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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

A Syrian civil war threatens region

As foreign powers continue to fiddle while Syria burns, neighbouring countries are being drawn further into what has become a full armed insurrection.

Syria is now in a civil war, says the Red Cross, and that war has clearly reached the capital.

Three days ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the uprising in Syria had officially become the civil war that many had feared. What started 17 months ago as peaceful protests, crushed by the government, has become a full armed insurrection. This declaration changes the conflict once again: it means that all civilians - and anyone detained by the regime - are protected under international law. Warrants and prosecutions for war crimes may follow.

As much as that declaration matters, events are moving rapidly. Fierce fighting continues to spread across Damascus after three days of heavy clashes in the centre of the city. Anti-regime activists report armoured vehicles on the streets of the capital, and eye-witness accounts tell of heavy shelling and helicopter gunship attacks.

The situation on the ground risks making international diplomacy irrelevant. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's visit to Moscow yesterday, and western threats of stiffened sanctions, sound like more of the same in a series of failed diplomatic gambits that has done nothing to stem the conflict.

In short, foreign powers continue to fiddle while Syria burns. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries are being drawn further in. Lebanese newspapers reported yesterday that Syrian soldiers had briefly crossed the border. The port city of Tripoli has already seen fighting earlier this summer between supporters and opponents of Syria's regime.

It would be a mistake to view Syria's conflict just through the prism of sectarianism - Sunni rebels against an Alawite regime - but the longer the violence persists, the more those divisions will be inflamed. For Lebanon, which has been riven by sectarianism before, this is a nightmare; for the rest of the region, it is deeply worrying. Last week, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there was "solid information" that Al Qaeda members in Iraq had gone to Syria. That spells a disaster for both countries, if true.

Turkey has already lost a reconnaissance plane to the conflict; Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on one side, and Iran on the other have chosen sides in the conflict. For as long as this newly declared war persists, it will involve the entire region.

Syria's crisis started as a humanitarian problem, and it remains one. But the security concerns have now moved to the fore, especially for Lebanon and Iraq, which both have long memories of sectarian conflict.