Saturday morning’s violent clashes along the Israeli-Syria border between Israel on the one hand and Iran and Syrian regime forces on the other occurred against the backdrop of multiplying acts of war and violence among a seemingly endless roster of combatants.
To understand the significance and implications of the clashes – which saw Israel destroy an Iranian drone that penetrated its airspace and destroy the drone base in Syria from which the drone was deployed, and the downing of an Israeli F-16 by a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles – it is necessary to understand the basic logic of violence in Syria.
There are a dozen or so actors fighting in Syria. The US is fighting in coalition with the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish YPG militia is part of the SDF. Political representatives tied to the YPG have denied it, but the YPG is widely considered to be allied with the Turkish PKK group, which is listed as a terrorist group by the State Department and the Turkish government.
Russia is fighting with Iran, the Syrian-regime forces, Hezbollah and Iranian-organized Shiite militias that include fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Russia also sometimes acts indirectly with Israel against its coalition partners. On the basis of understandings that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian forces in Syria do not interfere with Israeli air strikes against Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian-regime targets which directly threaten Israel’s strategic interests.
The Turks are fighting largely independently. Sometimes they are supported by the U.S., sometimes they are supported by the Russians.
Turkey belatedly joined the anti-ISIS coalition led by the U.S. But the Turks’ main target in Syria is the Kurdish forces. Three weeks ago, the Turks launched yet another campaign against the Kurds in Syria. Their current operation is focused on the Afrin province controlled by YPG. But Turkey is also threatening Manbij, where US special forces are deployed in support of the SDF.
Non-ISIS rebel forces are being destroyed systematically by regime forces in Idlib province and in the Damascus suburban area known as Eastern Ghouta. According to a New York Times‘ summary of recent violence in Syria, regime forces have reportedly killed four hundred people, including a hundred children in Eastern Ghouta since December. Since the start of 2018, the Syrian regime reportedly carried out three chlorine gas attack against civilians in Ghouta.
As the New York Times noted, Ghouta was the site of the regime’s 2013 sarin gas attack which killed 1,400 people including 400 children. Then-president Barack Obama had said a year earlier that such an attack would be a red line that would provoke US action against the regime. Obama’s refusal to attack regime forces after the sarin gas attack empowered Russia, which deployed forces to Syria for the first time since the end of the Cold War in 2015.
Finally, there are ISIS forces. ISIS continues to control territory along the Syrian border with Iraq and pockets of territory in the vicinity of Deir Ezzor and Palmyra. Perhaps more importantly, ISIS forces from areas seized by coalition forces have melted away and are viewed as responsible for a spate of bombings in Damascus and elsewhere in recent months and weeks.
Over the past several weeks, numerous articles have appeared analyzing the recent rise in violence in Syria. The main question is: why is the violence continuing? The prevailing sense in the West had been that, following ISIS’s loss of most of the territory it had held, the war had wound down. The U.S. and its allies had made their peace with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s survival and with Russia’s newfound role as powerbroker on the one hand. And, on the other hand, the Russians and their Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah allies had made their peace with Kurdish control over large swathes of former Syrian territory and their alliance with the U.S.
Israel, the U.S., and Turkey were seen as actors with specific issues which could be remedied with intermittent tactical strikes that wouldn’t challenge the overall post-civil war order.
This assessment was false because there is nothing tactical or limited about any of the parties’ interests and concerns relating to Syria.
Consider the Turks and the U.S. The Turks oppose Syrian Kurdish control over territory along the border with Turkey because they view it as a strategic threat to Turkey. Turkey’s Afrin offensive – which Ankara envisions as the first stage of a broader offensive which will include Manbij – also has implications that far exceed the borders of Syria or the wider Middle East.
Russia is supporting the Turkish anti-Kurdish offensive for reasons that have nothing to do with Syria and everything to do with Russia’s strategic rivalry for great power status with the US.
By supporting Turkey’s anti-Kurdish offensive, Russia is placing NATO member Turkey in direct confrontation with the US. If the US stands with the Kurds and Turkey fails to back down, then the likelihood that American and Turkish forces will fight one another in battle grows to near certainty. If this happens, Turkish membership in NATO will effectively end.
On the other hand, if the US doesn’t stand with the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. will lose its residual credibility as an ally in the region. The stakes in Syria are critical in light of the U.S.’s failure to defend its Iraqi Kurdish allies last October, when the US-trained Iraqi military wrested control over the oil-rich Kirkuk province from the Kurdish regional government in Erbil.
