Meanwhile in Syria

Meanwhile in Syria

The Syrian civil war has completed its third year. There is still no hope to end the conflict in the foreseeable future. If anything, it could spill over into neighboring countries.

While the attention of the international community has moved in recent weeks to the shores of the Black Sea, the Crimean crisis could lead to repercussions in Syria. The Russian decision on March 18 to annex Crimea started a new rivalry with the West. As doubts about Russian intentions over Ukraine have increased, it has also bruised the collaborative atmosphere between the United States and Russia on the global scale, thereby affecting Syria as well. Despite conflicting interests in Syria, the two countries have so far found ways to work together to end the ongoing civil war. First, the agreement on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons, and then the Geneva II process, were the results of the joint efforts of the U.S. and Russia. Yet, all these are in danger now.

Besides emerging distrust between the U.S. and Russia, negotiations in Geneva between the Western-backed opposition and the Russian-backed regime have stalled after two rounds. Neither the regime nor the opposition groups want to see any negligible outcome from the negotiations. Under the circumstances, while the ravaging civil war continues, no international actor is willing to get sucked into it. Yet, it might easily spill over into the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, turning it into a truly international crisis.

The situation has become rather complex within Syria. In addition to fighting between the regime forces and the various opposition groups, clashes among the opposition forces are taking place. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army has been fighting in the northern part of the country with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda. ISIS is also fighting with the Kurdish groups in the northeastern Syria. The growing influence of ISIS has allowed it to take control of several cities in Syria and Iraq.

Moreover, several regional and international actors have been involved in the conflict, either backing different groups or directly hitting parts of the country and/or different forces. For instance, the latest gain of the regime forces in Yabroud, which is an important transit city near the Lebanese border and had been under the control of the opposition groups for more than two years, was made possible with the support of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group. The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war has also brought about counterattacks against Lebanon.

Israel, too, has been involved recently in the conflict after four Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Hezbollah attack on the Israeli border. It launched artillery strikes against the Golan Heights on March 18 in response to the Hezbollah attack.

Turkey has also felt the impact of the civil war, not only in refugee terms, but also through the shelling of its territory by different groups and increased fighting along its border with Syria. The intensified clashes in the northern part of Syria have especially caused tension with the regime. In the latest instance, Turkey shot down a Syrian MIG-23 jet that had entered Turkish airspace during its mission to support the ground troops battling with the opposition forces, on March 23 in line with the new rules of engagement. The fact that Turkey is going toward an especially tense local elections at the end of the week has made everything looked bleaker.

All these attacks and counterattacks have emphasized the risk of an escalation and spillover of the Syrian civil war. The Western inability to prevent Russia’s capture of Crimea might feed in destructively to the conflict. Thus, all the regional actors need to be particularly careful about risky gambles at the moment.