Who’s Fighting Whom in Syria?

Iranian-sponsored militias clash with the Turkish army.

A new episode in the torturous saga of the Syrian civil war is emerging.  Last year Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and agreed to set up a series of de-escalation zones in Syria that were supposed to reduce the violence between the anti-government insurgents and the pro-Assad regime forces.  Last week’s deadly attack carried out by Iranian backed militias on Turkish troops deep inside Syria cast doubt on the survival of the de-escalation agreement.  Reuters reported (February 6, 2018) that, “A Turkish soldier was killed in a rocket and mortar attack in northwest Syria (Idlib Province) as Turkish forces were setting up a military post in the largest remaining stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.  It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish a position near the front line between rebels and pro-government forces, under a deal with Russia and Iran meant to reduce fighting in the area.  The deal largely collapsed in December when the Syrian army with Iran backed militias and heavy Russian air power launched a major offensive to take territory in Idlib province and surrounding areas.”

To understand the complexity of the Syrian quagmire, let’s name the actors in the field.  Iran and its Shiite militias, along with Russia, are helping the Assad regime militarily.  Turkey is supporting the anti-Assad forces, and yet, Ankara has established ever closer relations with Moscow and Tehran.  Erdogan’s Turkey, using the pretext that the Kurdish forces known as YPG (People’s Protection Units) are threatening its sovereignty, launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’ two weeks ago.  This is a major offensive in the Syrian Afrin region against the YPG.  The Kurds, having been a major factor in defeating ISIS in Syria, seek a form of independence.  The U.S., for its part, has cooperated with and supported the Kurdish YPG in its campaign against ISIS.  If that is not complicated enough, the Reuters report points out that “Iran urged Turkey to halt the two-week old military offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria’s Afrin region, which is adjacent to Idlib.”  The Assad regime and its Iranian supporters are afraid that Turkey aims at having a permanent presence inside Syria.

Turkey’s offensive against the U.S. allied Kurdish forces opens a new front in the Syrian civil war.  It also threatens to further escalate the relationship between NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey, and may result in a breaking point.  The Turks consider the Kurdish YPG a terrorist organization, yet the Afrin region is Kurdish in composition.  Erdogan, Turkey’s dictator, fears that should the Kurds establish a form of independence in northern Syria or Iraq, Turkey’s large Kurdish minority adjacent to the Syrian Kurdish area might choose to separate from Turkey and join their brethren in Syria.  Another motivation for the Turkish military campaign is to prevent the Kurdish forces from linking the Afrin region in northwestern Syria with the Kobane district in northeast Syria.  Both areas are predominantly Kurdish.

The U.S. State Department has urged Turkey to focus on fighting ISIS instead of the YPG.  The U.S. has roughly 2,000 troops in Syria, who are part of an international, U.S. led coalition against ISIS.  When in January, 2018, the U.S. announced it was training a 30,000 strong border force that included its Kurdish allies, Turkey responded with ‘Operation Olive Branch’ and its intention to bomb Afrin and extend its reach to Manbij.  Erdogan wants U.S. troops out of Syria.  The Wall Street Journal (January 18, 2018) reported that “The U.S. military is swiftly backtracking from plans to build a 30,000-person border force in Syria after the proposal triggered a new diplomatic showdown with Turkey.”

In the meantime, Al-Monitor reported (January 18, 2018) that, “Turkey’s army chief Hulusi Akar and head of national intelligence Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow today to hold talks on Syria and, as many commentators speculated, to secure Russia’s blessing for a planned Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.” 

Seven years of civil war in Syria has killed nearly half a million Syrian civilians and soldiers.  Millions of others have become internal and external refugees.  There are now large refugee camps for Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and huge numbers of Syrians are flooding Europe, and Germany in particular. 

The civil war in Syria has pitted the murderous minority Alwaite-led (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) Assad regime against the majority of Sunni-Syrian rebels.  The Syrian conflict drew particular attention in the West because of the role that the even more murderous Islamic State (IS or ISIS) has played in it.  ISIS was able to capture large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory.  ISIS’s unrestrained barbarism however, that including the decapitation of western journalists, Christians, and Muslims who offended their fanatical interpretation of Islam, as well as the ISIS terrorists rape and enslavement of Yazidis, brought into the conflict a coalition of Americans, Europeans, Kurds, and Arabs.  On another side, there are the Russians, Iranians, and Iranian controlled and run Shiite militias from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. The Russian, Iranian and Tehran supported Shiite militias are not in Syria to combat ISIS. Their ostensible purpose is to maintain the Assad regime in power, and make Syria Tehran’s satellite.

The massive Russian involvement tipped the military balance of the civil war in favor of the Assad regime and its Iranian ally.  The failure of the Obama administration to follow up on its warning to the Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against the civilian population, has weakened the U.S. position in the region.  Russia’s Putin took advantage of the Obama administrations reluctance to confront the Russian buildup in Syria.  As a result, Russia has become the “Strong Horse” in the region. The Turks now run to Moscow and not to Washington to ask permission to use air power in Syria.  U.S. leverage in Syria is non-existent because unlike the Russians, the U.S. did not engage militarily in Syria, other than bomb ISIS from the air.

Flashpoints as a result of the Syrian conflict may lead to an even larger conflict.  Iranian and its controlled Shiite militias, especially Hezbollah, are slowly encroaching on Israel’s Golan Heights.  Should Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or its sponsored militias come closer to the Golan or the Lebanese-Israeli border, Israel will respond with force.  Should the Turks use aerial bombing against YPG and in the process target American troops, it may escalate into a U.S. - Turkish confrontation.  And there is also a chance of unintended confrontation between U.S. and Russian pilots over Syria, and similarly between Israeli and Russian pilots.  Iran and its controlled militias won’t hesitate to target American troops if given the opportunity.  All of this is occurring as the ISIS presence in Syria is fading.  That brings us to the latest clash between the Iranian sponsored militias and the Turkish army, which might yet develop into a major new fault-line in the Syrian civil war.