The recent flare-ups have come suddenly, but the conditions for them were being set soon after protests against the Assad regime in Syria erupted into a full-blown civil war some seven years ago. The conflict quickly sucked in other countries. Iran entered the conflict in 2011 to help prop up Assad’s regime as it faced growing nationwide protests. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that acts as an Iranian proxy, joined in soon afterward, at a point when the regime looked in danger of falling, helping Assad hold off the rebels—some of whom received covert American support. The United States started bombing ISIS and al-Qaeda positions in Syria in 2014. Then in 2015, when Assad’s grip on power appeared to be in peril again, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened on his behalf.
“Putin’s number one operational goal in Syria is to stabilize and prop up the Assad regime, including the return of previously rebel or ISIS held territory under regime control,” Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program, said in an email. “Putin’s strategic goal has been to establish Russia as the key power broker in the Middle East.”
During this same period, while Americans were supporting various rebel groups, the Kurds emerged among the most capable fighting forces in the conflict, but remained a source of mortal fear for Turkey, which had fought a decades-long Kurdish insurgency on its own side of the Syrian border. Turkey viewed the Kurds allied with the U.S. as terrorists, even while it also opposed the Assad regime. Hence Turkey supported other rebel groups, including Islamist ones, fighting the Syrian president.
And then there was ISIS, which in 2014 occupied large parts of Syria and Iraq. The imperative to defeat that group temporarily made the other conflicts a lesser priority for many of the actors involved; the U.S., its allies, and its adversaries all turned much of their firepower on the Islamic State. But by last November, ISIS was largely defeated in Syria, Assad remained in power if not in full control of the country, and the parties to the conflict started calling for a new political solution in Syria. Except none of the conditions that caused the civil war in the first place, or the rivalries that helped perpetuate it, had gone away.
“As Syria enters a dangerous and much more volatile phase, it’s going to be characterized by key stakeholders seeking to stake their hold on the ground, ensure their interests are protected,” Mona Yacoubian, the senior adviser for Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me.
The fact that many of those interests are fundamentally opposed seems to guarantee further conflict. Assad will try to consolidate and expand his hold over the country. Turkey will try not to allow a semi-autonomous region on its border. The Kurds will fight to protect the territory they’ve gained. Iran wants to reap the gains of its investments in Syria and Assad. Israel is adamantly opposed to a permanent Iranian and Hezbollah military presence on its border in southern Syria. The U.S. wants to ensure ISIS doesn’t re-emerge and has stated a preference for Assad to step aside. Russia wants to preserve Assad’s position—and its own as a power broker in the Middle East.