Who’s fighting whom in Syria?

I was planning to write about the Syrian civil war some time ago but then events in Israel overtook me.  Make no mistake, the “knife intifada” – which includes stones, rocks and car-rammings too – is still ongoing, but it’s time to look at what’s going on over our northern border, particularly since the fighting has reached alarmingly close to Israeli territory.

The parties involved in Syria comprise a dizzying array of nations and groups. The main players are Syrian President Bashar Assad and the remainder of his regime; Russia; the US and the West; Turkey; Iran; the Kurds; anti-Assad pro-Western rebels; anti-Assad pro-ISIS rebels; ISIS.

The short version of the current mess is as follows:

  • Russia is supporting Assad. To that end it is also siding with Iran against both the US- and Western-backed rebels and also against ISIS.
  • The US and the West are fighting ISIS but are supporting the rebels – who might also be supporting ISIS because ISIS has a chance to bring down Assad.
  • The US and the West are also finding themselves on Iran’s side as it is (according to them) the lesser of two evils and is fighting ISIS.
  • Turkey is nominally supporting the West to bring down Assad but Turkey is also fighting the Kurds who have the best chance of bringing down both Assad and ISIS.
  • And Israel is sitting on the sidelines watching the back-and-forth like a spectator at a tennis match and we are all hoping all sides will lose. Or win for that matter.

To further confuse matters, some of the above-mentioned entities are confronting each other in the war. Occasionally they both oppose each other and assist each other at the same time.

To help you understand the situation and make sense of it (if that is even possible) – or possibly confusing you further – here are some interesting articles and analyses of the Syrian crisis if you want to know more details:

MEMRI’s Turkish media expert, R. Krespin, explains that the Russian intervention in Syria shatters Turkey’s neo-Ottomanist dreams for Syria:

Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria along with Iran, aimed at propping up Assad’s rule, as well as its airstrikes that target not only ISIS but also the so-called moderates supported by Turkey (which in reality are also Islamist terrorist groups), have transformed the face of the conflict. Russia’s reassertion of its involvement in the Middle East, and its recent incursions into Turkish airspace, threaten to spark a Russia-NATO clash on the Turkey-Syria border. With its naval bases in Western Syria, Russia could interfere with Turkish and other vessels along the navigation routes in the eastern Mediterranean.  Turkey is certainly the most affected party in this new game, for its dreams regarding Syria, which never matched its actual abilities, are fast becoming a nightmare.

Satellite images showing Russian military installations in Syria

Back in September Russia’s military build-up in Syria was reported, leading to Israel coordinating with Putin on any possible military action.  The estimable Jonathan Sypyer expands on this subject, explaining how Russia is filling the strategic vacuum in Syria:

All this represents a strategic move by President Vladimir Putin, of wide import and profound implications. The Assad regime is a longstanding ally of Moscow. This alliance goes back to the 1960s, when radical and pro-Soviet Arab nationalists first took power in Damascus. Putin has been backing the regime in its war with the rebellion against it since 2011.

Nevertheless, the present move is of an unprecedented scale. So why is it happening, why now, and what is Moscow seeking?

The most immediate reason for the sharp increase in Russian assistance to the Assad regime is that the dictator has been losing ground to the rebellion in recent months. Worse, from Moscow’s point of view, the rebels’ gains were bringing them close to the parts of Syria whose retention by the regime is essential for Russia.

Spyer explains how Assad has been losing ground to the rebels so he has been retreating to what he considers his most vital areas. However, his rapidly shrinking territory means that his very regime is under threat. This is very much against Russia’s interests as Syria is considered a client state.

Putin undoubtedly is concerned about Islamic State’s rise and what its proliferation could mean for the restive Caucasus region and central Asia. One of Islamic State’s main military commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, is of Chechen-Georgian origin, and volunteers from the Caucasus are among the most brutal of the jihadi fighters in Syria.

But the deployment of the Russian forces in Syria indicates beyond doubt that the main concern of the Russians is to defend Assad against the rebels. The proclamations against Islamic State are a feint to add moral authority to the defence of the dictator.

But the Russians are not deploying in any strength in this [ISIS-controlled] area. Their deployment is on the western coast, a considerable distance from Islamic State but close to the lines of Jaysh al-Fatah (and taking in Russia’s naval assets in Tartus). The Russians have begun flights of Pchela-1t unmanned reconnaissance vehicles out of Latakia. These UAVs are conducting patrols over rebel-held territory to the immediate east of Latakia, not over Islamic State-held areas.

