Spillover of the Arab Spring

The 2011 uprisings have pulverized several Arab societies and brought the thrones of Arab leaders tumbling down. Some countries are passing through a delicate transition phase (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya); others are still engaged in a protracted fight with repressive regimes (e.g. Syria). Yet, Yemen remains in state of limbo. The political compromise in Yemen stipulated that the authoritarian regime surrender power, but kept the family in dominance of the military elite forces. Thus, the country is bayn al raja’a wa alkhawf—that is to say, it is between hope and foreboding.

One could safely extrapolate from the prevailing conditions that upheaval is rife in all of the Arab Spring countries; this state of affairs obviously has political, security, and economic implications for neighboring countries. For now, the most deleterious and palpable spillover effects mainly emanate out of Libya and Syria.

The Syrian uprising is undermining the stability of a fragile neighbor: Lebanon; it has exacerbated sectarian cleavages in that country. Hezbollah and its allies, including the Arab Democratic Party (Alawite) are siding with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; whereas, the political alliance led by Saad Hariri (Christian, Sunni Muslims, and Druze) sympathize with the struggle of the Syrian people to rid Syria of dictatorship.

Kidnapping and occasional exchanges of mortar fire between the Alawite and Sunni militias in the city of Tripoli in north Lebanon take place. Analysts in Lebanon believe that the Assad regime is deliberately igniting these clashes to regionalize the conflict and thereby alleviate the pressure on Damascus. In other words, the regime seeks to portray the conflict as regional rather than struggle of the people for freedom and democracy in Syria.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that the crisis in Syria will be amenable to a resolution without tangible international pressure; on the contrary, the Syrian “crisis is escalating,” as Kofi Annan, the joint envoy, said in a statement to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on June 7: “The country is becoming polarized and more radicalized Syria’s neighbors are increasingly worried about the threat of spillover,” he added.

One could surmise that as long as the horrific developments in Syria continue, sectarian tensions and fighting in Lebanon will also rise. As a matter of fact, reports indicate that the Syrian Free Army has already established, with the apparent assistance of Lebanese allies, a “safety zone” in northern Lebanon from which weapons are now smuggled to Syria. Damascus has warned Beirut that it will not tolerate the presence of safe havens for “terrorists” in Lebanon.

The Assad regime is contemplating sending the Syrian army to eliminate the “threat,” but it is dithering. The problem is that loyalist forces are currently stretched too thin. Sending forces from the regular army, it is feared, might lead to significant defections.

To get its way, Syria could strangle Lebanon at will. Being the only land route for agricultural produce to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Syria has closed its borders with Lebanon whenever its interest dictated; it will certainly not shy away from doing so again.

On the other hand, the spillover to Jordan, a stronger state with a more cohesive society, has been more manageable. Jordan has now approximately one hundred thousand Syrian refugees.

It is noteworthy to mention that King Abdullah of Jordan was the first Arab leader to call on President Assad to resign; its position now has somehow mellowed.

Jordan is benefiting from the economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime by the international community. Trade between Amman and Damascus has significantly picked up.

Similarly, Syria’s trade with Iraq is on the increase; Baghdad and Tehran are providing the Assad regime with the financial means to continue the policy of oppression. Barely two years ago, Baghdad complained to the Security Council about Damascus’ complacency around the infiltration of jihadists to Iraq. Today, however, the intelligence services of the two countries are coordinating and planning strategies with regards to the jihadists. Kofi Anan, on his statement to the UNGA on June 7, said that some “deadly bombing is indicative of the presence of third party.” This third party is none other than the al-Qaeda-affiliated, Iraq-based, Al-Nusra Front.

On the other hand, Turkish trade with Syria is on the decline. Turkish traders are complaining about shrinking market opportunities in Syria and Syrian security forces are harassing Turkish truck drivers ferrying goods to Syria. The political and security spillover is, however, much more worrisome.

Damascus, in apparent retaliation for Turkey’s courtship of the opponents of the Assad regime, is now hosting elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a matter of fact, armed PKK fighters crossed the borders to the province of Hattay and attacked a naval base killing six Turkish sailors. Turkish officials immediately suspected that the attackers infiltrated from the Syrian side of the border. The tit for tat will probably not end there; it might dangerously escalate, drawing other regional powers to the fray. The possibility of miscalculation, in the absence of diplomatic relation, will be compounded.


The spillover from Libya is devastating.

The demise of the hated Qaddafi regime and the ensuing anarchy in Libya is wrecking havoc in the Sahel region. No country is, however, more affected by the turmoil than the now-truncated Mali.

