February was one of the bloodiest months since the start of the Syrian civil war, seven years ago this Thursday. All throughout the past month, the Assad regime, along with pro-Iranian militias and Russia, escalated their assault on the rebel-held eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.
Ghouta, the last pocket of the Syrian insurgency threatening the capital, will fall. And it will leave the survival of Assad’s regime no longer in doubt.
But the war in Syria is far from over. Though ISIS has been defeated and the rebels are increasingly irrelevant, a proxy war between superpowers is now heating up. Seven years after the outbreak of a mass uprising in Syria, which degenerated into a civil war, Syria has become an arena of global contestations.
Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Israel, are all increasing their involvement in Syria, attempting to ensure the emergence of a political order that will serve their interests.
Over the past few weeks alone, Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace, triggering an Israeli response against targets in Syria; Turkey dispatched military convoys into Idlib and southern Aleppo where they were targeted by Iranian-backed militias; the United States bombed Afghani and Iraqi jihadists who attempted to advance against a Kurdish-Arab force supported by the Americans, killing several Russian mercenaries who were present nearby; Russia moved new jets to its military airbase near Lattakia in a show of force and an apparent advertising opportunity; Russian jets carried out multiple airstrikes with cluster munition and incendiary bombs on hospitals and residential areas in eastern Ghouta, killing hundreds of civilians; and Turkish forces and local partners captured additional territory in the area of Efrin in northern Syria from the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish guerilla groups, the PKK.
These interventions reveal regional and global powers engaged in the destructive process of carving Syria up into spheres of influence. But this international struggle over influence and interests has exploited and exacerbated the internal divisions in Syrian society, turning Syrians into pawns with little power to resist their exploitation.
How did so many countries become more deeply entangled in Syria’s conflict? During the first year of the conflict, foreign support from Iran and the Gulf began flowing to both the Assad regime and the rebels. But this support was limited, until an important turning point in 2015. That’s when Arab Gulf monarchies and Turkey amped up their provision of military support to the rebels, hoping to catalyze regime change. This support resulted in a series of defeats for Damascus in strategic areas.
These defeats triggered a direct Russian intervention and an increase in Iranian support, which combined to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime.
This in turn led to a major change in the Turkish position regarding Syria.
As it saw Assad’s rule stabilizing throughout 2016, Ankara gave up on its goal of regime change. Instead, Turkey is now focused on securing its own immediate interests, including preventing the entry of additional Syrian refugees and combatting the Syrian wing of the PKK, known as the YPG, which control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria and whom Turkey has long viewed as a threat to its own sovereignty.
To achieve these goals, in October 2017, the Turkish military began dispatching armed convoys into northwestern Syria to take up positions near frontlines with regime forces and allied militias where they could oppose the local PKK affiliate. To date, Turkey has set up six observation points manned by its soldiers in Aleppo and Idlib, and plans to establish six more such posts.
But these posts are also meant to protect Turkey – from civilians fleeing war. 2.6 million people live in the rebel-held northwest, in incredibly dire conditions. They now face both Assad regime and Russian airstrikes, as well as abject poverty and unemployment. Turkey wants to ensure that these millions of people do not join the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it is already hosting.
A second operation, “Operation Olive Branch,” was launched this past January against the Syrian affiliate of the YPG in the Kurdish region of Efrin in northwestern Syria. The main fighting force in the operation is made up of Free Syrian Army fighters, whom Turkey trained, and now arms and finances. The Syrians participating in the operation have lost relatives to Assad regime bombings and many have been forcibly displaced from their homes by regime attacks, but due to Turkish interests, they have ended up fighting the Kurds in Efrin’s mountains.
It’s not lost on these fighters whose interests they are serving. FSA fighters participating in the offensive have told me they know that they are fighting mainly for Turkish interests. But their desire to ensure Turkish support in a possible future struggle against the Assad regime, in addition to the immediate need to make a living while civilian jobs are scarce, have pushed them to join the operation under a Turkish command.
For Russia, Syria represents an arena in which it can regain its position as a leading global power. Russia’s air strikes in Syria, which have destroyed hundreds of medical centers, bakeries, schools and camps for the displaced, have cost the lives of thousands of Syrian civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
In addition to the humanitarian devastation, these strikes, coupled with ground offensives by regime forces and Iranian-backed militias, have allowed the Assad regime to regain control over most of Syria’s territory in 2017.
This was a marked reversal. In 2015, Assad controlled just 25% of Syria’s land. In exchange for this military support to the regime in Damascus, Assad has allowed Russia to significantly expand its military presence and economic influence in Syria.
Still, President Putin’s ability to affect Assad’s conduct and decision-making remains in doubt.
Iran has provided the Assad regime with military advisors and assistance from the first months of the uprising, and gradually expanded its involvement in Syria’s war. Tehran’s significant military and financial support for the regime stems from their fear of losing their major Arab ally to a hostile government.
