By William Tucker
In the last two days Syrian mortars have been fired into Golan prompting Israel to return fire. Also over the weekend the Syrian military carried out an airstrike on a rebel held village on the Syrian-Turkish border. These events have been used as evidence by international media that the Syrian civil war is spilling over into neighboring countries, and thus, is taking on a regional dimension. In Africa, a similar situation is playing out in Northern Mali in regards to the Tuareg and al-Qaeda takeover of the area. The Tuareg people do not have a nation-state and are spread out across several nations in North Africa. This has prompted concern that other Tuareg tribes may agitate for independence. The political standoff in North Mali exists between the new government in Bamako and between the Tuareg and al-Qaeda affiliated militants. Further compounding the situation is the fallout between the Tuaregs and al-Qaeda. Despite the small pledge of conventional forces by ECOWAS, the clearing operation will take a substantial amount of time.
The way the terms regionalization and spillover have been used in the media would suggest that these events are only beginning to occur. On the contrary, they are concepts that were entrenched before these conflicts began. While governments may recognize political boundaries, and at times complain about where the lines are drawn, the people inhabiting these nations have little use for seemingly arbitrary lines on a map. Political borders tend to shift and history demonstrates this quite poignantly. A modern example could be North and South Korea, or perhaps East and West Germany. Germany was unified, only to be split by external political forces, but the people didn’t stop being German, speaking German, nor did they forsake German culture. The same goes for Korea. Essentially, the borders changed, but the people did not. These examples are demonstrably not exclusive, however, and can easily be applied to the Middle East and North Africa.
Borders may divide a people, but the divide exists solely on paper. For example, the Kurdish peoples of the Middle East and the Caucasus do not have a nation-state based on ethno-linguistics. They are spread over a region that includes Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kurds have longed for a nation-state that is theirs to call home. Though they are connected in ethnicity, language, and culture, many Kurdish people wish to change the political geography to more closely match the physical geography in which the people are located. Some Kurdish tribes have used militancy, while others have tried a political process. Naturally, trying to convince a constituted government in three separate nations to give up land, or at least some governing autonomy, is not an easy undertaking. This is doubly true when a portion of peoples are actively fighting these very governments. From the perspective of Turkey, a large portion of its population doesn’t view itself as part of the government in Ankara. With the dissolution of the Assad government in Damascus, Turkey has lost a partner in containing Kurdish ambitions. On the other hand, the continued existence of Assad and his loyalists are now complicating Ankara’s attempts to manage the Kurdish issue. Furthermore, Assad has used conventional military force in the pursuit of opposition forces who operate from Turkey, or near the shared border. Some level of Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict was largely inevitable.
This doesn’t just apply to the Syrian opposition, nor solely to the Kurdish peoples. Syria is a diverse and quite dynamic nation with several different peoples, languages, and cultures. Just as in the case of the Kurds, these different, distinct populations straddle borders with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Israel. This diversity makes ruling modern Syria reliant on coalitions of different groups; however the Sunni Arab majority may be able to form a government with minimal support from other groups when Assad finally falls from power. That possibility certainly isn’t wise as it could lead to the repression of minority groups, but it appears possible on paper. These minorities, specifically those that occupy both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, and those groups residing in the area of the coast stretching towards Aleppo, have been the subject of much observation as violence has occurred within their ranks in both Lebanon and Syria. The groups in question have different desires and political concerns. Some of these exist without regard to a political border. This being that case, spillover, and thus, regionalization, were likely to manifest here as well.
Just as indigenous peoples have their interests, so too do other nations in the region. Attempting to define the Syrian civil war as occupying the interests solely of the Syrian people is shortsighted at best, and analytically irresponsible at worst. While the people of Syria, and those connected through the aforementioned links, certainly have taken measures to bolster the individual fortunes of their respective groups, so too do several other nations in the Middle East. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq are dealing with an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting, but they also wish to keep the fighting contained inside Syrian borders. Lebanon is a unique example in this case as many Lebanese are directly connected to different Syrian minorities, but also because Lebanon now is dealing with the largest group of refugees fleeing Syria. Further compounding the Lebanese issue is the presence of several sub-state militias who have taken sides in the Syrian fight because of political interests and cultural ties. Furthermore, national powers such as Iran have a vested interest in the Assad regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Both are supporting the Assad regime, but not necessarily for the same reasons. Again, the inclusion, albeit regrettably, of Lebanon in the Syrian war existed far before the current bout of fighting began.
As if on cue, the undermining of Iranian interests in Syria naturally drew Saudi Arabia into the fray. As a regional power, Saudi Arabia has expressed concern over the past few years of Iran’s growing regional influence. Supporting the Syrian opposition, however that is defined, was an opening that Riyadh couldn’t refuse. Other nations with interests in undermining Iran’s regional drive were Turkey and Jordan, although their respective reasons for countering Iran are not necessarily in line with Saudi Arabia. Other nations beyond the Middle East, such as the U.S., France, and the UK, likewise found purpose in supporting the Syrian opposition, although this has been done in covert manner and more focused on humanitarian aid. Nonetheless, this support was sparked by the concern over the welfare of civilians in the conflict as well as undermining Iran. In essence, the Syrian civil war experienced regionalization and spillover violence far in advance of the popular refrain now being exhibited by the international media.
Moving back towards Mali a similar situation is playing out as the Malian people, Tuaregs, the various al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and regional and international players all prepare to defend their interests as an intervention led by Mali’s neighbors prepare to deploy troops. Unlike the situation in Syria, the Tuaregs drew fighters from across North Africa to supplement the Tuaregs living and fighting in Mali. Ansar al-Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) saw an opening as Malian soldiers revolted against their civilian government ostensibly over poor support from Bamako in the midst of fighting Tuareg rebels. Al-Qaeda groups in North Africa have experienced a resurgence in the past year as weapons from the former Gaddafi regime were pilfered, but were still being forced from operating in Algeria. The Malian revolt and subsequent withdrawal of Malian forces from the north provided the perfect opening at an opportune time. Naturally, Mali’s regional neighbors refused to allow Tuaregs to form an independent government for fear that other Tuareg tribes may try a similar maneuver against their governments. The inclusion of al-Qaeda complicated matters and added urgency to an international response. Like Syria, and so many other world conflicts, the Malian war has witnessed many peoples, both within the country and externally, along with many foreign nations take an active interest in the outcome of the Malian crisis. Again, the regionalization of the conflict was inevitable, not to mention present at the offing.
Borders change far more often than a people would. Though people have migrated and changed political borders as they moved, the indigenous peoples often remain in place. Exterminations and ethnic cleansing have occurred in history, however they are the exception more than the rule. People seek to communicate with other people and facilitate trade in culture and goods – oftentimes without regard for international borders. Unfortunately, with international contact conflict seems to follow, but not always violently. Regardless, every person, whether individually or organized into complex social groups, will find themselves drawn into the conflicts of their neighbors. Even the most local of conflicts can quickly take on a regional, and even international, dynamic. Thus, regionalization, along with violent spillover, occur throughout conflict and don’t necessarily manifest at the whim of an arbitrary timeline.