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Terrorism & Security

Fighting grows along Syria's borders, threatening to spread war

Syria's borders are getting more violent, leading some to question whether President Bashar al-Assad is purposely trying to broaden the conflict.

By Staff writer / November 13, 2012

Turkish soldiers speak with Syrian refugees trying to cross the border fence from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain into Turkey during an airstrike on Ras al-Ain, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Nov. 13. A Syrian warplane struck homes in Ras al-Ain on Tuesday within sight of the Turkish border, pursuing an aerial bombardment to force out rebels, a Reuters witness and refugees said.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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Just days after Syria’s splintered opposition groups announced a unity bloc, violence escalated on the borders with Turkey and Israel, further raising concerns that Syria's civil war could spread outside its borders and destabilize the region.

Syrian warplanes struck the small Syrian city of Ras al-Ain, which shares a border with Turkey, for the second day today in an attempt to force out rebels who took control of the town last week, reports Reuters:

The second day of jet strikes sent Syrians scurrying through the flimsy barbed-wire fence that divides Ras al-Ain from the Turkish settlement of Ceylanpinar, thick plumes of smoke rising above the town.… Turkey is reluctant to be drawn into a regional conflict but the proximity of the bombing raids to the border is testing its pledge to defend itself from any violation of its territory or any spillover of violence from Syria.

Meanwhile, in response to Syrian fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israeli forces said they retaliated with “direct fire” on Syrian artillery, according to a second Reuters report. 

"We will not allow our borders to be breached or our citizens to be fired at," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Although the two countries have not fought over the territory since 1973, they are still officially at war.

The unity pact reached by Syrian opposition groups to create the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was immediately praised by those in support of toppling President Bashar al-Assad (see The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of world reactions to the new organization here). And 10 countries including France, Jordan, the United States, and Egypt have expressed support for the coalition, according to Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and the Middle East who blogs at Syria Comment.

It’s a big day for the Syrian opposition. Defying naysayers and skeptics, the opposition came together.... Opposition members the world over are electrified by the outcome and moving speeches given by the opposition’s new leadership. Assad regime must be worried, as it has survived for 42 years thanks to Syria’s fragmentation.

But some argue that even with a unified opposition, without aid in the form of weapons and firepower, the regime will continue to maintain power.

"Syria has more than enough weapons for fighting the rebels," Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia's military general staff who is now editor of National Defense magazine, told The Associated Press. "As long as Bashar Assad has the money to pay his military, it will keep fighting."

The US has thus far discouraged sending weapons to Syria’s rebels; however, according to AP, “some opposition figures believe Washington could give its tacit support to others funneling weapons if the new broad-based rebel coalition holds together and gains international legitimacy, such as winning recognition from the Arab League and other groups.”

The New York Times notes that in light of the conflict’s recent overflow into neighboring Turkey and Israel, some question whether Assad could be intentionally trying to broaden Syria’s civil war.

There has been speculation that Mr. Assad, feeling increasingly threatened, may deliberately seek to widen the conflict that has consumed much of his country for the last 20 months, leaving roughly 40,000 people dead and over 400,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Although there was no indication that Mr. Assad was trying to lure Israel into the fight, any Israeli involvement could rally his failing support and frustrate the efforts of his Arab adversaries.

But "Assad is fighting for his survival. The enemy at this stage is not Israel. He has much bigger problems," former Israeli diplomat Alon Liel told The Wall Street Journal. And Israel has reasons – like an impending election – to avoid getting entangled in Syria’s war.

“High-ranking Israeli military officials say their real fear is that a power vacuum in Syria near the Golan Heights border could be exploited by militants or Iran in the same way that armed groups have exploited a breakdown in security in the Sinai Desert,” the Journal reports.

Despite the dire situation in Syria, and the pressure put on neighboring countries as a result of a growing refugee crisis, novelist Dima Wannous writes in The Washington Post that the revolution has made important gains.

Despite the death and destruction in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad’s steadfast devotion to staying in power, the revolution there has gained a lot more than it has lost in the past year and a half. The rebels have torn down the overwhelming sense of fear — a force far more menacing than any dictator — that ruled the country for at least four decades.

Before the revolution began in March of last year, Syria could be summarized as the ruling elite and its beneficiaries vs. everyone else. There were no independent political parties, no real and effective opposition, no forums for political debate, no freedom of the press and no unions. Now the opposition is trying to create this type of civil society.

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