Veteran Tuareg fighters of the Qaddafi regime whose last stand against Libyan revolutionary forces was in the southern city of Bani Walid. Emboldened by their dazzling military arsenal, looted from Libyan military barracks, they have returned to northern Mali and declared war on the Bamako government and defeated its corrupt army.

The current Tuareg revolt is, indeed, the fourth since Mali gained its independence from France in 1960, but it is the first revolt in which they demanded separation. It is true that government control of northern Mali was tenuous at best; it was an area in which jihadists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Nigeria’s Boko Haram and marauders of different stripes were operating almost unimpeded under prevailing conditions. Fighters of the National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), better armed and trained and better led, managed to easily displace the Malian army and declare the “Azawad State” in northern Mali.

Shortly thereafter, the MNLA was displaced from Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu and other towns by a more radical jihadist movement called Ansar Eddine, which is a close ally of the AQIM. It has the wherewithal that the Tuareg movement lacks, namely money. A new alliance, sponsored by AQIM, was consummated whereby Ansar Eddine will no longer oppose an independent state in the north and the MNLA will not insist on a secular state. Balance of power and the nature of the prevailing alliance between militants in northern Mali compelled the MNLA to temporarily accommodate the jihadists’ demand for an Islamic state.

Certainly, resentment among Tuareg fighters over giving up their dream for a secular state of their own will be a cause for future military conflict with Ansar Eddine’s fighters.

As a consequence of the upheaval in northern Mali, streams of refugees—approximately 20,000 —fled to the Niger, which is already reeling from problems associated with returnees from Libya. The country, deprived of badly needed remittances, was already in economic straits.

Niamey was concerned lest an influx of refugees from northern Mali could reignite Tuareg grievances in the Niger, which have already been managed and defused by a policy of inclusion. Niamey has other worries: smuggled weapons from Libya.

Niger’s president Mahamadou Issoufou, told an audience in Geneva “there have been concerns for security because weapons have been circulating in the country and were concerned those will fall into the wrong hands”.

The government of Niger also told a UN mission that in one border operation its forces captured 645 kilogram of Semtex explosive and 445 detonators.

Economically, the crisis in Libya has led to massive return of African migrant workers to their countries in the Sahel region, depriving 3 million poor people of the remittances necessary for subsistence. The recent UN interagency mission to the Sahel reported that “States in the region are already confronting a vast development challenges that predate the Libyan conflict…they are concerned that outpouring of returnees from Libya, including fighters and workers either from the regular Libyan armed forces or mercenaries previously employed by Qaddafi, could further strain national resources, reignite conflicts and upset carefully balanced sociopolitical dynamics, which could exacerbate the terrorist threat.”

Tunisia was the country that ushered in the 2011 Arab Uprisings; it was equally the main inspiration. Interestingly, however, no spillover from Tunisia to other countries has been discerned. On the contrary, it is a recipient of Salafist spillover from Libya.

In February, the Tunisian army engaged a group of Tunisian Salafisst who fought with the Qaddafi forces and returned to Tunisia well trained and armed. The Salafist in Tunisia are pent on reversing social advances, particularly ones related to Tunisian women, and are agitating against what they call radhilah—vice in society. A branch of the Salafists coalesced into a group called Ansar-ul-Sharia, mirrored on the Yemeni al-Qaeda-affiliated group.

Despite harassing people and espousing extremist views, they operate unmolested because some in the predominant party in the governing coalition, Ennahda, are sympathetic to the views of the Salafist. The issue of how to deal with the extreme Salafists is threatening to unravel the cohesion of Ennahda; it is, however, expected to deal with this issue in its next national conference.

Spillover to other countries is not endemic to all the Arab countries that witnessed the 2011 uprisings. No one can with certainty speculate why that was the case, but there are indications why some countries managed to contain the tremors of the revolt to the confines of their territories while others were not as successful.

It seems to be the case that the longer and more violent the uprising, the more likely that state institutions, including the armed forces, will succumb to exhaustion and collapse. Subsequently, states lose effective control over its territories. This was the case in Libya, Yemen, and it seems Syria is now heading in the same direction.

Likewise, weak neighbors are prone to catch the brush fires of the spillover. This is the case in African countries of the Sahel. Lebanon, on the other hand, is economically prosperous but lack strong social cohesion.

Abdullah Alsaidi is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute and was the Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations from 2002 until his resignation in March 2011.

About the photo: A street protest in Yemen. IRIN/Obinna Anyadike