Fears that Syria's civil war will engulf other countries are on the verge of coalescing into a dangerous reality, as the violence between foreign-backed forces inside Syria spills across the nation's borders.
Already a proxy war between Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which provide troops and weapons in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which comprehensively assist and have been linked to weapons used by anti-Assad rebels, Syria’s civil war now risks escalating into a full-blown regional conflict.
Sectarian divisions driven by the war are sowing political instability outside of Syria, alongside the unstable security situation introduced by the fighting itself.
Chaos along Syria's border with Jordan has sent Amman's security forces scrambling. On Monday a Jordanian soldier was killed as government troops battled with armed militants crossing the border area, which has become one of many arms pipelines into Syria and against which the Syrian government has threatened military action.
Meanwhile Jordanian security officers arrested 11 terrorists who were planning a mass attack again civilian and government targets. The plot raised the specter that the ruling Hashemite monarchy would be the next to fall to the wave of Islamist populism sweeping the Middle East.
The violence along Syria's northern border with Turkey has become severe enough that officials from Ankara's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), usually inclined to overemphasize the AKP's foreign policy competence and its solid regional alliances, have described the situation as a "worst case scenario."
Repeated mortar exchanges between Syrian and Turkish forces have elicited promises of forceful responses from Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, though analysts have expressed skepticism that the Turkish military has the capability to successfully wage war against Assad's Iranian-backed ground forces and Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries.
In Lebanon the assassination of prominent anti-Syrian intelligence officer Wissam Al-Hassan, which leaders and supporters of the March 14 movement promptly and explicitly blamed on Syria, threatened to drag the country into another sectarian civil war.
Hassan was head of the Information Branch of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, one of the country's two state intelligence services and the one considered to be aligned against the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies. Hassan had been a central figure behind the arrest of former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha, on charges of colluding with Assad regime officials to conduct terror attacks and incite sectarian strife inside Lebanon, and had also been at the forefront of the 2005 investigation which implicated Hezbollah in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
On Thursday the Washington Post revealed that Hassan himself had predicted that Assad's regime would try to "survive" by internationalizing the war into a "regional conflict."
Massive Bomb Attack in Lebanon Kills Top Anti-Syrian Officer, Risks Regional War Driven by Iran Proxies
Increasingly pitched fears that the Syrian civil war will escalate into a regional conflict were heightened Friday as a deadly car bomb in Beirut's predominantly Christian Ashrafiya district killed eight people, including an intelligence officer who was one of the most popular figures in Lebanon's pro-Western and anti-Syrian March 14th movement.
The officer, Col. Wissam al-Hassan, was head of the Information Branch of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, one of the country's two state intelligence services and considered to be aligned against the Assad regime and its Iranian-backed Hezbollah allies. At least 78 others were injured in the attack.
Hassan's murder, which took place near the headquarters of the Christian Phalange party, threatens to reignite the sectarian tensions behind Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and which continue to plague Lebanon. March 14th supporters, quoted in Arabic sources, have linked the murder to Syria and Hezbollah. March 14th Parliamentarian Michel Pharaon speculates that the bombing site was chosen "because it is in the heart of the capital and it is a Christian neighborhood."
Hassan was one of the central figures behind the arrest of former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha on charges of colluding with Assad regime officials to conduct terror attacks and incite sectarian strife inside Lebanon. Hassan was also at the forefront of the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb in February 2005. The terror attack ignited the Cedar Revolution that forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanese territories, and Hassan later presented evidence to a U.N. tribunal investigating the attack which implicated Syrian-directed Hezbollah agents.
March 14th supporters have flooded into the streets in protest, and there are confirmed reports of burning tires in Beirut and unconfirmed reports of gunfire exchanges in northern Lebanon.
Arab media analysts on Al Jazeera English revealed that al-Hassan had just returned to Beirut, and speculated that the precise targeting indicates that Lebanon's intelligence services have been seriously penetrated. A loss of faith in Lebanese state institutions will complicate attempts to stabilize the situation, and will dramatically heighten the risk of an escalatory spiral.
Sectarian tensions in Lebanon had already risen sharply in recent weeks in reaction to Hezbollah's increasingly open cross-border military support for Assad. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah militarily controls southern Lebanon and politically dominates the country. Its support for Assad, perceived to be at the behest of the Syrian leader's Iranian allies, has undermined the analysis of some Western specialists to the effect that Hezbollah had an indigenous Lebanese movement pursuing Lebanese interests.
Hezbollah's behavior instead seems to confirm the recent evaluation of Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, who blasted Iran for seeking to turn Lebanon into an "outpost for terror” and implied that Hezbollah was an overseas proxy of the Iranian regime.