Will Marshall is a 1st year International Relations undergraduate student at King’s College London and MENA Editor for International Relations Today.
As the Syrian Civil War entered its seventh gruelling year – some audacious statesmen, journalists and commentators had tentatively begun to suggest that the bloody conflict, which has claimed as many as 470,000 lives and involved, in some form or another, almost every regional player in the wider Middle East was beginning to draw to a close. The dramatic collapse of the so-called Islamic State , which seemed unstoppable at its zenith just a few years ago, the string of decisive victories by Russian-backed Assad forces and the abandonment of US-led training programmes to the motley Free Syrian Army appeared to suggest that, against the odds, the Arab dictator had finally managed to regain some measure of control over his country. The events of recent weeks however, have brought these claims into serious doubt with the emergence of notable new crisis points pitting the region’s major powers; Turkey, Iran, Israel and of course the Assad Regime directly against one another. This suggests that the war is entering a new and fundamentally distinct phase where Syria acts as the battleground for the region’s myriad geopolitical struggles. This raises the distinct possibility that rather than a gradual wind down in hostilities, we may be about to see yet another dramatic upsurge in violent conflict in the already war-ravaged state, with the potential to transform what has until now been a proxy conflict into a long-feared ‘hot’ war between the region’s main powers.
Until now, the war in Syria has been a story of rapidly shifting alliances and even quicker shifts in territorial control. The concerted effort against ISIS however, which briefly served to unite the conflict’s diverse factions against a common enemy has rather served to consolidate the factions control over their respective zones of influence: The Turkish-backed rebels in the Northwest, US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces in the East and Assad’s regime, with the backing of Russia and Iran increasingly entrenched in the South and West. The result of this being that the front lines of the war are becoming increasingly fixed, with hostilities restricted to intense pockets where the strategic interests of these groups overlap such as Afrin, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. As the battle lines stabilise and the sweeping offensives – which characterised earlier stages of the conflict – become a thing of the past, a hallmark characteristic of the Syrian civil war’s latest stage will be that of steady attrition, with victory going to the party that can hold out the longest and absorb the greatest losses, be they military, civilian or material.
Another trademark of the war’s shifting dynamic is the importance of outside actors in shaping the outcomes of the conflict. Though the war has been marked by external interference since the beginning, with Western powers providing material support to the rebels and Iran to regime forces since at least 2012, Russian airstrikes in support of Assad since 2015 and the reported presence of US, Russian, Turkish and Iranian ground forces at various points throughout the conflict; the extent to which Syrian forces now depend on outside support is unprecedented following seven exhausting years of combat. Rather than a domestic struggle, albeit one in which foreign-sponsored proxies play a key role, more and more it is beginning to look like an international conflict of geopolitical interests played out on Syrian soil. In the words of Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the International Crisis Group ‘Most of the conflicts now have nothing to do with Syria per se. They just happen to be fought there.’
The offensives of recent weeks have done much to illustrate this point. Turkish military offensives, launched in late January have focused on the city of Afrin, a strategically crucial stronghold given its proximity to the Turkish-Syrian border. This is in a bid to oust the Kurdish-dominated YPJ, a group Turkey condemns as a terrorist organisation due to its links to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement responsible for a decades-long insurgency against Turkish control from its de facto jurisdiction over Northern Syria, a situation which naturally poses a key threat to Turkish national security. Such a move, whilst not entirely surprising given Turkey’s traditional enmity towards the Kurds, serves to upset the power alignments of previous months where it had seemed an emerging Russia-Turkey-Iran axis in support of the Assad regime was the best hope for a speedy resolution to the conflict. The Turkish intervention however, turns such calculations on their head with appeals by Kurdish forces to Assad for the protection of the country’s territorial integrity resulting in the deployment of pro-Assad militias to backup Kurdish forces in Afrin according to Syrian State TV, thus making the prospect of a direct confrontation between Turkish and Syrian troops a distinct possibility. Meanwhile, the idea of Turkey gaining a significant foothold in the country serves to upset the interests of the other major regional player in Syria, Iran. Tehran has committed itself to nothing less than achieving a decisive military victory alongside its Syrian ally and increased Turkish penetration into the country raises the prospect of a breakdown in the temporary collaboration between the traditional rivals. More significantly, a continuation of Turkish attacks on the YPJ increases the likelihood of a direct confrontation with the US, its long-term NATO ally – an outcome which would not only have major implications for the power dynamic in the Middle East but for the Atlantic alliance as a whole.
