ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The conflict in Syria is, of course, of primary concern to the Syrians themselves. But it's of special concern to the country's neighbors, too. Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center joined us to talk about a couple of those neighbors, starting with the one that does not support the insurgency, Iraq and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: The Iraqi prime minister has been a fairly stalwart supporter of Bashar al-Assad throughout this crisis. And it might seem a puzzle why. I think, though, that the challenge for Iraq and Iraq's leadership in the Syrian crisis actually encapsulates a lot of the problems that Syria's crisis problems poses for the region.
Maliki himself, of course, is Shia and he's right now very dependent on the Shia base and on his relationship with Iran. So that's tended to make him more supportive of Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shi'ism.
And the sectarian dimension of the Syrian crisis is causing regional actors to line about on various sides - the Saudi and Qatari governments being Sunni powers supporting the armed opposition and the Iran and Maliki supporting Bashar al-Assad.
Maliki's others concerned though is the possibility that this crisis might set off renewed vigor for jihadists in Syria and, unfortunately, in Iraq. We've seen already just in the last week an uptick in violence, some really terrible bombings in Iraq. And that suggest the potential for Syria to become a new sort of raison d'etre for jihadis in the region or even for Al-Qaida.
SIEGEL: Do we know and what form Iraq's support of President Assad has taken, apart from declarations of support? Is there material assistance either passing through Iraq or from Iraq going to Syria?
WITTES: I am not aware of any direct evidence in that regard. Certainly there is a lot of smuggling across that border. And earlier, when Iraq was in turmoil, there was a lot of allegations by the Iraqi government that jihadis were flowing into Iraq from Syria. More recently, there have been indications that the flow might be in the other direction.
SIEGEL: Another neighbor of Syria's, perhaps the country most closely connected to Syria is Lebanon. What are the stakes for Lebanon in the Syrian conflict?
WITTES: In many ways, I think Lebanon illustrates the worst that could come out of the Syrian crisis. Lebanon, as you know, suffered its own horrific civil war among serious religious communities that went on for a number of years. Regional actors sort of used Lebanon as a playground, a proxy for their own conflicts. And the worst-case scenario is, in fact, that Syria could suffer the same fate; that it could become an arena for a proxy war between the Shiite Iran and the Sunni states of the Arab Gulf.
SIEGEL: It seems self-evident that everybody neighboring Syria would prefer to see stability in that country, as opposed to the conflict. Is that true? Are there any neighbors that actually have a stake in there being a conflict in Syria?
WITTES: It's clear that the longer the violence goes on and the more deeply entrenched it becomes, the more that instability has negative implications for the neighbors. But in the nearer term, there may be some interest in seeing, for example, the sectarian dimension of this conflict take hold.
Remember that there's a broader conflict going on in the Middle East between Iran and the Arab States for dominance. And so, having an arena of sectarian conflict in Syria allows each of those sides to sort of stake out some ground, mobilize their own publics around their position on the broader regional issues.
SIEGEL: Tamara Wittes, thank you very much for talking with us.
WITTES: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Tamara Cofman Wittes is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.