Syrian peace talks overshadowed by intensified regional sectarian conflict

With Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq consumed with sectarian violence – and with no side able to claim victory – a spike in violence is more likely as both sides work to change the facts on the ground.

January 23, 2014 07:13
3 minute read.

Civilians inspect a site hit by rockets fired from Syria at the Lebanese border town of Arsal January 17, 2014. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Many analysts have predicted the renewed peace talks over Syria as dead on arrival, as the reality on the ground dictates that much more violence is set to come in what looks like a de facto partition of the country.

Furthermore, the Syrian opposition representatives in Geneva are not the real power brokers on the ground. Rather the radical jihadist groups are – which means they would dismiss any deal anyway.

The Syrian war also appears to be spreading, as the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict flows into Lebanon, where al-Qaida-linked jihadists have carried out a number of bombings against Hezbollah targets.

Hardly a week goes by without news of another attack targeting the Lebanese-based Shi’ite group. The main jihadist actors in Syria, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken credit for the latest bombings.

The Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut on Tuesday, in what was the third bombing against Hezbollah this year.

In addition, earlier this month, ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing of its own against the same target.

Both groups have “claimed to have conducted operations in Lebanon - and the frequency of car bombings and other such attacks in southern Beirut and in the Bekaa is likely to

continue to increase,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Jerusalem Post.

Moreover, the fallout of the war in Syria continues to reverberate into the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where the minority Alawite neighborhoods face off on a daily basis against Sunni residents. On Wednesday, eight Lebanese soldiers were wounded in the fighting, the Lebanese

Daily Star reported, demonstrating that the state’s security forces continue to be drawn into the conflict.

A similar story of daily sectarian attacks is taking place in Iraq, where the Shi’ite-led government is supporting their brethren against the minority Sunnis.

In Syria, the war has bogged down despite a recent surge by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The Western-backed opposition structures look weaker than ever,” said Lister, noting that in the meantime, “The Syrian military and various supportive paramilitary structures have exerted a unified and concerted offensive capacity since last summer, with a very largely positive effect.”

Regarding the internal battle within opposition elements, he argues that the launching “of a new anti-ISIL front in northern Syria has likely introduced yet another element of complexity to the conflict.”

Lister believes that it appears increasingly likely that ISIL will confront groups affiliated with the more moderate Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.

“Over the long-term, this will almost certainly have a deleterious effect upon rebel capacity to existentially fight the government and its various backers,” he said.

“Most Syrians today reject the notion of partition or even autonomous regions, but the military stalemate has endured for almost two years,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in an article for Al-Jazeera America.

“On the eve of the Geneva talks, Syria’s Kurds declared unilateral autonomy in the far northeast, where they hold military power and comprise the majority of the population,” he said pointing out that “Syria is effectively divided, and none of the military forces in the field appears capable of reuniting it under their control.”

With Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq consumed with sectarian violence – and with no side able to claim victory – a spike in violence is more likely as both sides work to change the facts on the ground.

Hence, the balance of power is too even, and the players too motivated to make concessions. The Syrian Alawite regime, and supporting Christians, are fighting for their lives against the Islamist dominated opposition that is unlikely to compromise when it still feels that the more numerous Sunni world, backed by Gulf money and holding out for more Western military support, still believes it can win.

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