The scope and scale of the civil war in Syria is widening, shifting dramatically from its roots in 2011 into a protracted conflict that encompasses the entire country. Grim figures of up to 100,000 associated deaths and up to two million refugees go some way to illustrating the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis whilst ensuing political instability, a rise in criminality, an escalation in sectarian tensions and the possibility of military intervention, all present businesses and travelers additional challenges across the region
Regional Implications: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel
In a region fraught with insecurity, common themes have emerged as a result of the Syrian conflict: inter-communal and political tensions have escalated, infrastructure has been tested and hospitality has been strained. There has been a marked rise in abductions and criminality.
In Lebanon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 675,000 Syrians, some 15% of the country’s population, the scale of which is stretching the capacity of any humanitarian infrastructure. Sectarian tensions continue to worsen between both the Sunni and Shia communities illustrated by recent bombings in Tripoli and attacks in the southern suburbs of Damascus. An increase in kidnappings in the Bekaa Valley and numerous cross-border incidents in the contentious Golan Heights accompany the civil war.
Equally, the generally stable government in Jordan has called on U.S. military assistance, concerned that conflict may spill over its boundaries. The Jordanian economy, lacking the natural resources of some of its neighbours, is almost entirely reliant on foreign investment. Regional stability is therefore paramount. Furthermore, like Lebanon, humanitarian provisions remain insufficient for the half a million refugees.
Turkey’s government continues to invest in establishing refugee camps in an attempt to contain the humanitarian crisis. Fighting between al-Nusra and Kurdish fighters has been particularly fierce near the border raising concerns over the role the Kurdish population in Turkey may play if ethnic Kurds are categorically targeted. Despite NATO membership, the risk of retaliatory cross-border attacks is low given Turkish military strength. However, the frequency and audacity of a series of recent isolated incidents at check-points or on border patrols concerns politicians in Ankara who support effective military intervention.
Israel, raising their own levels of military preparations, tested a new air-defence system with the United States, amid fears of retaliatory strikes. Having launched several small scale operations in the past months, the Israeli government is a fervent supporter of military intervention and will be disappointed by delay, concerned that this may be perceived a regional weakness.
The Potential for Military Intervention
Allegations that President Assad authorised a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus killing 1,400 has prompted widespread condemnation and raised the possibility of a U.S.-led coalition offensive. Recent military endeavours in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that direct military intervention is both politically and strategically contentious entailing a series of unknown long-term implications.
“Three clear choices”
Western powers have three clear choices:
- To continue with the limited levels of humanitarian aid and with the added possibility of limited special forces activity
- To initiate a short but effective air campaign solely in response to the attack designed to deter and degrade the use of further chemical weapons
- Launch a substantial and potentially protracted operation with the aim of prompting a change in government
The challenges and potential for military intervention brings the possibility of both positive and negative repercussions. By attacking the Syrian government’s key command centres, airbases and weapons silos Western powers automatically and categorically lend their support to the increasingly fractured opposition forces. The possibility of pro-Syrian military and or proxy retaliation will destabilise the region further. Whilst some Western powers cite a humanitarian duty of intervention, military operations alone are not a solution and a realistic transitional road-map is fundamental to future peace.
Whilst Western missile strikes against chemical weapons targets may not pose Assad’s regime an existential threat in the long-term, it may be seen as a precursor to full-scale military operation. Damascus’ track record suggests that it may continue to sponsor its proxies in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan in an attempt to destabilise the region further. It is unwise to speculate on the Assad regime’s strategy and the immediate prospect of retaliatory attacks. However, direct action against its neighbours is unlikely in the short-to-medium term considering some of the limitations of their military capabilities after two years of civil war and more significantly, the immediate international ramifications of widening any UN mandate for military intervention. Should there be military intervention, the risk of Syrian government sponsored proxy or terrorist attacks against Western interests in the region is considered higher.
In an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, it is clear that, with no resolution in sight, the implications of Syrian’s civil war will be long-lasting. Organisations operating in the area should monitor the changing threat environment, using local information sources and review and maintain their crisis contingency plans.