The 14-month long spate of internal violence in Syria -- yet to be declared a civil war -- has friends and foes equally worried over the fate of the country's future, the stability of the region and the ever-present danger of the violence spreading from Syria to its neighbors. Sporadic fighting has already erupted in northern Lebanon earlier this week and was vaguely linked to the troubles in Syria.
If Syria has lost friends among its neighbors and major players in the region as a result of the government's clampdown on political opponents it can still count on the support of its friends, among them the Alawite community and Hezbollah in Lebanon and its former Cold War ally, Russia. But relations with neighbors and important actors such as the United States and the European Union that had begun to thaw are in cold again. Only four years ago the political landscape offered a glint of hope even if the honeymoon granted to President Bashar Assad was a short-lived affair.
Syrian intelligence and its U.S. counterpart enjoyed cordial though cool and unpublicized relations briefly during the Iraq war when the Syrians provided the United States valuable intel on Islamist fighters moving from Syria into Iraq. Despite that, the relationship between Damascus and Washington has been rocky at best. The same can be said of relations between the European Union and Syria. The EU, and more particularly France, extended a hand to Syria's President Assad in 2008 when Assad was invited to Paris to attend the July 14 (Bastille Day) celebrations and got to rub shoulders with a gaggle of other world leaders sitting in the reviewing stand.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had hoped that bringing the Syrians out of the cold would encourage them to join the international community, to adopt more democratic reforms and to open up to changes that would include offering the opposition a voice, a move that at the same time would perhaps empty the jails of political prisoners. The French president had also hoped that hob-knobbing at the Eylsée Palace garden party following the traditional military parade on the Champs Eylsées would encourage the Syrian president to tackle reforms back home. But what a difference four years make.
Indeed, over the past three or four decades Syria has on and off been labeled as the bad boy of the Middle East block. Laws, such as the Syria Accountability Act, signed by the U.S. president and enacted by the U.S. Congress, banned American companies from engaging in trade with Syria. This resulted in further distancing the Syrians. Several U.S. administrations have designated Syria as a sponsor of international terrorism and shunned the Syrian leadership and their representatives. Imad Mustapha, the former Syrian ambassador to the United States, was rarely invited to the U.S. State Department. The rare times he did go to Foggy Bottom was to receive letters of complaint from the secretary of state and undersecretaries who berated the Syrian envoy on his country's policies, both domestic and foreign. Under the past two American administrations U.S. ambassadors to Syria have been recalled home repeatedly as the White House intended to stress its displeasure at Damascus as relations between the two countries soured.
And again, with the exception of an equal short interlude, Syria's relations with its neighbors have been tense at best. Some, as in Turkey's case, were more upset than others. Of all its neighbors, Turkey, under current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had developed extremely close relations with the Syrian president. Visits between the two leaders were frequent as the friendship grew. Now that is all in the past.
The fear that the current situation in Syria has reignited conflict in the region is not unfounded. Skirmishes have already erupted in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli where the Lebanese army engaged in fighting with a group of Islamists earlier this week that included small mortars and rocket propelled grenades. Lebanese sources in Tripoli believe that those clashes could have been instigated by Damascus.
From its "closest" neighbor, Lebanon, today one finds very mixed feelings regarding the ongoing disturbances in Syria. Surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- many Lebanese who held strong anti-Syrian sentiments following the occupation of Lebanon by Syria up until the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, are quietly rooting for Mr. Assad, even though they are doing so without enthusiasm. The logic being that its better to deal with the devil you know than face the unknown and risk having a strong Islamist neighbor next door that could influence similar groups in Lebanon. And although there is no lost love for the Syrian regime in Israel, the thinking there is quite similar. The Israelis would by far rather deal with the current regime in Damascus than gamble with uncertainty.
The risk of the Syrian conflict expanding is very real. With a large minority of Alawites in southern Turkey and northern Lebanon that fear is understandable. While everyone is clamoring for change in Syria, look closely behinds the banners and you will discover that there is a limit as to just how much change would truly be comfortable to its neighbors.
Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst focusing on Middle East Issues and terrorism. He is the author of several books, including Islam Without a Veil. He tweets @claudesalhani.
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