The World In Numbers November 2006

Carriers of Conflict

For a preview of future instability and war in the Middle East, watch where Iraqi refugees are going

Syria. Refugees pose a tremendous danger to the frail regime of Bashar al-Assad. Already, Syria is dealing with an influx of 450,000 Iraqis, and may bear the brunt of a Sunni exodus from western Iraq. Most Syrians are also Sunni, but the Assad regime is not: it rests on Syria’s Shiite Alawite community, which composes about 12 percent of the population. Many Sunnis see the Alawites as heretics, and from 1976 to 1982 Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, brutally repressed the insurgent Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Iraqi Sunni Muslims waging a long conflict from Syrian soil could once again radicalize Syria’s own Sunni com-munity. This time it could call on support from outside Syria, and perhaps seek sanctuary in Iraq as well.

Jordan. Some 700,000 Iraqi refugees—many of them Sunnis from Baghdad and western Iraq—have already fled to Jordan. This influx is alarming in a country of just 6 million people, especially one that has experienced rising Islamist militancy in the last decade. The jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi used Iraq as a base to operate against his home country, sending Iraqi terrorists to bomb three hotels in Amman in 2005. Jordan’s security services are highly capable, but large numbers of experienced Sunni insurgents and jihadist recruiters on Jordanian territory would make their job exceptionally difficult.

Saudi Arabia. In an all-out civil war, both Sunni and Shiite refugees could pour back and forth across Saudi Arabia’s long border with Iraq. In addition to using Saudi Arabia as a safe harbor, militants in both groups would likely become involved in Saudi politics. Armed Iraqi Shiites might support recently restive Saudi Shiites—who are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province—by giving them weapons and an operational haven. Likewise, Iraqi Sunni fighters—many of whom see the Al Saud as bigger devils than even George W. Bush—might join with Saudi terrorists who have been openly fighting the regime since 2003, turning the guerilla methods they’ve learned against the Saudi government. The Saudi regime is surprisingly resilient. But at the very least, such problems would push oil prices far higher.

Iran. Iran might look at the arrival of Shiite refugees as an opportunity to extend its influence in Iraq, by supporting and coopting the militants among them. Tehran is already training, funding, and arming various Iraqi Shiite bands, and having a large refugee community on its soil could facilitate its efforts. But the immediate presence of hundreds of thousands of traumatized Shiites could also generate domestic pressure on Tehran to intervene directly in Iraq in order to stop Sunni atrocities against Iraq’s Shiite community.

Kuwait. Because it is an easy drive from southern Iraq, many Iraqi Shiites might flee to Kuwait should the violence in Iraq escalate. About one-third of Kuwait's 1 million citizens are Shiite, and the presence of a few hundred thousand Iraqi Shiites would shift Kuwait's political balance. It could stir the country's Shiites to rise up agains the ruling Sunnis. The Al Sabah have always managed to weather internal unrest, but the scale of such a problem would be far greater than any they've faced before.

Daniel L. Byman is the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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