The War in Syria: Advancing Toward a New Stage?
The war in Syria that began seven years ago is now on the brink of a new stage, as reflected in recent weeks by incidents on the various fronts. Inevitably, the complex fabric of interests among the many elements involved has resulted in conflicts and has renewed the sense of "all versus all." During the events between Israel, Syria, and Iran on February 10, 2018, Russia worked to stop the escalation from becoming a violent round of fighting. The United States seemed at once present but absent; its voice was not heard during the events, although in retrospect it backed Israel's use of force. However, it will be difficult to stabilize the situation in Syria on all fronts without deep and genuine coordination between the United States and Russia. For its part, Israel should continue its strategic dialogue with Russia. At the same time, it must promote a joint strategy with the United States to halt Iranian influence, including blocking the eastern border between Syria and Iraq, in an effort to stop the establishment of the Iranian corridor to Syria. Another goal is to deter Tehran from continuing its consolidation in Syria by increasing its fears that this will lead to clashes between Iran and American forces.
The war in Syria that began seven years ago is now on the brink of a new stage, as reflected in recent weeks by incidents on the various fronts: "the day of battle" between Israel, Syria, and Iran (the penetration of the Iranian drone that was shot down in Israeli territory, followed by the attack by the Israeli Air Force in Syrian territory, and the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 warplane by the Syrian air defense system); the American attack in the Deir ez-Zor region that led to the deaths of over a hundred fighters linked to the Assad regime, including combat soldiers from a Russian mercenary unit; and Turkey's Operation Olive Branch in the Kurdish region of Afrin, which is intended to limit Kurdish influence in northern Syria. Against the background of these developments, the conduct of the war and the balance of forces to date should be reviewed in order to understand the implications of recent events.
From its earliest stages, the war in Syria became a local, regional, and global playing field. The weakness of the Assad regime and the large numbers of elements involved in the war provided fertile ground for foreign interests to further their agendas, in Syria in particular and in the Middle East in general. Iran and Hezbollah were the first to stand alongside the Assad regime in 2011 to help him survive first through Hezbollah and later through the Quds Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Shiite militias, recruited in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. At various stages they joined in the fighting alongside the Assad regime against the different rebel organizations, which in turn received support from Sunni Arab states.
It soon became clear that the Sunni rebels had difficulty uniting around a common cause, and they split into dozens of sub-groups that were unable to form a critical mass against the Assad regime. These factions even fought with each other for local hegemony. The Islamic State (formerly ISIS) was the dominant element in the radical Sunni camp, and its expansion and consolidation in Iraq and Syria in 2014 was what led the United States (which had hitherto refrained from intervening) to take military action in the framework of an international coalition, and to attack Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements. In late 2015, when the survival of the Assad regime was at serious risk, Russia began its military intervention and formed a pro-Assad coalition with Iran and its proxies. Within a year, this action had clearly swung the balance in favor of Assad and severely weakened the rebel forces. The conquest of Aleppo in December 2016 was the decisive event that marked the change in the balance of forces.
The United States strategy of "Islamic State First" pushed other conflicts aside. In November 2017, the Islamic State was defeated following the conquest of its two centers of power, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Assad remained in power, controlling the large population centers, although not all of Syria. At the same time, Russia worked vigorously to launch a process of political settlement in Syria, taking account of the balance of powers in the area – and including the formation of "de-escalation zones" in enclaves that were not controlled by forces supporting Assad. It emerged that the main obstacle to a political settlement was the arbitrary and resolute nature of the conditions that had sparked the civil war in the first place and the enmities that perpetuated it, including the involvement of outside actors.
While the pro-Assad coalition tried to project the image of victory and the return of power to Assad, before moving to the next stage of political settlement under the auspices of Russia and Iran, violent incidents erupted throughout Syria. In the current situation, all parties with an interest in Syria, and particularly the external forces, are trying to maintain their assets and achieve more influence. These conflicting interests have renewed the sense of "all versus all" and a new stage in the Syrian civil war.
Before the Russian intervention, the United States provided financial and military support to "moderate" rebel groups, based on the presumption – which proved mistaken – that they would fight the Islamic State and be a secular, moderate alternative to the Assad regime. However, it emerged that among the range of rebel groups supported by the CIA, the Kurdish forces were the most committed and effective fighting force, and the cooperation with them was the best. Turkey, fearing the establishment of a broader Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, which could affect the aspirations of Kurds in Turkey itself, took a stance against the Kurds and even supported the other rebel groups, including Salafi jihadist groups. The aim was to weaken the Kurdish fighters and damage the links between the Kurdish underground in Turkey (PKK) and the leading Kurdish group in Syria (YPG).
