Syria Crisis Activating Regional Fault Lines

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hossein Kebriaeizadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

The fabric of the Syrian population as well as the quality of the country’s ongoing unrest which encompasses a wide spectrum of ethnic and religious conflicts in addition to dissimilar positions taken by regional and transregional players involved in the crisis have turned Syria situation into a major seismic fault line. This fault line is so profound and serious that other regional and even transregional crises have been activated along its course. As a result, the unrest in Syria has played a prominent role in setting the direction for other regional ethnic and religious skirmishes as well as transregional political conflicts.

The most important development at the regional level which is occurring as a result of the crisis in Syria is rekindling of secessionist tendencies among the Kurds. Kurds are geographically scattered over four neighboring countries, namely, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and have posed major challenges to governments in those countries during the past decades. In other words, the issue of Kurds is like a powder keg which may go off with the least degree of tension.

It goes without saying that the Syria crisis cannot leave the capacity of Kurdish regions for crisis unaffected. As a matter of fact, the crisis in Syria has provided Kurds with a good opportunity to not only get the central government to recognize them, but also prompted them to think about autonomy in order to run the Kurdish regions of Syria on their own.

Under these conditions, Kurds living within the borders of Syria can be divided into two groups: one group has been inclined toward the Syrian opposition while the second group continues to support the government of the incumbent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is an offshoot of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has remained loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s government, but another group, which is weaker than the PYD, has taken sides with the Syria opposition. This dichotomy has had remarkable effects in areas beyond the national borders of Syria where the Kurd minorities live in three neighboring countries of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. As a result, when the Syrian government withdrew its troops from northeastern part of the country, the PKK separatists in Turkey as well as the Kurds living in Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region took the measure as a good omen for the establishment of a single Kurdish entity.

The situation in Iraq is of more concern especially due to specific conditions in the country following its occupation by the United States and instability of its government. The main concern for Kurds living in northern parts of Iraq is currently not the situation of the PKK or tendencies toward the establishment of a single Kurdish entity, but the main concern is the existing differences over sovereignty on the Kirkuk region. According to the Iraqi constitution, only a referendum can determine the fate of that region. However, as situation in Syria changed, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent the Tigris (Dijla) Force to Kirkuk while the government of Kurdistan region sent in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This state of affair laid renewed emphasis on the Kirkuk crisis which has pitted the leader of the Kurdistan region Massoud Barzani against Maliki.

On the other hand, as Syrian Kurds took control of Kurdish cities, Ankara became so alarmed about establishment of a new autonomous Kurdish region in its southern neighborhood that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a surprise visit to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. During his trip to the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Davutoglu also paid an unexpected visit to the city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Iraqi Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs, without prior coordination with the central government in Baghdad. Therefore, his visit elicited a sharp reaction from Arabs, even those Arab groups which are opposed to the government of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as the Kurdish leaders and the public opinion in the Iraqi Kurdistan. As a result, the visit helped to raise an ethnic tension to a higher level and turned it into a national dispute between two countries of Iraq and Turkey.

Although circumstances in Iran are not as complicated as in Turkey and Iraq, there have been reports about more proximity between Democratic Party of the Iranian Kurdistan region and Komoleh Party which have apparently reached a kind of agreement quite recently.

After study of the impact of the ethnic crisis in Syria on the existing regional crises, attention should be paid to the root causes of religious skirmishes which have a much bigger potential for creating crises in comparison to ethnic conflicts. In a ten-page report prepared by independent human rights researchers headed by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, they have emphasized that as the armed conflict between Syrian army and the opposition approaches the end of its second year, existing conflicts in the neighboring countries are apparently taking a clear religious turn.

The other flip side of the Syria crisis, that is, religious conflicts between Salafis and Alawites living in the Arab country, left its first mark on such countries as Iraq, and Lebanon where the religious composition of the population is similar to Syria. As a result, religious skirmishes in Iraq have escalated in recent months in parallel to the escalation of religious conflicts in Syria.

On the other hand, due to ethnic, religious, and geopolitical similarities, the incidents in Syria have had a great impact on the political, economic and social conditions in Lebanon. Since Shia and Alawite people also live in Lebanon, they cannot remain indifferent to the massacre of their counterparts in Syria. This is why David Schenker, member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has written in an article that the war in Syria has greatly increased the risk of an armed confrontation among religious extremists in Lebanon. He added that the March 14 Alliance is the first-row defendant of the case due to its role in arming extremist Salafi elements in Syria.

At present, there are serious differences among big transregional powers; namely, Russia and China, on the one hand, and the United States and its Western allies, on the other hand, over the situation in Syria. As a result, it goes without saying that escalation of ethnic and religious crises in Syria’s neighboring countries will not only prolong the ongoing crisis in Syria, but also produce synergism among crises with which Syria’s neighboring countries are currently grappling. Persistence of such state of affairs will undoubtedly depict a bleak future outlook for stability in the region, at least, in the foreseeable future.

Key Words: Syria Crisis, Regional Fault Lines, Ethnic-Religious Conflicts, Kurds, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Salafis- Alawites, Kebriaeizadeh

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