Skip to main content

Syria's neighbors: What's at stake?

By the CNN Wire Staff
August 22, 2012 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
  • Syria's crisis is bleeding into its neighbors
  • The outcome will have deep influences on the region
  • Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, while Iran supports the regime, for example

(CNN) -- What's next in Syria's civil war? The answer will have major implications on Syria's neighbors and the Middle East.

The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia is among the most prominent countries backing the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, Iran -- the Shiite Islamic republic across the Persian Gulf -- casts itself and its allies in Damascus as part of an "Axis of Resistance" to domination of the region by outsiders. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned that "enemies are striving to waste Muslim governments and nations' energy and wealth by pushing them to fight one another," Iran's state-run news agency IRNA reported.

So what's at stake for Syria's neighbors?

The Gulf monarchies

The Saudis and some of the neighboring Persian Gulf states fear Iran's push to develop nuclear technology and the spread of Tehran's influence in the region. Bahrain's rulers accused Iran of fomenting unrest among its majority Shiite population during a wave of anti-government protests in 2011, but a government inquiry later found little evidence to support that contention. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched forces to Bahrain to help bolster their smaller neighbor.

Rebels claim they shot down Syrian jet
Shelling haunts Syrian family
Syrians being tossed off buildings?

Saudi King Abdullah said a year ago that there was "no justification" for the Syrian crackdown. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be sending arms and assistance to the Syrian rebels, while the United States -- a leading ally of both countries -- has been providing nonlethal assistance.

More: What options are left in Syria?


Syria dominated Lebanon for much of its independence and kept troops there until 2005. Now many fear its civil war threatens to upset the careful sectarian balance of Lebanese politics.

Syria and Iran support Hezbollah, the anti-Israel Shiite militia that has become a powerful force in Lebanese society. But a large segment of the Lebanese population supports the rebels, and 36,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon since Bashar al-Assad's government launched its crackdown on opposition in 2011, according to U.N. figures.

In addition, Lebanon still hosts more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars -- and tensions fueled by that refugee population helped spark the civil war that wracked the country from 1975 to 1990.

More: Clashes in Lebanon on 'Syria Street'


Already facing intense pressure from sanctions aimed at making it halt its production of nuclear fuel, Tehran is strongly backing longtime allies in Damascus. As the leading Shiite power, it's solidly behind al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.

And the alliance with Syria allows Iran to project power from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, not only through Syria but via the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls Syria "a keystone" for Iran.

"There is sort of a cold war taking place between the two sides," Tabler told CNN in May. "I think you can see that playing out in terms of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey clearly on the side of the opposition in Syria, while the Iranians are strongly backing the regime. What's at stake is larger than what's within Syria's borders."

More: What's Iran getting out of al-Assad support?


NATO member Turkey is hosting Syrian opposition groups and more than 50,000 refugees. It's a vital link for the opposition, which brings in opposition fighters and weapons via Turkey.

Turkey, meanwhile, has built up forces on its border after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet over the Mediterranean in June. The United States and Turkey are developing contingency plans for the possible collapse of al-Assad's government, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said.

And the Turks, who have battled Kurdish separatists in their southeast for decades, fear that movement may gain a foothold amid a power vacuum in Syria. The separatist Kurdistan Workers Party raised the movement's flag over several ethnic Kurdish communities along the border, raising alarms in Ankara.


In the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria amid sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites and a persistent insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion of 2003. American commanders blamed Syria for allowing fighters to pass through its territory and into Iraq to fight U.S. troops.

Now, Syrian refugees are starting to take shelter in Iraq -- about 10,000 at the latest count -- and Western powers fear jihadist groups such as al Qaeda are moving across the porous border to battle al-Assad's forces. The Iraqi government, now dominated by Shiite parties, is still battling the fundamentalist Sunni jihadists.

Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1616 GMT (0016 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.