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.
Phillips pointed to Turkey’s military campaign in the Kurdish north as the most consequential recent development. “Of the four forces that were on the board in the Syrian Civil War—Assad, the rebels, ISIS, and the Kurds—two of those, ISIS and the rebels, have either been destroyed or neutralized, leaving the Kurds and Assad left,” he noted. Turkey’s intervention has weakened the Kurds and the Kurdish alliance with the United States, which might explain why Russian mercenaries and other forces allied to Assad felt emboldened to march on the U.S.-Kurdish base in eastern Syria last week.
Ultimately, however, Turkey and Russia aren’t going to go to war with the United States over Syria, Tabler said. Accidents are possible, but the Trump administration “so far has shown that they can be precise in how they intervene in Syria and they don’t get sucked in.” The most likely conflict to spiral out of control, according to Tabler, is the one between Israel and Iran or its surrogates. (Israel fought a war with Iran’s premier proxy force, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, in 2006.) If the fighting “takes place in Lebanon, there’s a chance for major escalation involving surface-to-surface missiles and other things,” he predicted. “If it takes place in Syria, it’s a different environment: not so many missiles, more land and air action, [with] some risk to Israeli aircraft.” (Israel has conducted roughly 100 strikes in Syria since the civil war began, with few repercussions until this past weekend.)
“It’s all but inevitable that there will be an engagement between the Israelis and the Iranians,” said Itani. Assad will eventually seek to recapture territory in southwestern Syria, bringing his Iranian allies to Israel’s border. The Israelis appear to have lost faith in the Russians to restrain Assad and Iran from making such moves, he noted. “There’s not going to be [an Israeli] ground invasion of Syria,” Itani added. But Israel could chip away at Iran’s military capability with air strikes, or “either seize a bit of territory [in southern Syria] or get somebody to seize territory on their behalf.”
Phillips recalled that when Turkey shot down the Russian jet in 2015, Russia retaliated with economic sanctions that proved effective because the two countries had close economic ties. Iran and Israel don’t have many non-military levers to pull in the event of a clash, increasing the likelihood that they resort to tit-for-tat military force.
One explanation for why the Syrian war has escalated so dramatically in recent weeks is that “as wars come to their end, they’re often at their most violent,” Phillips said, noting how casualties soared in Lebanon in 1989, the last year of that nation’s 15-year war. “It’s when the tectonic plates are beginning to shift that people suddenly scramble around to try to consolidate and maximize their gains before any peace settlement comes.”
But another explanation is that we’re not even close to the “1989” stage of the Syrian war. Itani observed that the outcome of the Lebanese Civil War, which erupted in 1975, was “essentially decided” by 1976, “when it became clear that the Palestinians were not going to be able to overthrow the Christian-dominated state [and] that the Syrians in the end were going to be the shot-callers. … But there were a series of other wars, mostly caused by the Syrians and the Israelis and Iran and Iraq, that took us all the way to 1990, to find a settlement that only happened because [Syria] imposed its will on 90 percent of the country and the other 10 percent went to Israel.” The bulk of the conflict was “a war over spoils. It wasn’t a war deciding the shape and character of the country.”
The Syrian conflict, by comparison, is much more difficult to resolve, because “Syria is partitioned by foreign powers, and there are a lot of them, and they’re all pretty powerful, and many of them have a border with Syria,” Itani said. (Syria borders five countries, Lebanon just two.) Compounding the challenge is that these foreign powers have staked out “irreconcilable positions.” Iran and Israel “cannot want the same thing in Syria,” while “Turkey cannot accept a [Kurdish]-run statelet on its border.” The United States is staying in Syria “to keep ISIS out, which could take forever for all I know, and to push back against the Iranians in the region, which is another agenda the Iranians cannot accept. … And then on top of all that you have Bashar al-Assad, who wants to retake his country and reconstitute his regime, and that can’t happen either. I don’t see anything remotely resembling grounds for a settlement in this country. No way.”
“I can’t think of a historical parallel, in the Middle East at least, with so many powerful external actors directly involved,” said Phillips in regard to Syria. Going forward, “I would expect more conflict but [fewer] question marks about who’s going to rule in Syria.” In his view, the answer is clearly trending in the direction of Russia and Iran, which have made the biggest investments in the war. “They are not going to walk away from this.”
The Syrian war, Tabler told me, “could go on for a very long time.”