Ammunition stockpiled in front of a MIG-29 fighter jet of the Ukrainian Air Force at the military aerodrome at Vasylkiv, 50km from Kiev. Russia could supply 10 ultra-modern MiG-29 fighter jets to Syria under a possible contract being discussed with a visiting delegation from Damascus. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The civil war tearing Syria apart is threatening to erase century-old borders across the Middle East as what began as a peaceful rebellion against President Bashar Al Assad escalates into a regional religious and ethnic battle.

In Tripoli, Lebanon, Al Assad’s Sunni enemies and Shiite supporters, divided by an avenue named “Syria Street,” continue to shell and shoot one another, leaving dozens of people dead.

Bloodletting between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites has reached its most sustained level since the 2011 US troop withdrawal, killing almost more than 1,000 last month. In northeastern Syria, Turkish Kurds are battling Sunni Arabs.

The widening warfare threatens to feed the Kurds’ dream of forging their own state from parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran; encourage ethnic cleaning in Syria; reawaken Lebanon’s dormant civil war; overwhelm Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy; and compound Israel’s security problems.

If the shock waves from Syria aggravate the growing battles among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the disruption to oil supplies would be felt worldwide, perhaps most keenly in China, the world’s second-largest economy.

“The incredible destabilisation of Syria is spilling over into Lebanon, Jordan and has an impact obviously on Israel,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. “The United States is committed, not only in its defence of Israel, but in its concerns for the region, to try to address this issue.”

Russian missiles

The conflict has set off a debate in Europe and the US about whether and how to intervene. The European Union on Monday ended a weapons embargo to Syrian rebels, giving the go-ahead to sell them arms. President Barack Obama has refused to authorise such sales out of concern weapons could end up in the hands of extremists.

After the EU move, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday his country will send long-range anti- aircraft missiles to the Syrian regime, describing the move as a “stabilising factor.”

“We’re looking at the possible beginnings of some real kaleidoscopic change in which states disintegrate, break apart, new entities are formed,” said Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “No one knows where this is leading. This is the larger game in Syria.”

Ethnic rivalries

Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace, funded by Congress, has examined the impact if the Middle East map drawn by European powers during the First World War begins to break apart. Syria “sits at the intersection of every major strategic axis in the Arab East,” he said.

Tunisian President Munsif Al Marzouqi expressed concern that “tens or hundreds” of Tunisians who are fighting in Syria may pose a threat to Tunisia when they return home.

The Middle East’s entrenched ethnic, political and religious rivalries weren’t a major consideration when a well-heeled British diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes, and his French counterpart, Francois Georges-Picot, secretly redrew the region’s borders in an agreement concluded on May 16, 1916.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the two Europeans divided Greater Syria into modern-day Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, along with part of Turkey, based on colonial convenience. Israel and Jordan were later carved out of British Palestine.

“There was nothing inherent or natural about” the Sykes-Picot agreement, said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, “It’s a very fragile state structure.”

Freeman predicts that “the unravelling will begin with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds,” a prospect that worries Turkey, whose own restive Kurds are seeking autonomy.

Turkish Kurds clashed in January near the Syrian border with Sunni Arab militants who were “supported, at least tacitly, by Turkey,” Heydemann said.

Iraqi Kurds also have backed efforts by their Syrian counterparts to seize control of border crossings between the two countries. If Kurds succeed in expanding their territory around oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, it could mean “Iraq further disintegrating, Syria further disintegrating,” Freeman said.

Hezbollah role

Syria already is being carved up along sectarian lines, Serwer said, not “on the basis of some theological distinction, but on some very concrete political and strategic interests.”

Syria’s border with Lebanon has frayed as Hezbollah fighters have poured into Syria to guard Shiite villages and fight for the Al Assad regime.

Thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites are in Syria battling anti-regime Sunni fighters, the State Department official said.

— Washington Post