Syria's violence continues its march across borders, into Iraq

Dozens of Syrian Army soldiers were killed yesterday while in Iraq seeking temporary refuge from fighting with rebels. They were ambushed by suspected Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

Khalid al-Mousuly/Reuters
Iraqi police stand guard during foot patrol at Rabia, near the main border between Iraq and Syria on Saturday. Dozens of Syrian Army soldiers were killed yesterday after seeking refuge in Iraq, amplifying concerns of Syrian violence spilling across its borders and destabilizing its neighbors.

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Dozens of Syrian Army soldiers were killed in an ambush after seeking refuge in Iraq yesterday, amplifying concerns of Syrian violence spilling across its borders and destabilizing its neighbors.

The soldiers were attacked in Anbar province with bombs, grenades, and gunfire while being transported back into Syria by the Iraqi Army, reports The Associated Press. An estimated 48 Syrian soldiers, who were seeking a temporary reprieve from fighting with rebels over the border, and at least six Iraqi military personnel were killed. It was the first such killing of Syrians in Iraq since the conflict began two years ago, reports The Wall Street Journal

It is unclear who was responsible for the ambush, but Jassim al-Halbousi, provincial council member in Anbar, told the Associated Press, “This attack bears the hallmarks of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization,” adding that the borders need to be secured “at the highest level of alert.”

At the time of the ambush, the Syrian soldiers were being transported to a different border crossing, south of where they originally entered the country. According to AP, the Iraqi government insists it allowed the soldiers into the country on "humanitarian grounds" and is "not picking sides in the Syrian conflict."

"We do not want more soldiers to cross our borders and we do not want to be part of the problem," said Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister. "We do not support any group against the other in Syria."

The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad's apparent willingness to quietly aid the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on al-Qaeda's Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels' most potent fighters.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state-owned Iraqia Television broadcast a ministry of defense statement warning "all fighting sides in Syria not to move their armed conflict into Iraqi lands, or violate the security of the Iraqi border.”

The New York Times reports that Iraq has said it will deploy more soldiers to its border with Syria, raising fears among Middle East experts that Iraq, still fragile from its own sectarian war, will become further embroiled in the conflict next door. According to the Times, “The attack threatens to inflame the sectarian tensions that already divide Iraq, where a Sunni minority sympathizes with Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni opposition.”

Middle East analyst Juan Cole wrote today that the violent spillover into Iraq is a concerning development for regional sectarian violence.

Alarabiya was reporting Tuesday morning Iraqi time that Iraqi tanks had advanced on the Free Syrian Army checkpoint at al-Ya`rabiya, presumably seeking revenge for the ambush. That isn’t a good sign, to have an Iraqi-Syrian border clash….

Shiite-ruled Iraq faces an on-going guerrilla war from radical Sunnis, some of them apparently now fighting in Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In addition, the Sunni Arab population of the west and the north of the country, about a fifth of the population, has been demonstrating peacefully against the al-Maliki government, with large rallies, for several months. Al-Maliki is afraid that if the Sunni radicals win Damascus, there will be severe effects on Mosul and Ramadi. Indeed, those effects may already have begun.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential blog Syria Comment, told the Times, “A number of us have been saying that Iraq is the one most affected by the meltdown in Syria.”

Mr. Landis added that, “In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood.…They’re in one common struggle.”

Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told AP that the fact that the soldiers were allowed to enter Iraq in the first place worries him.

"If this goes on, al-Maliki's government is aligning itself with Iran and the Assad regime against the rest of the Middle East and the will of the Syrian people," Mr. Dodge said. "That is a huge gamble."

Unlike Iran and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Maliki has not expressed “outright support” for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Times reports.

Others in the region are concerned about spillover as well, with Israel telling the United Nations Security Council yesterday that it can’t be expected to do nothing as the Syrian conflict breaches its borders, according to Reuters. “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," Israeli UN Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote to the Security Council. "Israel has shown maximum restraint thus far."

Errant Syrian fire has landed in Israeli territory multiple times since the conflict began. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Israel has taken steps to prepare the border region for the possibility of violence, installing a new fence and surveillance cameras and the deploying troops in the area. 

Violence – which has killed at least 70,000 people since the conflict began in 2011 – isn’t the only thing reaching into neighboring countries. The UN expects the number of refugees, who have settled mainly in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, to reach 1 million this week, reports The Washington Post.

[O]fficials say Syrians fleeing alleged massacres and Damascus’s fresh bombing campaigns are stepping into a growing humanitarian catastrophe, either in overcrowded camps with little to offer or, even more frequently, in urban areas that struggle to support them and where the welcome has worn thin.

The crisis is compounded by a growing funding gap, which U.N. agencies say is forcing cutbacks on basic supplies and shelter.

Although the international community pledged to meet a $1.5 billion U.N. appeal in December for aid to Syrian refugees, the U.N. refu­gee agency says it has yet to receive 20 percent of the promised money. In any case, the requested assistance was set to cover the needs of what was then a regional growth of about 1,500 new refugees per day — a mere quarter of the average number now entering neighboring countries daily.

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