Given the scale of the deployment, there are no indications that Russia is set to take part in a major campaign to reconquer areas lost to the Assad regime. Rather, as it appears, the Russian intention is to prevent the rebels from pushing further into regime-held areas.

This will enable Moscow to preserve its assets in western Syria (it has little interest in or need for land farther east). No less important, it will enable the Russians to keep the Syrian war going.

Putin sees the eastern Mediterranean as the back yard of the West. In strategic terms, maintaining assets in an ongoing conflict in the West’s back yard is a natural goal as a means to offset the West’s holding of assets in Russia’s back yard: the former states of the western Soviet Union, most importantly Ukraine. So Russia’s determination to keep Assad in the game has a logic far beyond Syria. But almost certainly it does not include the costly and probably unachievable goal of winning complete victory for Assad.

The intervention is the latest bold move by a Russian President who perceives a strategic vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean, deriving from the US desire to avoid major commitments in the area.

Spyer’s conclusion is very interesting:

…it is notable that Russian diplomacy in the region has included an attempt to keep channels of communication and cooperation open with the enemies of Iran and Assad, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Moscow looks poised to call the next round of shots in the contiguous area that once comprised the now collapsed states of Iraq and Syria. This represents a new strategic reality in the Middle East. For now, it’s Moscow rules in the eastern Mediterranean.

And yet in another article, Spyer asserts that Russia’s intervention in Syria is not a game-changer:

Having noted that Russia is not bombing ISIS rebels but rather anti-Assad rebels, even if they are Western-supported, he remarks:

The Russian intervention was an emergency response to rebel advances in northwest Syria in the preceding months. A new rebel alliance, the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), declared in March 2015, had made considerable gains in the months prior to the intervention. This new bloc brought together a number of the most powerful rebel militias in Syria’s north, including the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham.

Those forces captured Idlib city and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur in the spring of this year. This left the way open for a rebel push into the regime controlled Latakia province on the western coast. Latakia contains the Russian naval depot at Tartus, the only Russian naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union.

This would have spelled potential disaster both for the Assad regime and its Russian patron. The Russian intervention was intended first and foremost to prevent this. This is clear—despite the hollow claim by Moscow that its intervention was intended to help the regime in its fight against Islamic State.

Spyer explains the difficulties of the Assad regime in finding enough manpower to fight on its behalf. Iran has partially stepped in:

The Iranians, of course, are providing the manpower for the current regime offensive. But unless Teheran envisages placing Sunni areas of northern Syria under permanent occupation, this is only a temporary solution.

In the final analysis:

The Russian intervention into Syria, while undoubtedly significant, doesn’t appear to be a ‘game changer’ in the Syrian war, presaging its early conclusion. Rather, Moscow took the decision to double down on its support for the Assad regime at a time when it was experiencing extreme difficulty.

The Russian intervention isn’t of a type and scale which can deliver victory to Assad. Nor will it impact significantly on the other conflict systems currently under way in the land area that was once Syria.

Participants at the Vienna talks on the Syrian crisis

The Syrian crisis has brought about a surreal, even absurd, coalition of nations trying to bring about some stability. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely given the realities of the Middle East, Israel – the one country bordering Syria who is also likely to find itself targeted by any one of the players involved – was not invited to the conference.

But who WAS invited? Iran (!)invited to participate amongst all the civilised Western nations to discuss a peaceful (!) resolution in Syria.

An official in the region, however, told Reuters that Iran had already been invited by the United States and Russia, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian would attend the talks, while the presence of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was still under discussion.

The other participants were:

Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, the European Union and France also said they would attend Friday’s talks, which come a day after a smaller round of negotiations between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Around a dozen participants are expected in total.

With that illustrious line-up, maybe it’s a good thing that Israel didn’t sully its character by mixing with such dubious types.

The end result of the Vienna talks was as expected: the setting up of a UN-led talking shop to discuss a diplomatic process.

The U.S. and a host of international powers agreed Friday to resume United Nations-backed peace talks on Syria, but with a recognition that President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. had once insisted Mr. Assad leave power as part of any political deal, but more recently has said he might be allowed to stay during a transition in power. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Mr. Assad should go at an unspecified time but that discord over when shouldn’t hinder talks, while Iranian and Russian officials stressed that only the Syrian people could decide on Mr. Assad’s future.

The U.S. diplomat also acceded to Moscow and Tehran playing major roles in determining Syria’s future, a stance that might not be acceptable to Washington’s Arab allies.

In other words, the US surrendered on every one of its points of principle. Is anyone surprised?

