Fleeting alliances and wild self-interest propels the Syrian conflict into a new stage
Within every complex system there is a degree of underlying order. But that does not preclude the potential for interactions within that organization to bring about, time after time, the worst possible outcome.
Such may be an apt description of the recent developments in Syria, as the conflict took yet another (down)turn with forces allied to the Assad regime cutting a deal with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to deploy to Afrin to help repel a month-long Turkish assault.
Ankara has come under fire for launching the military campaign given that the YPG, as a whole, played a major role in the U.S. –backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ liberation of Islamic State-held Raqqa. The advance of Turkish forces as far east of Manbij would raise the very real prospect of a direct confrontation with American troops stationed in the town. For its part, Washington has likewise been criticized for effectively abandoning YPG fighters west of the Euphrates, instead appearing to back, albeit cautiously, its NATO ally Turkey which views the Kurdish fighters as an offshoot of the banned PKK.
The complexity of the situation is made starker when considering the Syrian government’s previous aversion to the occupation by Kurdish forces of large swaths of territory in the north. While Damascus has long opposed Turkish activities in the same territories, it has taken little tangible recourse to date given its scarce resources.
Russia, as the dominant player in Syria, must have given its blessing for regime-aligned forces to aid the YPG, a move that could pull those Kurds out of the U.S.’ sphere of influence. At the same time, the move is a flip-flop of sorts given Moscow essentially green-lighted the incursion by Turkey, its ostensible partner in the Astana peace process aimed at ending the war.
According to Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Research Associate at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars, the current situation must be analyzed within a new contextual framework that is increasingly defining the Syrian landscape.
“The war in Syria was previously viewed as the sum of two different primary battles; namely, Assad versus the rebels and the world against ISIS. Whereas these major fights have wound down, a whole series of other contests that have little to do with internal Syrian dynamics—but which are nonetheless taking place on Syrian soil—have erupted. In this respect,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “in just the last week we have seen Israel clash with Iran, Turkey target the Kurds and the U.S. engage Russia.”
As regards Afrin specifically, Dr. Spyer believes that the circumstances, somewhat counter-intuitively, evidence the weakness—and not the strength—of the prominent actors. “The U.S. has chosen to remain mostly on the sidelines and there is anyways an inherent contradiction between the more pro-Kurdish defense establishment and the pro-Turkey state department. The U.S. does not work with the YPG in Afrin,” he continued, “so the Americans are not protecting the Kurds there. They have thus turned to the regime in order to combat the Turkish offensive.”
Even though the YPG in Afrin are largely isolated, Turkey’s operation has thus far been minimally successful, thereby exposing Ankara’s own military limitations. “The fact that the Turks chose Afrin in the first place is like picking on the smallest kid in the playground,” Dr. Spyer, explained. “The Turks are not likely to move far to the east or south and will probably accept small gains and then just stay.”
With respect to Russia, the Afrin battle points to its inability to control the various players in the Syrian arena. This appears to apply to the Americans and the Kurds and, to a lesser degree, to Turkey as well as the Iranians, who earlier this month provoked an altercation with Israel by sending a drone across the shared border. This, in turn, subsequently led to the downing of an Israeli jet returning from a retaliatory mission in Syria which decimated up to fifty percent of the country’s air defense systems.
All of this, meanwhile, comes against the backdrop of growing carnage in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which was pummeled from the air for a third straight day, bringing the civilian death toll to nearly 200 since Sunday. The regime-led strikes are paving the way for what most analysts predict will be a bloody ground assault on the besieged region.
The fog of the war—and the resulting dangers—were further exemplified by the February 7 encounter between U.S. forces and Russian mercenaries, hundreds of whom were either killed or injured by American airstrikes and artillery fire during a failed attack on a Kurdish-controlled base in the Deir ez-Zor region. While Russia denied any involvement, a claim Washington accepted, Defense Secretary James Mattis nevertheless referred to the incident as “perplexing.”
Adding to the confusion is that “[U.S.] officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” according to Colonel Thomas F. Veale, a spokesman for the American army.
“The incident underlines the inherent combustibility of the situation in Syria, but there does seem to be a will on the part of the Americans and Russians to prevent direct confrontation,” Dr. Brandon Friedman, a Research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line. “However, there are so many parties involved in so many different areas that things can very quickly spiral out of control.”
Dr. Friedman believes the crisis has persisted because of the associated diplomatic intricacies. “In order to arrive at a resolution, there needs to be understandings achieved on three separate levels. First, there has to be an agreement between the Americans and the Russians and even this would have huge political ramifications that extend well beyond Syria.
“Russia and the U.S. would then have to impose these conditions on regional parties,” he expounded, “including on Iran, Turkey, probably Israel at this point and perhaps even Saudi Arabia. This would then have to trickle down to the local players—the Kurds, the Syrian opposition and even regime forces.”
The resulting problem, as evidenced by the recent deadly confrontation between American and Russian forces and the evolving quagmire in Afrin, is that the current dynamics in Syria—increasingly resembling a free-for-all of fleeting alliances based on wild self-interest—have potentially grave, even if unintended, consequences.
“As regards when this might end, none of the current [sub-conflicts] are anywhere close to completion,” Dr. Spyer concluded. “And while these are currently low-intensity, they can blow up at any time.”