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Syrian Conflict Reaches Beyond Borders

Fierce fighting has been reported between President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels around the ancient citadel in Aleppo.
Giovanni Rinaldi
Fierce fighting has been reported between President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels around the ancient citadel in Aleppo.

The civil war in Syria is attracting fighters from all over, increasing sectarian tensions in other Muslim countries, threatening the region's tenuous stability, bringing the threat of Russian missiles, and leaving the U.S with few good options.

More than 80,000 people have been killed so far in Syria's civil war, and 4 million of Syria's 20 million people have been displaced. Robert Malley, the program director for Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group, calls it "one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters we're facing."

He says that what began as a conflict within Syria has expanded in scope.

"This has become not just a war within Syria," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It has become a regional, sectarian civil war. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that what was a war in Syria with regional spillover has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus."

Complicating matters is that while the regime of President Bashar Assad is more powerful than the opposition and thus tends to be guilty of far more atrocities, both sides have been engaged in indescribable acts of brutality like cannibalism and the execution of entire families.

"I think it's hard to deny that the two sides are engaged in actions that are repelling ordinary Syrians who really don't know, many of them don't know which side to stand for anymore," Malley says.

Interview Highlights

Robert Malley served as President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs.
/ International Crisis Group
International Crisis Group
Robert Malley served as President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs.

On how the war in Syria is inciting sectarian conflicts in other countries

"This has become not just a war in Syria. It's become a regional sectarian war. ... Syria is the battleground. It's not the sole actor in this conflict. You now have many others who are engaged. And, in particular, this conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, this long-lasting conflict which has not manifested itself violently that much in recent history is now manifesting itself with a vengeance."

On how this is changing the understanding of borders in the region

"We really need to change our mental grid, our political compass. This is not a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way and ... [the Lebanese Shiite militant group] Hezbollah's fighting in Syria. We could also say that some Sunnis in Lebanon are fighting in Syria as well. Some Sunni rebels are firing back into Lebanon against Hezbollah targets. Iraqi Shiites are fighting on behalf of the regime, just as Iraqi Sunnis are trying to help their coreligionists in Syria. So I think you have to think of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as one giant integrated area of conflict in which national boundaries count much less than sectarian concessional boundaries."

On what this means for Israel in terms of policy

"Israel has looked at its neighbors, and Syria in particular, with two principles in mind. One is the notion of red lines: There are certain actions. If you take them, we will strike — we, Israel, will strike. So, if chemical weapons or sophisticated weapons are transferred by the Syrian regime to Hezbollah, Israel will strike as it has struck in the past. That's one principle of its policy. The other one is a notion of an address. They think that they can deter the Syrian regime because it's a regime that has interests, that has a stake in its own survival. So they're the address. They're the ones you're going to threaten if they do cross the red line.

"What's happening now with this erasing of borders and with this very, very strong alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime is that both those principles are being called into question. What does it mean to say the red line is a transfer of weapons when Hezbollah, Syria and Iran's military machines are integrated? Who's transferring what to whom? It doesn't make any sense any more. Hezbollah's weapons are Syria's weapons are Iran's weapons when it comes to Syria."

On the U.S. role in this conflict

"The United States — the administration — has a side. There's no doubt about it. It has a side. It has affinities with the opposition. It doesn't want to see the regime continue. President Obama said in August 2011, a few months into the uprising, when he said President Assad has to go. So I think there's no ambiguity about what side the U.S. is on. The question in my mind, one of the things that we have to bear in mind is we might have a stake in whether the Assad regime continues or not, but do we have a stake — or should we have a stake — in the broader Sunni-Shiite confrontation? Should we take sides in this religious war, which it has now become? "

On Russia's current alliance with the Assad government in Syria

"[I]f Assad has Russia completely on his side ... he won't budge. There's no reason for him to budge. You could say the same about the opposition, but clearly it's the case of Assad if he feels that he has Russia — let alone Iran and Hezbollah — strongly backing him, he has no reason whatsoever to compromise. So there needs to be an understanding between Russia and the U.S. at a minimum. Ideally, it would involve others as well, but let's start with what is more manageable, and even that's hard and hasn't been achieved yet."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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