“There is a theater of war, that I would call AfPak” said Richard Holbrooke, former United States ambassador to the United Nations in 2008. Since then nearly all problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been swept under one banner by American policymakers. Five years later, we are about to witness the emergence of a similar neologism in Western discourse – the Syr-IL region.
The Syr-IL region might even become a more appropriate term than AfPak has ever been: Syria, Iraq and Lebanon face the same predicament since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. In all three countries, sectarian identities are at the core of societal breakdown and state failure. Cross-border violent incidents occur regularly and militant movements are either in control – such as Hezbollah in Lebanon – or defy those in power.
Forget about the miserably failed peace process and Iran’s nuclear program. Sectarianism is by far the biggest threat to the Mideast for years to come. True, sectarianism is not a new phenomenon, as manifested by Lebanon’s civil war and the violence in Iraq following the US-led invasion, but it is now becoming the region biggest threat to peace and stability.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has banked much of his support in minority communities, notably the Alawites, and has not shied away from Balkan-style ethnic cleansing, such as the Houla and Banyas massacres made apparent. In these villages, hundreds of Sunni civilians, including dozens of children, have been slaughtered by militants loyal to the President. As a consequence, Islamist rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are becoming the dominant force within the rebels and are increasingly targeting not just the regime but Alawite and Shiite communities in general.
Although Lebanon and Iraq are semi-democratic states there is a lack of genuine power sharing. The Shiites are de facto ruling the country with little signs of concession towards disgruntled Sunni citizens. This systemic marginalization is severely eroding the legitimacy of the state and its Armed Forces. As a result, militant movements, sectarian tension and deadly street clashes are on the rise and entire areas are turning into semi-autonomous highly-armed enclaves.
Salafists in both countries regularly take their frustration to the streets and increasingly target security forces. In the Lebanese town of Arsal, for instance, three soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were killed in a terrorist attack last week – the second time this year when LAF officers have been murdered at the hands of gunmen in this Sunni stronghold. These are clear signs that not only Syria is witnessing attacks on its Armed Forces by militias, but that the state is also under attack in its neighboring countries.
In Iraq, the Americans were able to mitigate the prospect of the country slipping into a civil war through ‘the surge’ and by throwing millions of dollars at the Sunni militias – buying their allegiance having them fight Al Qaeda instead of the Iraqi government and coalition troops. The relationship between the Sunni minority and the Iraqi state is fragmenting rapidly, however, after security forces recently shot dead over two hundred anti-government protesters. Sunni communities are hardening their stance against the Nuri al Maliki-government: not only are they sending more of their sons to fight ‘Bashar’ in Syria, it is also leading to the militarization of these communities.
In Lebanon, the marginalization of Sunnis has resulted in recurrent outbreaks of deadly street violence in Tripoli. In this poor coastal town, over half of the population lives in extreme poverty according to a recent United Nations report. Sunni militia, recruiting the city’s neglected young men, regularly attack the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood and even take on the LAF. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Sunni-Alawite death toll in Tripoli has passed 100.
But it is not just Sunni marginalization that has triggered sectarianism in the Syr-IL region. Shiites are also radicalizing, increasingly banking on their sectarian identity for power grabs and as survival strategy. This is rooted in historical reasons, but has been aggravated by the regular deadly terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq on Shiite communities. In response, Shiites started targeting Sunni mosques. In May, over 1000 people were killed in Iraq, the deadliest month in five years.
Shiites from Lebanon and Iraq are also getting sucked into the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah has sent over at least several hundred, if not thousands, of its fighters to the strategic town of Qusayr and fighters from Iraq are also crossing the border. Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites argue their presence in Syria is needed to protect local communities and holy places against terrorist attacks from the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra, who have sworn their allegiance to Al Qaeda’s central command. And they do have a valid point as it is not just the regime that is engaging in violence against civilians. But in practice, Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites are doing more than just protecting communities; they are also fighting for the survival of Bashar and reinforce militant sectarianism.
The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict will not go without consequences back home. It has fueled hatred of the ´Party of God´ across the Lebanese Sunni communities and created tension with their former allies Hamas, who are still influential in Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian refugee camps. It has also drawn the attention of the Syrian rebels who have stated before that they are willing to fight Hezbollah on their own turf if necessary.
After shelling the Baalbek area from Syria regularly, rebels groups are now crossings the border to Lebanon to take revenge for Hezbollah’s involvement in Qusayr. Given the pattern of bomb attacks against Shiite areas in Iraq, it will likely be only a matter of time before Al Qaeda-linked militants apply similar tactics in Southern Beirut and other Hezbollah strongholds – ‘the resistance’ is certainly expecting as much as checkpoints are already erupting in Southern Beirut.
All these developments signal that the Syr-IL region is witnessing a textbook case of state failure accompanied by the rise of militias with a firm grip over their sectarian enclaves. The regional spill-overs are culminating in the emergence of a single theater of war, with the futures of Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut more intertwined than ever before.
Given the fact that Western policy circles have a desire to group countries together in simplified terms, I am willing to bet we will soon witness the first “American Syr-IL Strategy”. If that strategy will incorporate military intervention though remains unclear.