Syrian war boils over onto U.S. allies; outside jihadists rush in

  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo. An Free Syrian Army fighter shoots his gun towards government troops as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo. An Free Syrian Army fighter shoots his gun towards government troops as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter watches over an enemy position as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).  In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter watches over an enemy position as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a rebel fighter retreats for cover as enemy fire targets the rebel position during clashes at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).  In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a rebel fighter retreats for cover as enemy fire targets the rebel position during clashes at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter shoots a gun as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Karmal Jabl front line, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter shoots a gun as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Karmal Jabl front line, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).
  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army sniper shoots his gun towards government troops as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).  In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army sniper shoots his gun towards government troops as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).
  • Syrians carry a rebel injured during fighting with the Syrian army in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, background behind border gate, to the Turkish city of Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border, Turkey, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish troops have returned fire after a mortar shell from Syria again landed on its territory. Turkish artillery has fired at Syrian targets for two straight days after shelling from Syria killed five civilians in Turkey. The Turkish flag, left, and the three star Syrian rebel flag, right, fly over the border post. (AP Photo)Syrians carry a rebel injured during fighting with the Syrian army in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, background behind border gate, to the Turkish city of Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border, Turkey, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish troops have returned fire after a mortar shell from Syria again landed on its territory. Turkish artillery has fired at Syrian targets for two straight days after shelling from Syria killed five civilians in Turkey. The Turkish flag, left, and the three star Syrian rebel flag, right, fly over the border post. (AP Photo)
  • Turkish military stand near the Turkey-Syria border in Akcakale, Turkey, early Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey fired on Syrian targets for a second day Thursday, but said it has no intention of declaring war, despite tensions after deadly shelling from Syria killed five civilians in a Turkish border town. (AP Photo)Turkish military stand near the Turkey-Syria border in Akcakale, Turkey, early Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey fired on Syrian targets for a second day Thursday, but said it has no intention of declaring war, despite tensions after deadly shelling from Syria killed five civilians in a Turkish border town. (AP Photo)
  • A youth and goats pass by Turkish military stationed on the Turkish side of the border near Syrian rebel-controlled town of Tel Abyad, in Akcakale, Turkey, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish troops have returned fire after a mortar shell from Syria again landed on its territory. Turkish artillery has fired at Syrian targets for two straight days after shelling from Syria killed five civilians in Turkey. .(AP Photo)A youth and goats pass by Turkish military stationed on the Turkish side of the border near Syrian rebel-controlled town of Tel Abyad, in Akcakale, Turkey, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish troops have returned fire after a mortar shell from Syria again landed on its territory. Turkish artillery has fired at Syrian targets for two straight days after shelling from Syria killed five civilians in Turkey. .(AP Photo)
  • Lebanese soldiers inspect damaged  that from an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)Lebanese soldiers inspect damaged that from an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Sunni hardline preacher Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a protest against an anti-Islam movie, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Anger over insults to Islam's Prophet Muhammad isn't enough to bring Lebanon's divided Sunni and Shiite Muslims together. The two sects, which have been locked in sometimes violent political competition, held separate protests Friday. Sunni protesters accused Shiite Hezbollah of using the demonstrators to distract from the fighting in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Ahmad Omar)Sunni hardline preacher Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a protest against an anti-Islam movie, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Anger over insults to Islam's Prophet Muhammad isn't enough to bring Lebanon's divided Sunni and Shiite Muslims together. The two sects, which have been locked in sometimes violent political competition, held separate protests Friday. Sunni protesters accused Shiite Hezbollah of using the demonstrators to distract from the fighting in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Ahmad Omar)
  • A Free Syrian Army supporter holds and covers his face with a the Syrian revolutionary flag during an anti-Syrian regime and Salafist group leader Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir demonstration in downtown of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. Assir, a strong critic of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad, has organized multiple protests over the past year in a bid to increase support for the Syrian uprising and mount an offensive against Nasrallah for openly supporting Assadís regime. Arabic writing on his headband reads, "at your service God's Prophet." (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)A Free Syrian Army supporter holds and covers his face with a the Syrian revolutionary flag during an anti-Syrian regime and Salafist group leader Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir demonstration in downtown of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. Assir, a strong critic of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad, has organized multiple protests over the past year in a bid to increase support for the Syrian uprising and mount an offensive against Nasrallah for openly supporting Assadís regime. Arabic writing on his headband reads, "at your service God's Prophet." (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
  • A injured woman is carried by a civilian at the scene of an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)A injured woman is carried by a civilian at the scene of an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • A Lebanese rescue worker, left, and a civilian carry an injured girl from the scene of an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)A Lebanese rescue worker, left, and a civilian carry an injured girl from the scene of an explosion in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, Beirut, Lebanon, Friday Oct. 19, 2012. Lebanese Red Cross and security officials say a car bomb in east Beirut has killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the worst blast the city has seen in years, coming at a time when Lebanon has seen a rise in tension and eruptions of clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • A masked protester carried a tire to add to burning tires used as a roadblock to protest the death of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence division of Lebanon's domestic security forces in a car bomb attack targeting his convoy, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. Protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks around Lebanon on Saturday in a sign of boiling anger over a massive car bomb that killed a top security official and seven other people a day earlier ó a devastating attack that threatened to bring Syria's civil war to Lebanon.(AP Photo/ Mohammed Zaatari)A masked protester carried a tire to add to burning tires used as a roadblock to protest the death of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence division of Lebanon's domestic security forces in a car bomb attack targeting his convoy, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. Protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks around Lebanon on Saturday in a sign of boiling anger over a massive car bomb that killed a top security official and seven other people a day earlier ó a devastating attack that threatened to bring Syria's civil war to Lebanon.(AP Photo/ Mohammed Zaatari)
  • Members of Lebanese police intelligence division units, carry the coffin wrapped by Lebanese flag of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan who was assassinated on Friday by a car bomb, as police officers salute during his funeral procession at the Lebanese police headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday Oct. 21, 2012. Thousands of Lebanese waving the national flag packed a central square in downtown Beirut Sunday for the funeral of a top intelligence official assassinated in a car bombing that many blame on the regime in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)Members of Lebanese police intelligence division units, carry the coffin wrapped by Lebanese flag of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan who was assassinated on Friday by a car bomb, as police officers salute during his funeral procession at the Lebanese police headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday Oct. 21, 2012. Thousands of Lebanese waving the national flag packed a central square in downtown Beirut Sunday for the funeral of a top intelligence official assassinated in a car bombing that many blame on the regime in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • Newly arrived Syrian refugees unload their belongings after crossing the border from Tal Shehab, Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River Valley, and arriving near Ramtha, Jordan, on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)Newly arrived Syrian refugees unload their belongings after crossing the border from Tal Shehab, Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River Valley, and arriving near Ramtha, Jordan, on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