Today, over 88,000 Syrian fighters are operating in military units supported by Iran. These fighters often enlist to obtain a salary or avoid service in the Syrian Army, in which the salaries are lower and conditions are abysmal. In addition, Iran has recruited, trained, armed and dispatched to Syria thousands of foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. These militias have played a central role in all regime victories in the battlefield since 2013.
Despite Iran’s significant investment in preserving and stabilizing the Damascus regime, Assad has avoided granting Iran the economic benefits and military foothold Tehran desires, possibly due to his fears of an Israeli response.
Indeed, it was this internal struggle between Assad, Iran and Russia, that was on display in Iran’s decision to launch the drone toward Israel, and Moscow’s decision not to protect Syrian and Iranian military installations with the anti-aircraft batteries Russia had deployed in Syria in late 2015 during the retaliatory Israeli air strikes.
By comparison to the other power players, Israel’s involvement in the war in Syria is relatively limited.
Israel’s main concern is countering Iranian influence in Syria. Iran has made no secret of its hostility toward Israel, and Hezbollah, a longtime foe of Israel’s, has gained new skills and clout through its involvement in the Syrian war.
Initially, Israeli officials had hoped that the United States would act to protect Israel’s main interest in Syria, pressuring Russia to work towards lessening Iran’s staying power in the region.
Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration prioritized the campaign against the Islamic State instead of dealing with the Assad regime and its backer, Iran.
Israeli appeals to the Kremlin to prevent the presence of Iranian-backed militias near the Golan were only partially met. And while a de-escalation agreement concerning southern Syria was reached in November 2017, which guaranteed that Iranian-backed militias would be kept from the immediate proximity of the border fence on the Golan, Russia made sure to clarify that this agreement would only be temporary. Russia has also shown that it is unwilling or unable to prevent the establishment of Iranian bases in Syria.
Realizing that Washington and Moscow will not protect its interests, in the fall of 2017, Israel significantly increased its assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in southern Syria.
Israel now supports at least seven different rebel factions, dozens of rebels and media activists in Quneitra and Daraa, the governorates abutting the border fence, have told me. This assistance includes transfers of light weaponry and cash, as well as direct-fire support during Free Syrian Army operations against the local ISIS affiliate, Jaysh Khalid ibn Walid.
Furthermore, Israeli drones and anti-tank systems have fired on ISIS positions during offensive and defensive operations of the rebels, killing dozens of ISIS fighters and several commanders.
Israel’s military aid is coupled with an extensive humanitarian operation to south-western Syria. But this support has divided locals; some see those who receive assistance from Israel as traitors and foreign agents, while others explain that there’s no alternative to Israeli support, and foregoing this assistance would make it easier for regime forces to recapture the area.
In the fight against ISIS, the Obama administration chose to partner with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella of militias dominated by the Syrian affiliates of the PKK. U.S. support allowed the SDF to capture both Kurdish and Arab-majority villages and towns and impose its one-party rule over them. Decision-making in those areas is now concentrated in the hands of senior PKK cadres, many of them Turkish Kurds, while sidelining traditional local leaders who are Arab.
The Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the YPG, carries out forcible conscription drives in areas under its control. The draft is unpopular even in Kurdish towns, where many youths do not see a reason to risk their lives to capture remote Arab towns and villages. These factors contributed to tensions between the local population and the YPG, tensions that at times erupt in labor strikes and protests.
The U.S. backing of the SDF also allowed the militia to capture a quarter of Syrian territory and much of the country’s oil and gas reserves.
Trump’s administration has largely adhered to the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, narrowly focusing on combatting ISIS. Trump, like Obama, has avoided developing a coherent strategy concerning the Assad regime or the desired outcome of the war in Syria.
One thing is certain seven years after the Syrian war began and at least 500,000 lives lost: To the misfortune of Syrians, they are not merely bystanders in this scuffle between regional and global powers taking place in their country; they are the victims, the cannon fodder and fighters at the fronts. While regional and global powers engage in the destructive process of carving up Syria into spheres of influence, those same forces and others prevent Syrians who wish to flee this inferno from escaping. All countries neighboring on Syria have shut down their borders in 2014 and 2015, resulting in a massive drop in the number of new registered refugees. Only the rich can now afford to pay smugglers the hundreds and even thousands of dollars required to cross illegally into neighboring countries.
Syrians joining forces with external actors have served the interests of the countries meddling in Syria, but these asymmetric relationships not provided Syrians, regardless of their ideological or ethnic affiliation, with the safety, stability, dignified living standards and basic rights they deserve.
The origin of the current tragedy in Syria, the mass peaceful uprising in March 2011, was an unprecedented mobilization of Syrians wishing to forge their own future, refusing to continue obeying an all-powerful state. Seven years later, the interests and desires of the Syrian people are largely relegated to irrelevance as foreign powers jockey for influence over Syria’s ruins.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow specializing in Syria at the Israeli think tank the Forum for Regional Thinking. She can be followed on Twitter @Elizrael.
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