When an Israeli jet crashed after being shot down over Syria over the weekend, it marked a serious escalation in the Syrian Civil War. But it also reflected an ongoing reality, one that is growing more dangerous: Syria’s war encompasses at least three other international conflicts, each of which are heating up.
In the last few weeks alone, Turkey has clashed with Syrian Kurds and threatened a U.S.-controlled town in Syria; an Israeli fighter jet that was part of a response to an incursion into Israeli territory by an Iranian drone launched from Syria took Syrian anti-aircraft fire, forcing its two pilots to eject and parachute into Israeli territory; and U.S. forces repelled an attack by Russian fighters, killing an unknown number of them that reports suggest could be in the hundreds.
Taken individually, each one of the clashes has the potential to turn into something more dangerous. Taken together, they suggest the reasons why even after the defeat of ISIS, Syria cannot hope for stability to return soon—and why the next chapter could be even worse. “The issues have been out there: Kurdish-Turkish-American tensions; Iran-Syria-Israel tensions,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me. “But … we’ve gotten to a level not reached before, and it’s all coming at once.”
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.
“It’s not complete chaos by any means, but it’s all highly dangerous because you just don't know what's going to happen,” Crocker said. “At this particular juncture, not the Turks, not the Americans, not the Kurds, not Iran, not Hezbollah, not Russia, and not the Syrian regime, none of them wants to see an all-out war.”
That isn’t preventing those involved in the conflict from seeing just what they can get away with against their rivals—as the recent fighting involving the Turkey and the Kurds, Iran and Israel, and Russians and the U.S. showed. In each of those cases so far, a potential escalation has been forestalled. In the case of Turkey and the Kurds, U.S. threats may have deterred Turkey from a more serious attack. In the case of Iran and Israel, one source has suggested that an angry phone call from Russia prevented a larger Israeli attack on Iranian proxies in Syria. And in the case of Russia and the U.S., a key factor was plausible deniability: Moscow claims the Russian fighters that encountered U.S. forces in Syria were private contractors who were there without the government’s knowledge.
“We can’t overestimate the power of the new dynamics that are emerging as a result of the new phase we’re entering in Syria—where the status quo ante has been completely disrupted, and where you’re seeing key regional actors jostle and seek to shape where Syria heads, but also lay out their red lines, their stakes,” Yacoubian said. “And I think that’s going to play out in a number of ways over the coming months and possibly years.”