Perhaps more illustrative of the new direction the war in Syria is taking is the furore surrounding the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 Fighter Jet over Syrian territory last month. Israel has, until now steered relatively clear of hostilities in the country. Nevertheless, the recent successes of pro-Assad forces, increasingly dependent on Iranian manpower and material support only serve to bolster Israeli fears of an Iranian arc of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean via pro-Iranian regimes in Baghdad and Damascus as well as proxies acting directly on behalf of the Iranian Government in Syria and Lebanon. Such an outcome is clearly unacceptable to Tel Aviv, with the entrenchment of Iranian proxy militias, not least Hezbollah in so close to the Syrian-Israeli border raising the prospect of a rerun of the 2006 Lebanon War not to mention the possibility of a more generalised conflict between the two arch-rivals. Israeli Prime minister Netanyahu’s fiery speech at the recent Munich Security Conference, in which he likened the current Iranian Regime to Nazi Germany illustrated the seriousness with which such a situation is viewed by Israel. Netanyahu went on to reiterate his ‘red lines’ which, if crossed, would force Israel to respond to proactively, emphasising his commitment to preventing the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence base on Syrian soil. Though it is hard to imagine an all out invasion by Israeli conventional forces, targeted artillery and airstrikes being a far likelier option such situations can escalate rapidly, as Israel’s long history of conflict with its neighbours will testify. With the number of ongoing proxy conflicts in the conflict and the increasing deployment of regular forces to the Syrian quagmire, the prospect of an all out international war between the region’s major powers is more likely than ever.
The growing disengagement of the global powers with the situation in Syria makes such an outcome even more likely. Whilst the Trump Administration has elected to maintain considerable military capacity within the country in support of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces for the time being, his electoral promise to disengage with morale- and resource-sapping conflicts in the Middle East still holds strong, with America’s professed sole objective in Syria being the eradication of IS. That Trump is willing to turn a blind eye to the encroachment of the forces of what the President has previously called a ‘murderous regime’ on the borders of arguably America’s closest ally serves to highlight the degree to which the US has disengaged with the outcome of Syria. Whilst the presence of Russia is considerably more active, with Putin continuing to launch airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime and acting as de facto monitor for the de-escalation zones across the country. Such has been the involvement of Russia in the conflict so far that the nation’s global prestige, geostrategic interests and military credibility are intricately entwined with the success of Assad. Nevertheless, there are signs that Russia too is starting to take a back seat in the conflict with the withdrawal of the main body of Russian ground forces in 2016 and its continued occupation with the creation of de-escalation zones. It seems probable that, having guaranteed a pro-Russian regime in Damascus and continued access to military and naval facilities at Larnaka on the Mediterranean coast Putin seeks to negotiate a gradual exit from the war whilst his military reputation is still intact, increasingly handing over the reins to his regional allies in Tehran and Ankara. Without the restraining influence of the global powers however, there remains far less to deter regional powers from acting ambitiously on their own accord, further raising the potential for an unprecedented escalation. This disengagement of major powers therefore, is likely to represent another hallmark of the new phase of Syria’s war.
What we are seeing in Syria is not the winding down of the conflict that seemed apparent just two months ago, but rather the fundamental transformation of the struggle from a domestic affair in which foreign players support their respective sides via proxies and clandestine means into something altogether distinct – and with a worrying potential for rapid escalation. The amount of territory controlled by forces lacking a major foreign sponsor is shrinking and in those which do the presence of outside actors is increasingly blatant. Though battle lines are solidifying, and conflict seems to be increasingly restricted to small pockets where rival geostrategic aims clash, the stakes involved, at least for the regional powers of the Middle East are on the rise. Syria increasingly resembles a chessboard where the ideological, military and geopolitical struggles for the region’s myriad rivalries are played out – one which offers the makings of an all out conflict to decide the fate of the Middle East.