For the US then, Syria is a moment of truth. It can stand with its allies on the ground and so assure its long-term ability to work with allies in the Middle East and beyond. Or it can betray its allies on the ground and preserve the idea of its strategic alliance with Turkey, even though, on the ground, that alliance no longer exists.
This then brings us to Israel, and Saturday morning’s violent clashes with Iran.
Although Bashar Assad still holds the title President of Syria, to all intents and purposes, he is an Iranian puppet. His forces take their orders from Iran and Hezbollah. He has no independent power to make decisions about anything in Syria.
Israel has eyed this development with great and growing concern over the years. Iran’s assertion of control over Syria has massive implications for Israel’s national security. And, over the years, Israel has set and enforced specific red lines in Syria designed to prevent Iran’s effective control over Assad’s regime from passing specific limits. Israel’s red lines include blocking Iran from transferring precision-guided missiles, other advanced weapons systems and non-conventional weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria territory including the Damascus airport. Israel’s red lines also include blocking Iran from setting up permanent bases in Syria. To enforce these and other red lines, over the years Israel has conducted repeated air attacks against targets in Syria.
Immediately after Putin first deployed his forces to Syria in 2015, Netanyahu flew to Russia to coordinate Israel’s air operations with him and prevent direct confrontations between Israeli and Russian forces. Since their first meeting, Netanyahu has flown to Russia on ten subsequent occasions to develop a working relationship with Putin with the aim of weakening his strategic commitment to Iranian power in the region and cultivating his perception of shared strategic interests with Israel in Syria and beyond.
Netanyahu’s last meeting with Putin was on January 29. In media briefings before and after their meeting, Netanyahu said that he spoke to Putin about three issues. First, due to Israel’s success in blocking Iran from transferring precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria, Iran is now building missile factories for Hezbollah inside of Lebanon. Netanyahu pledged to destroy those factories.
In his words, “Lebanon is becoming a factory for precision-guided missiles that threaten Israel. These missiles pose a grave threat to Israel, and we cannot accept this threat.”
Second, Netanyahu warned Putin that Israel will not accept Iranian military entrenchment in Syria through the construction of permanent bases, among other things. Netanyahu explained, “The question is: Does Iran entrench itself in Syria, or will this process be stopped. If it doesn’t stop by itself, we will stop it.”
Third, Netanyahu spoke to Putin about improving Obama’s nuclear deal with the Iranian regime.
Russia is both a resource and a threat to Israel. It is a resource because Russia is capable of constraining Iran and Hezbollah. Israel treated Russia as a resource Saturday, when in the wake of its violent confrontations with Iran, which included Israel’s Air Force’s first combat loss of an F-16 since the 1980s, Israel turned to the Russians with an urgent request for them to restrain the Iranians.
Russia is a threat to Israel because it is Iran’s coalition partner. Until Russia deployed its forces to Syria, it appeared that the regime and its Iranian overlords were losing the war, or at least unable to win it. After Russia began providing air support for their ground operations, the tide of the war reversed in their favor.
At any rate, Israel is in no position to persuade Russia to abandon Syria. Russia’s presence in the region limits Israel’s actions but also guarantees that Israel will continue to act, because its vital interests will continue to come under threat and intermittent attack.
In all, the situation in Syria is and will remain unstable and exceedingly violent for the foreseeable future. Syria is not only a local battlefield where various Syrian factions vie for control over separate areas of the country – although it remains such a local battlefield.
And it isn’t only a regional battlefield where Iran and its proxies seek to expand and entrench the Shiite crescent while preparing the ground for wars against Israel, and Israel is engaged around the clock in efforts to block their progress and curb their entrenchment. But it is a critical regional battlefield.
Syria is also a fight between superpowers. Russia owes its reemergence as a superpower in the Middle East to its entrenchment in Syria. And the U.S.’s ability to continue to assert its superpower status in the region is largely dependent on its willingness to stand its ground in Syria by among other things, blocking the Turks from defeating the Kurds.
None of the sides to the conflict can depend on their deterrent posture to prevent attacks or escalation because for deterrence to work, the warring sides need to acknowledge one another’s spheres of authority. This cannot happen because all of these battlefields represent wars that no side can lose – and as a result, no side can win. So the war will go on, indefinitely.
In Israel’s case, the best outcome at this point is that its responses to Iranian aggression, including its response Saturday, are powerful enough to convince the Iranians that they have no interest in a full-blown war. Ultimately, if Iran is defeated, it will likely be the result of developments on battlefields outside of Syria.