Analysis | The Future of Syria: Actors Abound as Interests Divide

Analysis | The Future of Syria: Actors Abound as Interests Divide

Pranav Jain.jpg

Pranav Jain

- Programme Assistant at The Economist
- MESA Affairs Specialist at The International Scholar

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New Delhi — The events of late September perfectly illustrate how the Syrian Civil War has devolved into a series of proxy wars, with nations being involved in the country in a variety of ways. The recent announcement of a Turkish and Russian backed de-escalation zone in Idlib and the airstrikes by Israel against suspected Iranian pro-regime forces in Latakia, just show the variety of regional nations with interests in the country. In order to understand the impact these developments will have on the actions of these countries moving forward, it is crucial understand why such a large number of nations have become embroiled in this conflict.

Earlier this year, Israel acknowledged that it had targeted 200 Iranian targets over the past two years. Israel is pursuing a unique policy by not supporting or propping up any particular side in the conflict. Rather, Israel aims to attack any weapons shipments that it believes may end up in the wrong hands. Israel has stated that it will counter any weapon shipments that it believes organizations like Hezbollah may receive in Syria, and then use against Israel from Lebanon and other border areas. Additionally, Israel views Iran’s increasing presence in Syria, given the Israeli-Iranian distrust, and Iran’s openly anti-Israeli views in its foreign policy, as a grave threat to Israel’s security — potentially the gravest threat that Israel has faced since the Yom Kippur War. 

Israel has no love for anti-regime forces in Syria, with Israel′s defense minister Avigdor Liberman stating in June 2017 that while ″the rebels are not our friends, they are all versions of al-Qaida.” Due to this perspective, Israel has often leaned on Russia as a nation that could bring stability back to Syria and reduce the power and presence that Iran maintains in Syria. This has been underscored by the rather frequent meetings that the Israeli and Russian administrations have undertaken, including a variety of trips by Benjamin Netanyahu to Russia to express his concerns, and willingness to work with Russia. The recent Israeli airstrike, which indirectly led to a Russian aircraft being accidentally shot down by Syrian forces, will place stress on this dialogue, However, Russia’s reaction to this development, while still hostile, has not at all been close to its retort when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter in November 2015. This indicates a potential willingness in Moscow to maintain dialogue, potentially as leverage to gain more visibility on Israeli operations, and as Russia continues expanding its influence in the Middle East as America is increasingly seen as a polarizing force in the region.

Another major player in the conflict has been Iran, which has used the Syrian civil war, and the conflict in Iraq, to drastically increase its influence and presence in these major Levantine nations over the past eight years. By energizing Shia militias and movements in both nations, through a combination of direct involvement and increased funding for various groups, and also an attempt by the Iranian government to create its own version of the French foreign legion, Iran has been able to establish itself as a crucial force on the ground in the war. It is estimated that Iran may have invested up to $30 billion in Syria over the years, not to mention the extensive casualties Iran has suffered due to confrontations with Syrian rebels and numerous Israeli airstrikes. Iran has also heavily involved Hezbollah in the conflict, further underscoring the premium they place on expanding their influence in the region.  Iran has been able to establish itself effectively in the country by securing 11 bases for its own forces, as well as at least 9 bases for Shia militias in the country. Furthermore, Iran seems poised to invest in the economic recovery of the country, using the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaa, which was crucial to rebuilding Southern Beirut, as a means to fund Syrian reconstruction. Additionally, Iran controls a variety of the secure border crossings and oil infrastructure assets that are crucial to stabilizing the Syrian economy, which could serve to boost Iran’s economic performance in the immediate post-war period. 

This level of politico-economic entrenchment greatly concerns Israel, leading Russia to continue to insist that Iranian forces must, in the long term, withdraw east of the Euphrates River. Following the Iranian airstrikes on the 17th of September, which inadvertently caused Russian casualties, we can expect Russia to more forcefully insist upon Iranian withdrawal to prevent further collateral damage. Russia’s decision to unilaterally negotiate a de-escalation zone with Turkey, without inputs from Assad, further demonstrates Russia’s determination to diminish Iranian influence along this geopolitically strategic front in the war. However, the mounting costs of Iran’s overt and ambitious strategy combined with the recent dip in its economy, Tehran may consider downsizing its direct presence and opt to restrict its focus to the economic aspect of its influence campaign in Syria.

Although Iran’s presence in the conflict is more entrenched, Turkey’s presence in the Syrian Civil War is more complex due to long-standing issues over Kurdish activities and involvement. Prior to the conflict Turkey maintained cordial relations with Syria, going so far as to explore the possibility of serving as a neutral facilitator for talks between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights conflict. The civil war drastically changed this relationship, leading Turkey to frequently express its displeasure at the brutality of domestic repression in Syria and publicly lambaste the Assad regime for provoking the refugee crisis on Turkey’s border. Turkey eventually began to support the Syrian opposition, regardless of ideology, ranging from the Free Syrian Army to more extremist elements such as the Army of Conquest. Since 2016, Turkey has taken a more active role in Northern Syria, particularly within the scope of Operation Euphrates Shield, through which Turkey established a bastion for Turkish forces and the remaining opposition forces. 

Turkey has also been the center of international attention in the conflict as well; the downing of a Russian jet leaving Syria and passing through Turkish airspace in November 2015 led to a period of great animosity between Ankara and Moscow. Turkish-Russian dialogue only resumed following a formal apology from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The agreement between Turkey and Russia to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which has become the last bastion of Syrian opposition, demonstrates the capacity that both sides have to collaborate in areas of common interest to bring the conflict towards a more controlled end. It also demonstrates willingness to compromise on issues of conflicting interests, exemplified by Russia’s decision to refrain from highlighting the Kurdish independence movement in the Syrian Civil War.

From the intense, continuous activity and investment by Israel, Iran, and Turkey, it is clear that each of these regional actors see the Syrian conflict as integral to the balance of power in the region. With Iran, Turkey, Israel and Russia pursuing different and often conflicting goals in the region, it is difficult to see how an end to the Syrian civil war will bring about an end to this round of regional realpolitik.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Photo credit:

  1. Photo by Qasioun News Agency

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