The next phase of a seven-year conflict has begun.
If the coming defeat of ISIS and rebel forces in Syria was supposed to bring an end to the seven-year conflict there, no one told Iran, Israel, Turkey, Russia, or the United States.
Consider the stunning events that have occurred in the last three weeks alone: Last month, Turkey, with Russian approval, launched a military offensive in northwestern Syria against Kurdish fighters it views as terrorists and America views as counterterrorism allies. Last week, the United States killed numerous Russian mercenaries who were advancing on a U.S.-Kurdish base in eastern Syria. Last weekend, Israel intercepted an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace and struck Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria, prompting Syria to shoot down an Israeli fighter jet and Russia to reportedly pressure the Israelis into holding their return fire—for the time being at least.
This isn’t just another spasm of violence in a seemingly never-ending war. This is about confrontation between the world’s two largest military powers, America and Russia; between two NATO members, America and Turkey; and between sworn enemies, Israel and Iran. “There is something different about this,” said Faysal Itani, an expert on the Syrian conflict at the Atlantic Council. “It’s never been as much of an international war as it has now become. … I know it’s always been portrayed as that, but that was never really true.”
“We’re moving from the Syrian Civil War to the Syrian War,” just as Lebanon’s civil war morphed into an international contest over Lebanese territory in the 1970s and ’80s, argued Andrew Tabler, a Syria-watcher at the Washington Institute.
Previous international flare-ups in the conflict, such as Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane that entered Turkish airspace, or America’s bombing of a Syrian air base over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, occurred in the context of the civil war, Itani told me. With the exception of Israel, every foreign actor involved in Syria picked a side in the struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition to his regime. Now Assad, propped up by Iran and Russia, has prevailed over the opposition. But none of these foreign actors is satisfied with the status quo. As a result, each is probing how far it can go in securing its interests—often quite literally, as with Russia, the United States, and their various allies tussling over territory along the banks of the Euphrates River.
“The question left is a) who controls what in terms of territory and … b) who is allowed to get away with what,” Itani said. “What are the things [each party] can and can’t accept? What are the risks they’re willing to take? These are not things that the governments can sit down and decide unilaterally. They have to test the other side out.”
“The Syrian war has now been outsourced,” said Christopher Phillips, a Syria scholar at Queen Mary University of London. “The decision-makers are now not really Syrians, perhaps with the exception of Assad.” Foreign involvement in the civil war first took the form of “diplomatic support, then it was economic support, then it was material support for fighters, then it was fighting themselves directly. … And I don’t see why that shouldn’t continue.”
Turkey, for example, isn’t willing to accept the entrenchment of a U.S.-supported Kurdish militia, which the Turkish government associates with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, right across its border. The United States seems determined to hold ground in Syria to prevent the resurgence of terrorist groups and frustrate Iran’s plans to extend its power across the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel shares America’s goal of countering Iran, particularly at its border with Syria.
Russia, meanwhile, is bent on preserving a friendly government in Damascus and a military presence on the Mediterranean, while casting itself as a global power player on par with America. The Iranians—currently “the single-most influential player” in Syria—are “trying to establish a long-term strategic military infrastructure in [Syria], build missile-production facilities, move precision-guided munitions,” Itani said. Both nations “are upset that the United States is not departing the country,” Tabler said.