- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2012

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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