The Unending Syrian conflict Takes on a Perilous Dimension

14 February 2018

Amin Saikal, Distinguished Professor of Political Science

The Syrian conflict has reached a perilous point. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has substantially been defeated militarily and territorially, but the Syrian crisis has assumed a wider and more dangerous dimension. All the regional actors - Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the two major powers, the United States and Russia - in conjunction with many subsidiary allies, have become so involved in Syria that the conflict threatens to expand beyond anyone's expectations.

The danger of a direct clash between the US-led and Russian-led coalitions to combat IS arose when Moscow dramatically escalated its military intervention in support of the widely dreaded regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and its protégé force, the Lebanese Hezbollah, from 2011. Few at the time could have confidently predicted that the conflict would bring a large, direct Turkish military intervention and the latest Israeli air raids against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.

The Turkish operations which commenced well over a month ago are waged against the US-backed and anti-IS Kurdish force called the 'People's Protection Unit' (YPG). Ankara has designated the latter to be a terrorist group, working in alliance with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought for extensive autonomy or independence for Turkey's Kurds, who form some 20 percent of the country's 80 million population. Ankara essentially wants to carve out a security zone in northern Syria on the border with Turkey to ensure that there is no cooperation between the YPG, the PKK and the extensively autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Turkey's intervention, to which the YPG has put up a tough resistance so far, at increasing human and material costs, has caused a major rift with its major NATO partner, the United States, and seriously discomforted the two main backers of the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.

The Israeli air attacks - the largest of their kind since 1982 - in response to a claim that an Iranian drone had violated Israel's air space and to Syria's shooting down of a highly advanced Israeli F16 fighter bomber last week, have potentially put the country in direct confrontation with Iran. Israel has said that it targeted 4 Iranian and 8 Syrian military bases, causing substantial damage, and that it is prepared to defend its sovereignty and integrity with full force and at all costs. Tehran, like Damascus, has refuted the Israeli claim of a drone intrusion, and has vowed to retaliate in whatever way and whenever appropriate. The main critic of Iran, the US administration of Donald Trump, has declared its full support for Israel against its arch Iranian enemy. Russia has called for restraint on the part of the parties involved, but surely with a great deal of trepidation, given its commitment to the Assad regime and de facto alliance with Iran in Syria. Meanwhile, like Iran, Turkey, which is highly critical of Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians under occupation, may well lean towards Moscow and Tehran, despite its stringent opposition to the Assad regime. It takes comfort from the Iranian and Russian stance against the Kurdish aspirations for independence anywhere in the region.

Should Damascus or Tehran or both retaliate against the Israeli air raids, in which many personnel of the two countries are killed and injured, the stage would be set for a widening of the Syrian conflict well beyond what the emergence of IS had generated. In such a confrontation, Iran's other regional rival, Saudi Arabia, backed by some of its Arab allies, would side with Israel. This is a development which could not have been anticipated a few years ago, as Israel was considered the number one enemy in the Arab world. Iran now holds that position for Saudi Arabia and its allies, whose support for the Palestinian cause has lately diminished.

The Syrian conflict has certainly worsened, with the rolling back of IS and the fight against terrorism having made no positive impact. Syria has become a battleground not only for so many rival national groups, but also for rival regional and international actors. It is in the grip of being partitioned, as Iraq faces the same predicament with its Kurdish population who have already voted overwhelmingly for independence. There is no viable peace plan on the table to stabilise Syria and to prevent further misery and devastation being inflicted upon the country's population. All the parties involved in the conflict bear responsibility for the mess and tragedy that is Syria today.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. This article also appeared in the Australian Financial Review, 13 February 2018.