by Mark N. Katz
Although it began in 2011 as a conflict between the Bashar al-Assad regime and its internal opponents, Syria has become an arena in which numerous conflicts are taking place simultaneously. Early on it became a conflict between Iran (which backed the Assad regime) and Iran’s regional rivals Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar (which backed its internal opponents). American involvement in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) beginning in 2014, combined with the Russian military intervention in support of the Assad regime beginning in 2015, increased tension between Moscow and Washington and even raised the prospect of conflict between American and Russian forces operating there. The role that Lebanon’s Hezbollah has played in helping Iran prop up the Assad regime has raised concern in Israel about what Iran and Hezbollah will do against it if they defeat or even contain the Assad regime’s adversaries. Most recently, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Syria has risen to the fore.
The different priorities, both in Syria and in the region more broadly, of the different actors involved in the Syrian conflict have complicated relations among various sets of allies. Although the U.S. would like Assad to step down, the fight against IS became Washington’s priority after the rise of that group both in Syria and in Iraq. The U.S. then began supporting Syrian Kurds since they were among the most effective forces fighting against IS. But America’s longtime ally Turkey regards the Syrian Kurds, whom they see as allied with Kurds seeking to secede from Turkey, as a greater threat than IS. Similarly, Israel regarded Iran and Hezbollah as a greater threat to it than IS, while Russia prioritized the non-ISIS Syrian opposition as the greater threat to the Assad regime than IS.
This is not to say that those who regarded other opponents as a higher priority than IS saw IS as an ally. They mostly regarded it as an adversary (though Turkey has been accused of aiding it against the Syrian Kurds). They even contributed to the demise of IS—especially when its power was weakening and the fight against IS became a competition over which rival force would replace it in the territory that IS lost. Indeed, the decline of IS has led to an intensification of other rivalries in Syria (as well as in what had been its other stronghold, Iraq).
As a result of the success of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in the fight against the Assad regime’s non-ISIS allies—as well as the success of the U.S., the Syrian Kurds, and others against IS—the Assad regime is arguably in a stronger position now than it has been at any time since the uprising began in 2011. The Trump administration does not seem to be challenging this but wants U.S. forces to remain in Syria both to guard against the revival of IS and to contain Iran—which is a very high priority for Trump as well as for Israel. With most of Assad’s other non-ISIS adversaries either defeated or gravely weakened, the one group remaining that is strong enough for the Trump administration to work with are the Syrian Kurds.
But, as is now clear, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whose relations with America and Europe were already severely strained—has taken umbrage at American support for the Syrian Kurds and has recently intervened in Syria against them. This has confronted the U.S. with the choice of continuing to support the Syrian Kurds and risking losing Turkey as an ally altogether, or acquiescing to Erdogan and risking the loss of America’s one remaining effective ally in Syria.
America’s predicament would appear to be good news for Russia. But it is not necessarily so. If Turkish forces quickly defeat the Kurds, Ankara is hardly likely to turn over the territory it captures to the Assad regime but will keep control of it instead. Russia does not want Turkey to do this, but it does not want to fight with Turkey over this territory either. Yet if Turkish forces find themselves in a prolonged struggle against the Kurds, it will pose risks for Moscow—not least of which will be being dragged into a conflict that it really does not want to be involved in.
Similarly, any increase in conflict between Israel on the one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other will cause problems for Moscow. Although Russia is obviously cooperating with Iran in Syria, it has also cultivated close ties with Iran’s regional opponents—Israel and Saudi Arabia—which it does not want to damage. Siding with Iran will push Israel and Saudi Arabia closer to the U.S. But not supporting Iran may lead to the weakening of Iran’s position in Syria, which Moscow is strongly reliant on to keep Assad in power. Finally, there is also the possibility that the Turkish-Kurdish conflict will interact with the Iranian-Israeli one. Turkish-Iranian conflict in Syria will be problematic for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sought good relations with both. Ironically, Turkish-Iranian cooperation in Syria could also serve to sideline Russian influence there.
Syria is an arena in which both Trump and Putin want to play a determining great-power role. But the region’s growing rivalries—especially between Turkey and the Kurds and between Iran and Israel—may limit America’s and Russia’s ability to play such a role. These regional rivalries may also have a far greater impact than America and Russia on Syria’s future.
Photo: Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.