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The War in Syria Won’t Stay in Syria

The war in Syria just strayed into Iraq.

Forty-eight Syrian soldiers were killed yesterday inside Iraq, in a well-coordinated ambush by gunmen whose identities remain unknown. Numerous reports say the soldiers were unarmed and many of them were wounded. They apparently crossed into Iraq near Yaarubiyeh to escape heavy fighting in northern Syria and were being transported by bus, with an Iraqi military escort, to a different border crossing, where they would be put back into Syria. But they never made it.

The ambush was probably the work of one or more of the various Syrian Sunni rebel groups with ties to Sunni communities across the border in Iraq. “In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood,” Syria-watcher Joshua Landis told the New York Times. “They’re in one common struggle.”

Iraq is not the only country where Syria’s war has bled across the border. Exacerbated by the increasingly sectarian conflict in the war next door, tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon are rising dangerously. In Sidon, a fiery Sunni cleric named Sheikh Ahmad Assir is once again lambasting Hezbollah, calling for a boycott of Shia businesses and intentionally trying to divide the city along sectarian lines. In a televised speech, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that such sectarian incitement could only lead to an explosion of violence. There are also signs that rebel fighters from Syria have infiltrated refugee camps in northern Lebanon and are arming residents there.

The war has also bled into Israel. Mortar shells landed in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, the Israeli military said recently. As Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor told the Security Council yesterday, “Israel cannot be expected to stand idle as the lives of its citizens are being put at risk by the Syrian government’s reckless actions.”

A painful reality is becoming more clear every day that the Syrian civil war drags on: Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are states where the forces ripping their citizens apart into hostile, angry sectarian and ethnic groups are stronger than the forces holding them together. Iraq’s government is Shiite, and it therefore sees itself as an ally of the Syrian government against the majority of its people; Sunni rebels in both Syria and Iraq see themselves as fighting a common war against their religious enemies and rivals.

The same pattern holds true in Lebanon, where Shiite Hezbollah is allied with the government of Syria, while Sunni groups, many receiving increasing aid from friendly Sunni powers elsewhere in the region, see the war against Assad and their struggle against Hezbollah as linked.

The situation is extremely volatile and nobody really knows what to expect, but the longer the fighting drags on, the more likely it is that none of these three states will come out of this war with the same boundaries or the same political structures they had going in. Western dithering has helped make a catastrophic outcome more likely. It wasn’t our intention, perhaps, but the combination of verbal and diplomatic support for the rebels with only weak sanctions against Assad was tailor-made to create a long civil war in which the worst case scenarios become more likely all the time. It would have been hard to have found a course of action more destructive to American interests or more likely to aggravate a humanitarian catastrophe than the one we have followed, though perhaps the Bush administration could have found a way.

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