With the populations in neighboring countries divided between those who support the opposition in Syria and those who hope that embattled President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, some fear that the conflict could expand across the region and widen political, ethnic and religious fault lines.
“I think we can expect more violence along the borders. I think that’s going to be the new normal,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The more refugees there are trying to escape, the more skirmishes there will be.”
Activists have reported heavy casualties in recent days, with 84 civilians killed Monday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, along with 19 members of the security forces and eight defectors. Hopes are rapidly dimming that a six-point peace plan that U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan negotiated with Syrian authorities can halt the violence.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that the incidents were “another indication that the Assad regime does not seem at all willing to meet the commitments that it made to Kofi Annan. Not only has the violence not abated, it has been worse in recent days.”
Nuland added that the Syrian government was trying to “stall for time” with its last-minute demand for a written guarantee that opposition forces will disarm before it withdraws troops from cities and towns.
Regional, U.S. responses
Turkey, a NATO member that shares a 550-mile-long border with Syria, has resisted direct involvement in the conflict, even as its government has condemned Assad.
But Assad has supporters in Turkey and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the dominant Shiite militia and political party, has long been allied with the Syrian leader and his Shiite-linked Alawite sect. Hezbollah’s chief political rival, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, has called for Assad to step down.
In Iraq, dominant Shiites fear that an Islamist Sunni government in Syria would build alliances with Iraq’s disgruntled Sunnis. Meanwhile, Iran, whose Shiite leaders are Assad’s staunchest allies, has seen its long-nurtured and highly profitable relationship with Turkey shaken over its stance on Syria.
Turkey has resisted allowing its territory to be used for any intervention in Syria without international legal authorization, ideally with a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Saudi Arabia and three other Persian Gulf countries have agreed to give the opposition Free Syrian Army a stipend of several million dollars a month, to be used to pay fighters and to buy weapons in the black market.