Syrian Spillover

An interactive map tracking the internationalization of Syria's civil war.

Click the map above to enlarge and expand the flags, which highlight instances of a widening conflict.

Last week, on March 25, unnamed foreign and U. S. government officials revealed to the Associated Press that the United States has been secretly training Syrian rebels in Jordan, and the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence services facilitated large arms purchases for rebel forces by Saudi Arabia. It marked a milestone in the militarization of Syria’s bloody civil war: Barely a week before, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, "[T]he United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others."

The disclosures are a departure from public U.S. policy on Syria, which has attempted to regulate the distribution of arms through a "security coordination committee" without getting embroiled in the conflict. But the U.S. training program and role in procuring arms for rebels are just the latest instances of the internationalization of Syria’s civil war.

In this map, we’ve tried to track some of the international incidents and influences of the Syrian civil war. It is not comprehensive, and suggestions are welcome. It shows an uprising that increasingly travels like an electric current across filaments of ethnic and sectarian identity, regardless of borders. As the power vacuum grows, so will the opportunities for foreign countries to interject themselves further into the conflict. 

As Kerry was giving an explicit green light for countries to arm the opposition on March 18, Syrian warplanes crossed into Lebanon, firing on what President Bashar al-Assad’s government believed to be rebel positions near the town of Arsal. It was the second time Syrian jets had struck the area. "These kinds of violations of sovereignty are absolutely unacceptable," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters later that day.

Syria’s war was almost never limited to Syria. Within the first months of fighting, solidarity protests in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, launched by the city’s Sunni community, prompted skirmishes in the streets with the city’s sizeable Alawite minority. The clashes have continued in fits and starts ever since.

As the war gathered momentum, foreign fighters flooded across borders into Syria — Hezbollah units from Lebanon, revolutionaries fresh from battle in Libya, small-time crooks fleeing jail sentences in Saudi Arabia, jihadists from al Qaeda in Iraq, and even an assortment of adventure-seekers. Moscow and Tehran kept supply lines open to the Assad government, as the prices of black market arms rose in Syria’s neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia and Qatar started directing arms to rebels through Croatia. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that over one million Syrians have registered, or are in the process of registering, as refugees, though the actual number of people displaced by the conflict may be much larger.

Syria is the intersection of many colliding interests in the Middle East: with so many factions and eager foreign patrons it seems doomed to fragment — much like neighboring Lebanon did, during its 15-year civil war — drawing in neighbors as it implodes.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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