When U.S.-led coalition forces managed to ferret out the remnants of Islamic State (ISIS) from their strongholds throughout Syria, many hoped the seven-year-long civil war, which began in 2011 with protests against the Assad regime, would finally grind to a halt (1, 2). But if the first few months of 2018 are any indication, the grueling conflict is far from finished. Indeed, the Syrian civil war risks becoming a regional conflagration involving a bewildering array of militias, regional proxies, and foreign actors, from Russia and Iran to Israel and the Kurds (6). Recent skirmishes between these various actors suggest that the conflict in Syria may, in fact, be just beginning to heat up (2).
To begin with, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has continued to target the opposition forces with iron-clad resolve and punishing firepower. In particular, the collapse of ISIS has given Assad the opportunity to focus more intensely on crushing the rebels and solidifying his hold on former ISIS territory. On Feb. 18, government forces began pounding Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held Damascus suburb, killing thousands, including children (3, 8). The international community responded with a UN Security Council resolution denouncing the bombardment, but Assad is unlikely to relent now that the tide has turned in his favor (12).
The Syrian government has another reason to continue its offensive against the rebels—it has the Russians on its side. President Vladimir Putin intervened on behalf of Assad beginning in 2015, and since then, the Russians have continued to support the regime with a military base, airstrikes and contract soldiers (1). Not surprisingly, Russia and the U.S. are at odds in Syria. Although the two powers united to defeat ISIS, their goals for the long-term political situation in Syria differ significantly. The U.S. has consistently advocated for Assad’s removal: when the civil war first began, the U.S. allied itself with anti-government forces, and later, with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who proved to be highly effective against the Islamic State (2). The Trump administration has also shown itself willing to use direct force against the Assad regime; in April of last year, President Trump authorized the release of fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base in response to the government’s use of chemical weapons (7). In addition, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced American troops would remain in certain areas of Syria until the region achieves political stability (2). With Russia and the U.S. supporting opposite sides in the conflict, the possibility of an accidental clash between these two heavyweights looms large. In fact, on Feb. 7th, Syrian government forces and Russian mercenaries launched an attack on an American-supported base at Deir ez-Zor in Eastern Syria. Dozens of Russians died, many of them no doubt felled by American bullets (5).
The U.S. presence in Syria has also angered Turkey, a NATO ally. Turkey opposes the Assad regime, but it also detests the Kurdish militias that have received U.S. backing. The Kurds, a stateless ethnic group dispersed throughout parts of Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran, have long agitated for independence in Turkey through their Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), but have been brutally suppressed and labeled as terrorists by the Turkish government (13). Fearing the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in areas formerly occupied by ISIS, Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” in January, a military campaign directed against the Kurdish-held Afrin territory (10). So far, Turkish forces have not encountered any American troops, but President Erdogan has threatened to attack the nearby American base at Manbij if the U.S. continues to maintain its support of the Kurds (2). Relations between these two NATO allies were already dangerously frayed, and the situation in Syria has only exacerbated tensions.
If all this does not already make the Syrian conflict seem like a free-for-all brawl, the addition of two more foreign actors should do the trick. On the morning of Feb. 10th, an Iranian surveillance drone intruded deep into Israeli airspace. In response, Israeli bombers targeted the air base from which the drone had launched (5). When Syrian government forces downed one of the Israeli planes, Israel retaliated by destroying approximately one-third of the Syrian anti-aircraft weapons (4). These developments worried international observers who fear a regional conflict between Israel and Iran, both of whom have intervened in the Syrian civil war. Since 2011, Iran has consistently backed the Syrian government by supplying weapons to Hezbollah, a Shiite militia that is based out of Lebanon and supports the government forces. Iran wants to gain a foothold of power in Syria, and more specifically, a protected corridor to Hezbollah and the Mediterranean (9, 11). Coincidentally, that goal is also Israel’s greatest fear: it fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006 and considers it a terrorist organization. A long-term Iranian presence in Syria would create a major security threat for Israel—thus, the heated response to the Iranian drone and the ever-present threat of a full-blown war between Israel and Iran.
All of this foreign involvement has the potential to escalate into something much greater. Each actor has a particular vision for Syria’s future; in many cases, these visions directly conflict. As Krishnadev Calamur, senior editor of The Atlantic, explains, “Assad will try to consolidate and expand his hold over the country. Turkey will try not to allow a semi-autonomous region on its border. The Kurds will fight to protect the territory they’ve gained. Iran wants to reap the gains of its investments in Syria and Assad. Israel is adamantly opposed to a permanent Iranian and Hezbollah military presence on its border in southern Syria. The U.S. wants to ensure ISIS doesn’t re-emerge and has stated a preference for Assad to step aside. Russia wants to preserve Assad’s position—and its own as a power broker in the Middle East” (6). Whether the international community can successfully navigate this intricate web of interests will determine the fate not only of Syria but also of the entire Middle East—and of the millions of citizens caught in the jaws of a seemingly unending war.