom they routinely
as a "Shiite Saddam." And they increasingly believe that Turkey might
eventually be persuaded to support such a bid. This makes whatever happens with
Syria's Kurds of particular importance. Indeed, Barzani and the Turks are
wrestling against the PKK and the Syrian regime for the loyalty of Syria's
Kurds, who might well attempt to declare independence, putting pressure on Iraq's
Kurds to do the same.
may be suffering the worst so far. It is inundated with Syrian refugees --
30,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
but the latest spike in violence probably added at least another 10,000 -- a
number the tiny country simply cannot handle. The Syrian conflict is tearing at
the seams of Lebanon's already fragmented politics. Its Sunnis champion the
Syrian opposition while Shiite Hezbollah backs the Syrian regime, provoking
gunfights in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is reportedly
funneling arms to the Syrian opposition through Sunni groups in
Lebanon and opposition groups are building bases in Lebanon, triggering
reprisal attacks by Syrian regime forces and their Hezbollah allies.
far, Jordan has escaped relatively unscathed, but that may not last. Amman
already faces huge challenges from its Palestinian and Iraqi refugee
populations, and now refugees from Syria have begun
to flow in
(almost 40,000 officially at last count, but other sources put the number
closer to 140,000). Syrian army and Jordanian border patrol forces have clashed
as the Jordanians have tried to help Syrian refugees. Moreover, many Jordanians, including
not only those of Palestinian descent but
also the monarchy's more traditional supporters, have
lost patience with King Abdullah II's endless unfulfilled promises of reform triggering
rioting and terrorism there unrelated to Syria's troubles. More refugees,
terrorism, and a further radicalized population could be more than the
Hashemite Kingdom can take.
Israel has gotten off scot-free, so far. While we can all hope that will last,
it would be foolish to insist blindly that it will.
longer the civil war in Syria lasts, the more likely it is that the spillover
will get worse. And it's possible this war could drag on for months, even
years. The United States and other powerful countries have shown no inclination
to intervene to snuff out the conflict. Within Syria, both the regime and the
opposition have shown themselves too powerful to be defeated but too weak to
triumph. The war has also left the country awash in arms, so any new government
will face a daunting task unifying and rebuilding the country. Most ominously,
the opposition is badly divided, so victory against Assad might simply mean a
shift to new rounds of combat among the various opposition groups, just as
Afghanistan's mujahideen fell to slaughtering one another even before they
finished off the Soviet-backed regime there in 1992.
the best case, the current problems will deepen but not explode. Refugee flows
will increase and impose an ever greater burden on their host countries, but
the stress won't cause any to collapse. Terrorism will continue and more
innocent people will die, but it won't tear apart any of the neighboring
states. And, from the narrow perspective of U.S. interests, the violence would
remain focused within Syria rather than becoming regional, let alone global.
Various groups -- starting with the Iraqi Kurds -- will continue to flirt with
secession and other tensions will simmer, but none of these factors will boil
over. The neighbors will provide some forms of support to various groups within
Syria without crossing any Rubicons. Overall, the Middle East will get worse
but won't immolate.
best case is not very good, and unfortunately it's also not the most likely. Worse
scenarios seem more plausible. The fragility of Lebanon and Iraq in particular
leaves them vulnerable to new civil wars of their own. It might be hard, but it is
not impossible to envision a regional war growing from the Syrian morass.
Turkey seems like the primary candidate to up its involvement in Syria. Fears
that Kurdish secessionism may spread, mounting criticism that the regime is
ignoring atrocities next door, or a risky belief that Ankara could tip the
balance in favor of one faction over another might eventually lead the Turks to
intervene militarily -- grudgingly and in a limited fashion at first, of
course. If the plight of the Assad regime worsens, and if the Turks are heavily
engaged, Iran might press Baghdad to increase its direct support of the
Alawites and step up its own aid. Baghdad will be reluctant, but it might feel
more inclined to do so if the Turks continue to support the Iraqi Kurds in
their fight with the central government and if worsening internal divisions in
Iraq -- doubtless exacerbated by spillover from Syria -- leave the Maliki
government even more dependent on Iranian support.
embattled Alawite regime -- especially one facing ever greater Turkish
intervention -- might opt to employ its chemical warfare arsenal or, alternatively,
amp up terrorist attacks on Israel to try to turn its civil war into an
Arab-Israeli conflict, a development that could turn public and regional
opinion in favor of the regime and discredit Assad's opponents. Under those
circumstances, Israel might mount limited military operations into Syria to
take out its chemical weapons caches or terrorist bases, which no doubt would
have repercussions among Syria's neighbors and Arab states in general.
far, the humanitarian nightmares of Syria have evinced little more than pity
from the American people and only modest aid from their government. After a
decade-plus of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is justifiably deep
ambivalence about new military commitments in the Middle East. Stories of the
humanitarian nightmares of Syria have evinced little more than pity from the
American people. This creates a dilemma for the Obama administration and
concerned Americans as they watch
Syria burn: They have no interest in getting involved, but standing idly by is
risky. If spillover from Syria worsens, squaring this circle could prove a
the very least, Washington should place a premium on keeping the Syrian civil
war from dragging on indefinitely. Stepping up our efforts to arm, train, and
unify the Syrian opposition factions that matter most -- those fighting the
regime within Syria rather than those squabbling outside it -- would be a good
place to start. Progress is likely to be limited, but Washington carries a
bigger stick than the regional allies already backing Assad's opponents and
U.S. leadership can help prevent them from working at cross purposes.
Supporting the efforts of our regional allies to feed, shelter, and police
their refugee communities would be another option. Some neighbors could also use help
dealing with their own political and economic problems, which could help them
better weather the spillover from Syria. And some medicine might be needed
along with the sugar: Pressing our regional friends to begin overdue reforms
will help mitigate the discrimination and misery among their own populations that
can act as kindling when sparks from Syria come flying their way.
Syrian civil war is undoubtedly a tragedy for the people of that country. The longer
it burns, though, the more likely it will ignite something much worse. However
difficult it is to end the fighting today, it will be even harder as the
violence snowballs and spillover grows. Less can be more when it is soon.