The idea that the Syrian conflict was “winding down” was so widely believed that even sober-thinking analysts found it difficult to challenge. But what a difference a week can make. The war, instead, has reached a new peak.
Within the space of a few days, Syrian rebels shot down a Russian jet, Kurdish fighters downed a Turkish helicopter and pro-government groups attacked US-backed forces.
Meanwhile, the United States killed tens of pro-Assad fighters and more than a dozen Russian citizens, the Syrian army shot down an Israeli F-16, and Israel downed an Iranian drone and launched its largest air strikes on Syria in decades.
All that happened against the background of intensive regime attacks on opposition pockets in Ghouta and Idlib, which led to the death of an estimated 1,000 civilians in one week alone. No, war in Syria is far from winding down. Instead, the last week has demonstrated how it has become a lot more complicated.
The mistake of that hitherto highly optimistic outlook rested on its proponents’ sole focus on internal Syrian dynamics, ignoring the emerging secondary conflicts between regional and international powers over the ruins of the country. Foreign powers now dictate the form of the war, according to their own priorities.
How that all began was when the nature of the relationship between local groups – both government and rebel – and their foreign patrons altered, with the effect being to put the latter in the driver’s seat in the conflict. The most salient evidence of this came when local groups were pressured to shift their priorities and join in a race between the US and Russia to recapture territories held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in north-eastern Syria.
In the meantime, the lack of willingness and support from the rebels’ backers – because of shifting interests in foreign capitals – made the survival of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime an unchallenged reality. This has transformed an armed rebellion meant to effect political transition into a fight simply for survival by the rebels.
Seen this way, the war is no longer about securing Syria’s future; it is about entrenching the old regime and the great contest of big powers on the plains and in the mountains of Syria.
The end of the military campaign against ISIS was, indeed, the final and decisive factor in this altered environment. Although ISIS still retains pockets of control and is capable of launching asymmetric attacks across the country, the group has lost the vast majority of its territory.
Many foreign powers in Syria were thus happy to announce victory over the terrorist group and to adopt new policies accordingly. Consequently, the end of the war against ISIS has ushered in secondary conflicts among foreign powers, which have sought to enforce and/or expand their zones of influence.
For the US, this has revolved around maintaining its presence in north-eastern Syria to stabilise captured areas, improve its leverage for a political transition and contain Iranian influence. The attacks recently by pro-regime forces against US troops along the Euphrates River, in turn, were aimed at minimising that very US influence and stripping it of the resources it controlled.
Although the exact make-up of the attacking force remains unclear, it is widely assumed that both Russia and Iran were directly involved. While this incident was not completely driven by foreign actors, the support and encouragement of foreign parties were what allowed it to occur. Just as importantly, it demonstrates a contest between outside interests taking place on Syrian soil.
Away from the north-east, the country is now divided into areas of influence between the key external powers. Some have a physical military presence in their areas (namely, the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran), while other areas are under symbolic influence (namely, by Israel). Attempts to change the de facto front lines of those areas can be made either by mutual consent or force. And they are being so attempted. For example, the ongoing Turkish-led operation against Kurdish forces in Afrin is being conducted with the blessing of Russia, which pulled back its troops and lifted the enforcement of its no-fly zone. The battle is driven entirely by Ankara’s desire to eliminate the perceived threat posed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party along the Syria-Turkey border. Rebels taking part in the Afrin operation are widely perceived as proxies working on behalf of Turkish interests.
And on another front, consider the clashes involving Israel. These incidents between Israel and Iran-backed forces have erupted because Teheran has been attempting to forcibly expand its influence in southern Syria along the Israel-Syria disengagement lines. Israel does not have a military presence inside Syria and has clearly designated its front lines as no-go zones for pro-Iran militias. The confrontations began after an Iranian drone penetrated Israel’s airspace. Israel retaliated by attacking the base from which the drone was launched. In response, the Syrian regime then downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. That then provoked Israel’s biggest air strikes on Syria in decades. Israel, which has enjoyed a relatively quiet front line with Syria for decades, is unlikely to have wanted to foment trouble for itself. This implies that Iran may have been behind the recent clashes.
The Syrian war has long been a proxy conflict motivated by internal Syrian dynamics. But recent developments illustrate that it has been transformed into more direct war between foreign powers hoping to create a new order in Syria.
These externally driven conflicts will unlikely provoke all-out, direct confrontations between foreign powers, but the deepening direct involvement of these actors and their attempts to play off each other for more leverage means confrontations will continue.
In short, the external powers which had earlier been entrusted with the responsibility of ending the Syrian conflict are now the ones fuelling it.