The Syrian reckoning
The Syrian civil war is soon to enter its eighth year. While both the number and willpower of non-state actors have been in steady decline, state actors have become more visible and increasingly assertive. The level of complexity has deepened accordingly. The conflict has already claimed more than half a million lives, displaced 6.1 million people and left 13.1 million people in need across the country, and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Efforts towards first defeating and then eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have reached the point where the militant group no longer poses a serious threat to Syria’s future. Instead, efforts to defeat the group have opened Pandora’s Box, creating new complexities.
To recap, following the emergence of the ISIL as a force to reckon with after the group captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in mid-2014, a U.S.-led international coalition emerged to coordinate operations against it in the region. While regrouping and retraining government forces in Iraq through coalition support finally led to the ISIL’s defeat in late 2017, the situation in Syria has become more complicated by the day.
The U.S. made a strategic choice back in 2015 to closely cooperate with Kurdish groups on the ground against the ISIL, in line with the Obama Administration’s “no American boots on the ground” policy. Although wavering at the beginning, President Donald Trump finally decided to continue with the same policy with renewed vigor. The U.S. choice has strengthened Kurdish groups in the region and allowed them to capture a quarter of Syrian territory. The most powerful Kurdish group in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been closely associated with, trained and mostly led by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). As the PKK has waged a terror campaign against Turkey since the 1980s, U.S. support for the group has strained Turkey-U.S. relations.
The U.S.’s earlier hands-off approach also paved the way for Russia to return to the Middle East with new strategic bases in Syria. Russia’s involvement in Syria from September 2015 onwards has served its aim to increase its presence in global politics and push the Crimea-debacle down the global agenda, as well as provide a very convenient catalyst for increased influence in the region. As Russia takes the lead for a political solution in Syria with its Astana/Sochi process, the U.S. has begun to reassert its presence with its Kurdish proxy.
Although significant Russian and Iranian support has enabled President Bashar al-Assad to retake parts of the country, the alignment has raised concerns from other actors. Iran’s growing influence has clearly irked the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, prompting them to re-calculate their positions. The recent downing of an Israeli jet on Feb. 9 following the shooting down of an Iranian drone over Syria confirms speculations that Israel is considering a more active stance, should it feel that Iranian influence in Syria threatens its security concerns.
Turkey, on its part, is prioritizing a perceived threat from the PKK through the PYD/YPG and as a result has embarked on a new operation to “eliminate all terrorist elements” in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district in northwest Syria, despite misgivings from the U.S. and Iran. Its current agitation for possibly moving towards Manbij, a city in the northeast of Aleppo where the YPG-led groups are in control, brings Turkey and the U.S. into a dangerous standoff.
As the Syrian civil war gradually lumbers on towards an expected but still out-of-reach end, the conflicting interests of state and non-state actors continue to poison the situation and push the end further away.