Minister Ze’ev Elkin

At least Israel laid out its red lines to the Russians before the conference and it woudl be safe to assume that, unlike Obama and his rapidly erased red lines, Israel will indeed make them uncrossable.

Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Strategic Affairs and Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin laid out Israel’s red lines in Syria in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, Israeli nrg news reported.

The Israeli minister, according to the report, relayed to Lavrov Israel’s three main concerns: preventing the flow of weapons to the terrorist group Hezbollah, maintaining a quiet border in the Golan Heights and upholdingthe ban on the use of chemical weapons.

“Israel believes this meeting is very important in light of the Vienna meetings and what appears to be a significant improvement for the battered Syrian president, Bashar Assad, ” reported nrg. Additionally, Lavrov reportedly described to Elkin some of Moscow’s plans for the months ahead in Syria.

To this end it is significant that reports emerged on Shabbat that the Israeli Air Force struck in Syria at a Syrian arms convoy headed for Hezbollah. Hopefully this will reinforce our red lines.

Omer Dostri in Israel Hayom comments on the absurd new world order that has emerged under the influence of Obama’s Administration:

Iran’s participation in the talks in Vienna on Friday on the conflict in Syria was a manifestation of new, post-nuclear deal order in both the world as a whole and the Middle East in particular.

In recent decades, the U.S. was the sole superpower in the international arena. However, that has changed during U.S. President Barack Obama’s seven years in office, and now the world is bipolar in nature, if not multipolar. The past year has seen Russia enter the international scene and take an active role, both militarily and diplomatically, in conflicts around the globe.

This is a direct result of American foreign policy in recent years, […]  the U.S. has tried to achieve stability in the Middle East by making sure conflicting powers are balanced out with each other.

Iran’s participation in the Vienna talks was the result of this U.S. outlook which views Iran as a stabilizing agent that could serve as a counterbalance to the Sunni axis led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The White House considers Iran to be geopolitically important and this has helped Iran gradually turn into a regional power.

The clearest expression of this strategic decision by the Obama administration was the nuclear deal reached between six world powers and Iran.

Dostri reminds us of the most dangerous agent in the entire Middle East if not the world:

Iran is still committed to the destruction of Israel, continues to undermine stability in the Middle East via support for the rebels in Yemen and the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, maintains funding of terrorist organizations such Hezbollah and Islamic jihad and incites anti-Israel violence by Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. Yet world powers — in a display of senselessness and utter detachment from reality — continue to shower Iran with praise, thus contributing to the creation of an absurd new world order.

Looking at this Gordian knot of competing forces and proxy wars, it is tempting for us in Israle to say “may both sides lose”. But we are in extreme danger both from collateral damage (e.g. stray missile strikes and the like) and from any one of those entities, be they Iran, Assad, ISIS, Nusra Front and others.

We cannot afford to place our trust in Russia, no matter how reasonable they appear at the moment. Russia acts only in Russia’s interests. Sadly the same can now be said for the US as well. Israel must look out for its own well-being and interests and take appropriate action where necessary.

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2 Responses to Who’s fighting whom in Syria?

  1. Pete says:

    The situation in Syria has become enormously confusing – and bloody!! The position of the western powers (Anglo-American alliance) is very confusing now, since the “moderate opposition” in Syria has apparently collapsed. Who exactly is getting Western money? And if supplies provided by the West are falling into the hands of ISIS, what is really going on? I don’t trust any of the media reports, and I don’t think that anyone else does.

    The Syrian conflict is metastasizing into the Greater Syrian War. The involvement of Superpowers is scaling up, not going down. The clash between Sunni nations and Iran is also scaling up, not going down.

    I seriously doubt that Israel is sitting still. But I have no idea what your country is doing.

    It is remarkable that there have not been direct clashes between Russian aircraft (and soldiers) and Western personnel. I don’t see how this will be avoided – if this war becomes increasingly more complex.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Yes indeed. It is confusing both on the political front and on the military front – and that is wehre the greatest danger lies. First of all, as you point out, there’s the danger of unintended clashes between Russia and the West. Secondly, all that Western aid is not being properly tracked; nobody ever vetted the rebels properly, and it’s obvious that at least some of that military aid has ended up in the wrong hands, e.g. ISIS or the Nusra Front.

      Interestingly, Netanyahu took several high ranking officers with him when he met Putin precisely to discuss ways to avoid clashes between the 2 armies and air forces. I think there’s more coordination between Israel and Russia going on behind the scenes than we are aware of. Probably also between Russia and the West and Israel and the West.

      Mind-boggling really, all those huge international players on such a small and highly combustible playing field. This is without adding in the Iranian connection.

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