The recent events on the Syrian battlefield have been dizzying: American clashes with pro-regime forces; Israel’s intensifying airstrikes and the Syrian downing of an Israeli fighter jet; escalating Turkish conflict with Syrian Kurds; all against the backdrop of more intense regime attacks on opposition fighters in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib. As Syria’s civil war is nearing its end game, international fault lines are becoming clearer. Only Russia has the power to halt escalation but it has not chosen its course yet.
The latest developments point out to the chaotic instability characterizing the Syrian civil war. They also highlight the ongoing transformation of the conflict from a battle over the control of state and a theatre for increasingly overt confrontation between external players. The Syrian conflict has long been a proxy conflict for wider interests but, as the domestic battle approaches an end game, Syria risks being subsumed by even more direct international conflicts.
The most visible manifestation of this new era is the intensifying conflict around Iran, which has been more active across Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, in opposition to the US and Israel. The White House has openly embarked on an anti-Iran policy and defended its accompanying long-term, albeit limited, military presence in northeastern Syria (where it is already present due to the anti-ISIS fight). This American policy has been accompanied by a more active posture by the Israelis who have become more worried by the perceived Iranian threat on its northeastern border.
On top of the Tehran-Tel Aviv-Washington axis of tension, there is a separate cycle of external escalation that is also underway. There, the Turkish military forces are intensifying their fight against Syrian Kurds, which is currently Turkey’s number one strategic priority in Syria. Like the US, Turkey’s occupation of a part of Syrian territory is nothing new but the tighter focus is causing wider effects. Turkey’s advance against core Kurdish-held areas costs a heavy price – 10 soldiers were killed in one day at the beginning of February. Importantly, the Turkish anti-Kurd campaign is likely to deepen the protracted conflict across northern Syria, but also within Turkey itself. Moreover, it also risks putting NATO allies in a direct conflict.
Despite being the major military force in Syria, Russia has been largely silent regarding the recent events. Yet, much now depends on Moscow. The Kremlin has downplayed the number of Russian causalities of recent events and tried to stay aside from the confrontations. However, Russia’s ability to talk to all parties to the conflict places it at the core of the problem and solution alike – giving it an important veto power over much of what is happening. Yet, to date, there has been minimal effort to mediate or blunt sharpening fault lines.
‘Syria: New Rules of the Game?’ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)