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How Syria's conflict stretches beyond its borders

As civilian casualties mount and refugees flood adjacent nations — and more actors enter the fray — the Syrian conflict threatens to engulf the entire region.

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Lebanese protest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tripoli, Lebanon. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — In March 2011, a group of young students in the southern Syrian city of Daraa brazenly painted rare anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. Few could have imagined that 19 months later, Syria would be in the throes of a violent, anti-regime uprising that every day looks more and more like a regional proxy war.

More from GlobalPost: In-Depth reports from inside Syria

As the civilian casualties mount and refugees flood neighboring countries — and more state and non-state actors enter the fray — the Syrian conflict is widening in a way that threatens to engulf the entire region.

Turkish soldiers on the border with Syria. 


Turkey is perhaps the nation closest to directly clashing with Syria. Sharing a 560-mile border with Syria, the NATO-member nation now hosts more than 100,000 refugees and has actively assisted the Syrian opposition.

“I’ve been told by the Turks that they’ve played a role in terms of providing aid and money and even arms” to the Syrian rebels, said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation.

Lately, Turkey has also engaged in cross-border shelling with the Syrian army after an errant Syrian strike killed five Turkish civilians earlier this month. Turkish parliament subsequently authorized the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders, while banning all Syrian aircraft from entering Turkish airspace. Turkish officials accused the regime of using civilian flights as cover for the transport of military goods.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently lashed out at the United Nations for its inaction in Syria, saying world powers are repeating the mistakes they made in Bosnia in the 1990s, though Turkey has not yet requested formal help from the NATO alliance.

“While Turkey doesn’t want war, it is close to war,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has suggested it maintains the right to intervene in Syria should it face increased attacks from Kurdish militants based there. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and is fighting for Kurdish separation, has boosted assaults on Turkish forces in recent months.

Still, domestic support for war with Syria remains low. Turks have grown resentful of the strain Syrian refugees are putting on resources and the economy.

Syrian activists in Jordan. 


This small desert kingdom shares a 233-mile border with Syria, and now hosts more than 100,000 refugees who live in a vast, dust-swept city of tents, with poor conditions.

Increased use of airpower by the Syrian regime has bolstered the flow of refugees into Jordan, putting further stress on the country’s already meager water and energy reserves.

According to a recent poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 80 percent of Jordanians say the Syrian refugees are a burden on the country. Another 65 percent said they are opposed to allowing any more Syrian refugees to enter.

Syrian refugees, in fact, have clashed with Jordanian security forces in the refugee camps. Jordanian Salafi Islamists have also been caught crossing the border into Syria to fight with the largely Sunni opposition against the Syrian regime, which is drawn primarily from the Shiite sect known as the Alawites.

On Tuesday, a Jordanian soldier was killed after clashing with an “armed group” at the border, reports said. Analysts say Jordanian officials are concerned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could lash out if he thinks Jordan is allowing fighters to slip across its border. Any clash with Syria could further destabilize Jordan, which is already mired in a political stalemate and is facing growing calls for government reform.

“It seems as if more Jordanians are adopting a ‘don't rock the boat’ approach to domestic politics and the political reform process,” said Naseem Tarawnah, a Jordanian blogger, in an email. “No Jordanian wants to see that [Syrian] conflict duplicated in the kingdom.”

Earlier this week, Jordanian officials said they foiled a terror plot to bomb shopping malls and assassinate diplomats in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The suspects were said to have smuggled explosives and ammunition