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Around Syria's borders, Iraq may be the next flashpoint

Western countries are trying to keep the Syrian chaos from spreading. The prospects are fair in some adjoining states, but it's time to worry about Iraq.

The drift that has characterised western policy towards Syria for the past two years shows no sign of dissipating. The fog may even be getting thicker. As the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, "We don't have a consensus on what America's role should be."

America's top soldier, Gen Martin Dempsey, has in the past supported arming the Free Syrian Army, the so-called moderate elements of the opposition to President Bashar Al Assad. Now he's not sure. The situation has become "more complicated" since it became clear that the moderates are not above selling their weapons to Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate whose fighters are the most effective of the opposition forces.

Western policymakers are now uncomfortably seated on a fence. They want to promote the rebels enough to force the Assad regime to hand over power in a controlled transition, but not enough to spark a sudden regime collapse allowing the rebels, spearheaded by jihadists, to take over Damascus.

To achieve such a finely balanced result, with the opposition so divided and everyone fixated on a military victory, is pie in the sky. As the US historian Gabriel Kolko has written, war is "an adventure intrinsically beset with surprises and false expectations, its total outcome unpredictable to all those who have engaged in it." There is no reason to suppose that the Syrian conflict will be any different.

A messy compromise has been agreed under which the United States takes on the role of back-seat driver, coordinating weapons supplies from countries not bound by the European Union's arms embargo (such as Croatia) to the Free Syrian Army. This seeks to avoid officials facing difficult questions in the future on why western-supplied weapons ended up in the hands of America's most determined enemies.

So what is really going on? Honest western officials acknowledge that they have little control over events inside Syria. The best they can do is try to erect firebreaks to stop the contagion spreading. Each of Syria's borders is different, but the uniting theme is that the collapse of central authority in Damascus presents escalating security threats all around.

To start with the south, the US is sending 200 more soldiers to Jordan "to prepare for a number of scenarios". With thousands of refugees flooding across the border, Jordan's resources are stretched. A victory by the jihadists in Syria might tempt them to take the fight across the border to the Hashemite monarchy.

In Israel, border tensions with Syria have reached levels not seen since the 1973 war. Since the Syrian army pulled back to defend Damascus, the Israel-Syria border has been contested by anti-regime factions. Ultimately this is likely to upset the decades-long truce there. But a more pressing concern is that Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of armed rebel groups; that would probably lead to Israeli - and perhaps US - armed intervention.

Lebanon looks to be the most obviously threatened by contagion from Syria. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has resigned, leaving the country without a government. The presence of Hizbollah, the Syrian-allied Shiite party and militia, could theoretically tip Lebanon back into civil war. Yet assessments in Beirut are less alarmist than those of foreign-based analysts.

Sensing that it may lose its patron in Damascus, and thus facing the prospect of war on two fronts - against Israel and resurgent Sunni Muslim forces in Syria - Hizbollah seems to be playing a long game, seeking to keep its Lebanese base calm. Diplomats say its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is keeping a cool head. But if that changes, it is hard to see how outside powers could establish a firebreak to isolate Lebanon from Syria.

It is Turkey that has responded most proactively to events over its border. The Syrian crisis having soured Turkey's relations with Iraq, Ankara is pursuing an alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, which may help the KRG achieve independence in all but name from Baghdad. Meanwhile Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is pursuing a historic compromise with his own Kurdish minority after decades of oppression, while seeking to exercise control over the Kurds of northern Syria, who have just freed themselves from government rule.

A grand resolution of the Kurdish national issue may be years away, but there is no question about the challenges to the Iraqi state. If Turkey takes the Kurdistan Regional Government under its wing as an energy supplier, it will be a clear signal that the borders established by Britain and France after the First World War are open to challenge.

Even more critical for Iraq is creeping control of eastern Syria by jihadists, allowing them to link up seamlessly with Sunni Muslims in Anbar province of western Iraq, who are already in open revolt against the Iranian-backed government of the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki. A Balkanised Syria would make Iraq ungovernable.

For all the Arabs who have never accepted that the result of the US invasion of 2003 was to move Iraq into the Iranian sphere of influence, this is a chance to put right a historic wrong. But what would the Americans do? Having abandoned Iraq to a faltering democracy, would Washington now allow the country to drift back into civil war?

This is the key firebreak. Tehran could probably accept losing Syria as an ally. But control over Iraq - its neighbour, rival for power in the Gulf region, and the country which invaded it in 1980 - is a strategic gain that Iran would be loathe to give up. It is possible to see other neighbours surviving the Syrian imbroglio, but Iraq seems fated to be the next country to be fought over by the forces currently battling for control of Damascus. Not for nothing is there "no consensus" in Washington about Syria.

aphilps@thenational.ae

OnTwitter: @aphilps

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