War between external powers is a real possibility in Syria

In the summer and autumn of 2017, it was claimed Syria’s civil war was winding down, but the nearly seven-year conflict is nowhere near to finished, and recent events suggest it could even escalate.

Bashar Assad’s forces assisted by Iran, Russia, and the Kurdish YPG crushed the final Syrian rebel stronghold in Aleppo in December 2016 and deported the survivors. With Assad militarily safe, Russia accelerated efforts to politically rehabilitate its criminal client. Moscow’s effort had two prongs.

Firstly, the Astana process was begun involving Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Ostensibly focused on reducing violence, the proposed “de-escalation zones” — like prior “freezes”, “cessations of hostilities”, and ceasefires — were used to sequence Assad’s war, and Russia attempted, with some success, to use these facts-on-the-ground for the “Astana-isation” of the internationally recognised peace process in Geneva, altering the terms to suit Assad.

Secondly, after long effectively ignoring the Islamic State (ISIS) — indeed ISIS gained territory during the early part of Russia’s intervention in Syria, which overwhelmingly targeted the mainstream armed opposition — the pro-Assad forces began a concerted campaign into ISIS-held areas in early 2017. By fighting a globally detested terrorist organisation, it was hoped Assad would gain international legitimacy and enough momentum and territory to be seen as the inevitable victor.

At the end of 2017, foreign powers dominated in Syria as never before. Turkey worked through opposition groups, in a model similar to its Euphrates Shield zone in northern Aleppo, to extend its influence via “observation posts” in Idlib. In western Syria, Assad formally reigned while Iran and Russia ruled. To the south, Jordan had largely ceded handling of the rebel groups there to Israel, which was trying to use them to push Iran’s militias away from its border. And the United States had a protectorate in all-but name in northeastern Syria through the YPG.

The result of the joint focus by the pro-Assad forces and the U.S.-led coalition was that much of the underlying Syrian war was paused throughout the year, and the various zones of influence largely avoided clashes with one another. Some mistook this fragile truce for a resolution. In fact, with ISIS’s “caliphate” gone, the war everybody except the United States had been fighting — the war for regional order — recommenced with such ferocity that even Washington could not avoid being partially drawn in.

Turkey had acted as a “junior partner” to Russia in Syria under the umbrella of the Astana process, but at the end of 2017, an important, if small, breach occurred between Russia and Turkey because of Moscow’s repeated efforts to bring the YPG into the political process. The Russian base at Hmaymeem, on the Syrian coast, was swarmed by drones and mortar fire on New Year’s Eve. It is conceivable this was Turkey’s means of pushing back on Russia.

Turkey had been drawn into the Astana process in the first place because U.S. support for the YPG as part of the anti-ISIS fight had changed Ankara’s threat perceptions: the YPG was now prioritised over Assad. In mid-January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the YPG-held Afrin canton, again, and on Jan. 20 launched a cross-border offensive against the area.

Some have argued that the Afrin operation has gone badly. It has certainly proceeded in a deliberately cautious manner for political reasons, to avoid inciting too much global condemnation. On Monday, Turkey cleared the YPG from all border areas in Afrin. There is a debate about whether Turkey will take Afrin city. The argument against relates to the political calculation mentioned above. The opposing consideration is public sentiment in Turkey, which I got a snapshot of last week during a visit, which is unlikely to be satisfied without significant Turkish territorial gains against the YPG in Afrin, including dislodging it from the city. Moreover, to the extent the Turkish government is playing for any audience but a domestic one, it is to the United States, and this operation has succeeded in making Washington pay attention to Ankara.

Turkey has increasingly found itself at odds with Iran. In Idlib, as a quid pro quo for Afrin, Ankara agreed with Russia for the regime coalition to enter the east of the province up to the Abu al-Duhur air base. Turkey is struggling within its own sphere of influence in Idlib to undermine the former al Qaeda branch, and Turkey’s rebel allies have had some recent success on this front, though how lasting this proves to be is an open question. The violation of the demarcation lines by Iranian-controlled militias on Feb. 5 triggered a lethal Turkish response and halted Iran. Subsequently, on Feb. 20, Turkish air strikes blocked the deployment of Iran’s militias into Afrin alongside the YPG. Erdogan called these Iranian proxies “terrorists,” but said they had acted alone, and therefore the Astana trilateral, with Iran and Russia, remained in place. The reality of the direct conflict of interest between Ankara and Tehran, and Moscow’s inability to effectively mediate, is becoming harder to escape, however.

Israel is also increasingly aware that its bet on Russia to contain Iran has failed. Russia wouldn’t or couldn’t keep Iranian-run forces away from Israel’s northern border, and after an especially flagrant Iranian provocation on Feb. 10, Israel moved to set its own red line.

In the middle of all this, on Feb. 7, the United States bombed an advancing column of pro-regime troops over a three-hour period to protect U.S. troops embedded with the YPG around the Khusham oilfield in Deir al-Zor. Reuters, The Washinton Post, and analysts like Neil Hauer have now provided a clearer picture of what happened. The company bombed by the U.S. suffered 300 casualties, 100 of them fatalities. The dominant force were troops from Wagner, a supposed “mercenary” firm that is closely tied to Russian military intelligence (GRU), enabling Moscow’s power-projection, while minimising the political cost by making them deniable.

The main question is what the Kremlin knew and when. U.S. intelligence believes, according to The Post, that Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest aides, is in charge of Wagner in Syria, and from intercepted communications it seems Prigozhin “told Syrian officials he had ‘secured permission’ from an unspecified Russian minister” for this attack. That no Russian aircraft came to Wagner’s rescue means Moscow wanted to be officially left out of it, even as it knew in advance that the attack was coming and got to test American resolve, a near-perfect demonstration of the “deniable” Wagner model.

Less than two months into 2018, it is clear that whatever stability was being detected late last year was wholly illusory. The United States’ myopic counterterrorism policy has left the pro-Assad coalition a free hand to commit mass-murder and left the United States isolated, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey all favouring its withdrawal, a situation that is not tenable. A rebalancing of relations with the YPG could bring Turkey back into alignment with the United States, and pave the way for a more durable settlement that keeps ISIS down.

On the current trajectory, the potential for a serious escalation between one or more of the external parties on Syrian territory is very real, and in the chaos of that unravelling even the counterterrorism gains would be lost.