Inevitably, this complex fabric of interests resulted in conflicts. For example, the United States is supporting the Kurdish force in northeast Syria in order to clean up enclaves of Islamic State remnants and to prevent their recovery and renewed control of the territory, and also to block the Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Turkey – a member of NATO and officially an ally of the United States – opposes any American move that strengthens the Kurds. Behind the scenes, Russia is stoking the fire, giving Turkey the green light to military action designed to take control of the Afrin region in north Syria, now under Kurdish control, while disregarding the Assad regime, which sees this as an attack on its sovereignty. In this way Russia is challenging Washington, which must choose between support for the Kurds and its relations with Turkey. At the same time, the US is trying to prevent the pro-Assad forces, and particularly the Iranian proxies, from taking over the territory north and east of the Euphrates River, which is under Kurdish control. For this reason, last week, the Americans were called on to assist the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), who were attacked by pro-Assad forces around Deir ez-Zor.
Perhaps most of all Russia represents the political-military juggling acts in Syria, maneuvering between pounding rebel targets from the air and promoting diplomatic and political moves to achieve a political settlement; and balancing between needing the Iranian proxies for ground fighting, and limiting Iran's future influence in Syria. All this is underway as Moscow forges double and triple alliances in the Syrian morass. Regarding Israel, on the one hand Moscow maintains a strategic dialogue with Israel and gives it room to operate in Syrian air space, which also serves Russian interests of limiting Iranian influence in Syria. At the same time, however, Russia turns a blind eye to the Iranian drones sent to penetrate Israeli airspace from the T-4 airfield deep in Syria, where there is a Russian military presence, which increases friction between Israel and Iran. Moreover, Russia provides close advice to the Syrian air defense system, which proved able bring down an Israeli aircraft operating in Syrian airspace, thus limiting Israel's operational freedom to maneuver.
This situation, where the interests of the various actors clash, ensures continued friction and hostilities. Assad is expected to continue working to extend his hold in the country, and in this framework the pro-Assad coalition is currently involved in a large scale military effort to take control of the suburbs of Damascus. Turkey will try to prevent the rise of an autonomous Kurdish region in its borders and establish a security zone under its control along its border with Syria; the Kurds will fight to defend the territory they gained through fierce fighting and heavy losses. For its part, Iran wants to reap the fruits of its investments in Syria and the Assad regime, and be the most important influence in Syria, which it sees as a protectorate. This means the establishment of Iranian weapon assembly infrastructures and the presence of local militias under Iranian influence. Israel is vehemently opposed to this and is working to prevent a permanent Iran and Hezbollah military presence along its northern border. The United States wants to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State in the power vacuum created in the areas that were formerly under its control. For that reason, the Pentagon believes that that they have no choice but to continue their military intervention and widen their control of the border between Syria and Iraq, and even set up a border guard force based on its local partners. Russia wants to preserve the existing regime and its growing influence in Syria, and thereby improve its standing in the Middle East and the international arena.
During the escalation between Israel, Syria, and Iran on February 10, 2018, following the events surrounding the Iranian drone incident and the downed Israeli plane, Russia worked to stop the incidents from becoming a violent round of fighting. The United States seemed at once present but absent; its voice was not heard during the events, although in retrospect it backed Israel's use of force. However, it will be difficult to stabilize the situation in Syria on all fronts without deep and genuine coordination between the United States and Russia. Therefore, Washington would do well to make it clear to Moscow that Iran set a trap for Russia by sending the drone into Israel from an airfield used by Russia, deep in Syria, and possibly also by launching the counter-attack against the military headquarters shared by the SDF and the American forces around Deir ez-Zor. In both incidents Iran crossed a red line and endangered Russian forces in Syria.
Implications for Israel
It is recommended that Israel continue its strategic dialogue with Russia, at least for damage control. At the same time, it must promote a joint strategy with the United States to halt Iranian influence, including blocking the eastern border between Syria and Iraq, in an effort to stop the establishment of the Iranian corridor to Syria. Another goal is to deter Tehran from continuing its consolidation in Syria by increasing its fears that this will lead to clashes between Iran and American forces.
After taking control of the Damascus suburbs, it appears that the next objective for the pro-Assad coalition will be southern Syria, starting with the opposition enclave in Dara'a. Therefore, there is a need for threefold operational cooperation between Jordan, Israel, and the United States, including a plan for re-arming and training rebel forces in southern Syria (particularly the Free Syrian Army), which the United States stopped supporting in spite of Jordanian reservations. This support must be renewed so that the rebels can serve as a wedge against the further spread of forces operated by Iran in the Dara'a-Quneitra space. At the same time, Israel can utilize its contacts with Russia and the United States to increase their cooperation and work toward a political settlement in Syria, in return for protecting the interests of Jordan and Israel, both United States allies.