x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Neighbours start to feel the threat of Syrian unrest

There are worrying signs that Syria's instability is spilling over to vulnerable neighbours.

For nine months, the world has been watching Syrians be killed at the hands of the Assad regime. For neighbours and former allies of Damascus, this had been an obvious human rights issue. Now, very quickly, we are seeing it become a fundamental regional security concern.

The threat of a spillover has already turned into a reality for Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, although certainly violence has so far been contained. In Amman at the weekend, anti-Assad protesters clashed with diplomats at the Syrian embassy. Accounts of the violence varied, but an open attack on an embassy in Jordan surely has the attention of King Abdullah's government.

There have also been troubling signs in Lebanon, which so often has been the victim of Syrian ambitions. On Sunday, Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said Syria was responsible for an attack on French peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. "Syria's armed wing" - Hizbollah - was blamed. After the militia's leader Hassan Nasrallah has so openly endorsed the bloody regime, Lebanon's security is again held hostage by its larger neighbour.

As the death grip of the Assad regime weakens, we are seeing a return to the time when regional and global powers all had a hand in Syria's affairs. Some of this clearly stems from human rights concerns: France has proposed humanitarian corridors. Turkey is lobbying for a military-patrolled buffer zone in Syria's north.

But overlapping security issues mean that the philanthropic line is quickly becoming blurred; Ankara also has an overriding interest to prevent unrest in Syria's Kurdish communities from affecting its own minorities. Every neighbour has to be concerned with the flow of weapons and materiel across borders.

There has been more concerted foreign pressure, in particular economic sanctions levied by Arab countries threaten the Assads' staying power, but there are reasons to proceed cautiously - none more so than the precarious regional balance. The regimes death throes could be savage.

What is still missing in this milieu is strong leadership in the Syrian opposition. In that vacuum, opponents of the regime, such as those who attacked the embassy in Amman, are doing their cause more harm than good.