Syria’s protracted civil war is spilling across its borders, creating breeding grounds for extremists, sharpening sectarian schisms and threatening to destabilize U.S. allies in the Middle East.

The war has attracted jihadists from across the region, including Libya, where rebels overthrew Moammar Gadhafi’s regime a year ago and where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has sought to put down roots.

“If al Qaeda-related groups gain a foothold in Syria, that is very bad news for everybody,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“And if governments that have long been allies of the U.S. – [I’m] thinking here of a country like Jordan – end up being destabilized, that is also potentially very harmful for the United States,” she said. “There are so many wild cards.”

In just the past month, a mortar shell fired by the Syrian military killed five civilians in Turkey, provoking a Turkish attack on Syrian targets; a top Lebanese intelligence official was assassinated in Beirut by a car bomb blamed on Syria; and a Jordanian soldier was killed in a border clash with armed men trying to cross over from Syria.

“Fallout from the Syrian civil war is one of the most important strategic issues facing the United States today,” said Daniel L. Byman, deputy director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“The conflict has the potential to destabilize key regional states, like Iraq, and to assist terrorist groups, like Hezbollah and al Qaeda. It also implicates the interests of powerful friends like Israel and Turkey,” Mr. Byman said. “As the conflict intensifies, these problems are likely to grow worse, not better.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime agreed Thursday to a four-day cease-fire effective from Friday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha. The Syrian army, however, reserved the right to respond to rebel attacks during this period.

Rebels reported heavy fighting in the western cities of Al Rastan and Aleppo in interviews over Skype on Thursday.

Syrian activists say more than 33,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March of last year. The United Nations estimates that more than 20,000 people have died.

Foment in Lebanon

The civil war has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Syria’s neighborhood. The consequences have been felt most violently in Lebanon, its southwestern neighbor, where Sunnis are pitted against Mr. Assad’s Shiite supporters. Mr. Assad belongs to the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam.

Lebanon’s sectarian rivalries were brought to the fore Oct. 19, when Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a top intelligence official and foe of Syria, was killed by a massive car bomb in Beirut.

The blast laid bare the tenuous nature of peace in Lebanon, which was ravaged by a civil war between 1975 and 1990 and occupied by Syrian forces until 2005.

Al-Hassan had led an investigation that had resulted in the arrest in August of Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese Cabinet minister and ally of Mr. Assad‘s. Mr. Samaha has been accused of smuggling weapons from Syria into Lebanon with the aim of fomenting violence. Two Syrian officers also have been indicted in that plot.

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About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.

Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.

 

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