The Once and Future War: The Scramble for Syria Post-ISIS

BY UPAMANYU LAHIRI

(Bulent Kilic/Getty Images)

The deadly attacks by the Assad regime on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of East Ghouta killed over 200 people. This tragedy, described by many as one the deadliest 24 hours in the Syrian War, brought back the global spotlight on the humanitarian tragedy that is the Syrian War. However, for observers, Syria has also recently been in the news because of complex clashes among various foreign powers involved in the conflict, each with sometimes conflicting or overlapping agendas. Exploring this complicated mesh of interests helps us understand why, even after seven long years and the imminent defeat of ISIS, the war in Syria is unlikely to end anytime soon.

For the past few years, the United States, Russia, Iran and other foreign powers were entangled in Syria, all with conflicting goals. Russia and Iran support the regime of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Russia became the pivotal foreign power in the conflict when it intervened militarily in support of Assad in 2015. The United States, on the other hand, wanted the Assad regime removed from power. However, the simultaneous goal of fighting ISIS made this goal more complicated. Despite these, and other contradictory aims, the United States, Russia, and other powers largely avoided any overt clashes among themselves even if they did not always work together, as the common goal was the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

That is, until now. As the Islamic State faces imminent defeat, retaining just pockets of territory, all parties involved are scrambling to take advantage of the situation. Each wants to be in the position to shape the post-ISIS political situation of Syria. The war has morphed from one in which the rival alliances have an unofficial, if uneasy truce, into one characterized by rival alliances engaging in open conflict with the potential to escalate into warfare. This continued presence of foreign powers on Syrian soil will only continue the misery of the Syrian people.

On Feb. 7, a U.S. airstrike on the Southeastern city of Deir al-Zour reportedly killed dozens of Russian military-contracted mercenaries. The strike was in response to these pro-Assad Russian military forces’ assault on a base where U.S. troops were operating. Apart from its official military forces, Russia has an unknown, presumably large, number of unofficial mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. Although no official Russian forces were killed in the attack, this was the first public case of U.S. military actions leading to Russian deaths in the Syrian Civil War, marking a new and potentially dangerous phase of Russian-American clashes in Syria. As the common goal of defeating ISIS fades into the horizon, similar clashes like these could occur with increasing frequency, thus risking a larger conflict in the coming months and years.  

Complicating the conflict further is not just the various rivalries, but the often fragile nature of the alliances on the ground. The contradictory nature of the various alliances and their wildly unexpected outcomes is most clearly on display in Afrin, a Kurdish town in northwest Syria. In January, Turkey – a NATO member – escalated its involvement in the conflict by launching a ground assault against U.S.-backed Kurdish militia despite protests from the U.S. This was supposed to have the tacit support of Russia, which wanted to use this as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO ally while remaining distant from the offensive itself. Meanwhile, Iran, the most influential regional power in the conflict, opposed the assault.  Turkish President Erdoğan has criticized U.S. support for the Kurdish groups in Syria in the past, considering them an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Turkey has designated as a terrorist group. Washington also considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but in Syria it has backed the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia fighting against the Islamic State over objections from Ankara.

The latest complication in this saga came last month when pro-Assad forces stormed into Afrin, apparently backing the Kurdish forces under siege from the Turkish assault. The United States’ precarious role in all this, including its desire not to get into a direct conflict with its NATO ally, made it decide against intervening too much in this conflict. The Kurdish militia thus turned to the Assad regime for help, which Assad promptly provided. This has led to a situation in which the United States finds itself on the opposite side of its NATO ally. Even more astonishingly, with pro-Assad and Iran-backed forces backing up the U.S.-backed Kurds, the U.S. nominally finds itself on the same side as that of the regime is wishes to see removed and another whose role in Syria it vehemently opposes. At the same time, the Syrian regime is backing tribal militias that are attacking the Kurds in Eastern Syria.

Meanwhile, Israel has watched the rapidly growing power and clout of its biggest rival, Iran, in Syria with increasing fear. Iran, along with Russia, has been instrumental in helping the regime beat back the rebels and the Islamic State, to which it lost vast swathes of territory in the early years of the war. Iran has provided the regime with money and manpower during the war, expanding Iranian presence in the process. Israel sees Iran’s growing influence in the region as a direct threat because it faces the danger of Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militants on its northern border with Lebanon. It desperately wants to avoid a similar threat from Iranian-backed militia on its northeastern border with Syria. Therefore, Israel may want to get involved in shaping Syria’s future, if only to counter Iran, and a showdown between Iran and Israel is possible. The stakes for this were raised last month when an Israeli warplane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. This was the first time an Israeli warplane had been shot down since the 1980s. This was triggered by the entrance of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace. If an Iranian-Israeli conflict does break out in Syria, it will further crowd an already overcrowded theater and further complicate an already over-complicated war, likely prolonging it further and extending the misery of the Syrian people.

The United States’ position in this war is complicated and any possible action it can take is limited. It lost its position as the most influential foreign power in the conflict when Russia intervened militarily in Syria in favor of Assad in 2015 while the U.S. dithered on military action even as Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons. In recent months, the Trump administration has been shifting the focus of U.S. involvement in Syria from defeating ISIS to countering Iran’s influence. More than a change in ideology, this is simply a reflection of the changing reality. During the Obama era, defeating ISIS was the glue that held the foreign powers involved in the conflict together. Now, amid the scramble for influence, the U.S. sees opposing the Assad regime and Russian and Iranian influence as its biggest goal in a post-ISIS Syria.

In all, the imminent defeat of ISIS does not signal the end of the war. It signals merely the morphing of it into a new and potentially even more dangerous phase where world and regional powers jostle for power, often clashing with each other and risking a larger conflict. Amidst all this, it is the Syrian people who continue to suffer, caught in the middle of crossfire between global powers struggling for influence and their own leader, a brutal dictator who has massacred thousands of innocent civilians in his own country.

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