Commentary | 13 February 2018

Back to the Syrian (un)civil war

Originally published in The Australian

Originally published in The Australian

With Islamic State nearly defeated in Syria, attention has started to shift back to the civil war that has raged on even as the terrorist group was pushed out of the territory it held in the east of the country. And the Syrian civil war, even after the defeat of Islamic State, is at least as complex as it was before the rise of the jihadist group.

In the past week alone we have been offered a glimpse of just how difficult the Syria problem remains. Fighting involving US, Turkish, Israeli, Syrian and Iranian militaries and their proxies in the south, east and north of the country has grabbed headlines.

Last weekend an Israeli F-16 was brought down by Syrian anti-aircraft defences, although its crew was able to limp home and bale out over friendly territory. Israelis are used to living with many things, including occasional military casualties along the border with Lebanon and Katyusha rockets landing in the country’s north and south. But they are not used to having their aircraft shot down. Indeed, a key element of Israel’s deterrence capability rests on popular confidence in the impunity with which its aircraft can reach out and strike targets virtually without cost; until now it had not lost an aircraft to enemy action since 1982.

The loss of an Israeli aircraft to Syrian air defences, therefore, has consequences far beyond the loss of a simple airframe. This was reflected in the response mounted by the Israelis: a multi-aircraft attack against 12 Syrian and Iranian air defence targets inside Syria.

The second most senior Israeli air force officer has described it as the “biggest and most significant attack against Syrian air defences” since the 1982 Lebanon war. The stakes for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are high, as Israel knows it cannot physically rid Syria of an ongoing Iranian military presence, but it nevertheless wants to send an emphatic message setting the limits of their actions. Netanyahu left little doubt of this when he said of the Israeli response: “We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security.”

Temperatures have been raised as groups try to gain mileage from the aircraft downing. Iran and Syria’s close ally Hezbollah announced that the incident heralded a “new strategic phase” and that “today’s developments mean the old equations have categorically ended”. A military spokesman for Israel put Tehran on notice about who it considered blameworthy by announcing: “This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into a situation in which it doesn’t know how it will end … whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”

For the time being, though, neither side believes it would be in its best interest to seek further escalation. Tactical successes have been scored by both sides and the strategic red lines have been reset.

Meanwhile, in the east of the country several hundred pro-regime fighters, backed by artillery and tanks, crossed the agreed demarcation line of the Euphrates River and launched an assault against a pro-US Syrian Democratic Forces position. US forces present at the position called in fire from supporting artillery and aircraft and devastated the attacking forces. There are claims that up to 100 of the 300 attackers may have been killed. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis called the rationale for the attack “perplexing”. The position that was attacked is close to oil and gas fields taken from Islamic State by the US-backed forces and the purpose of the operation may have been to retake them.

Washington also advised that US forces used their hotline to Russian forces to make sure none of the latter were present before engaging the attackers.

An equally perplexing question is why the Russians, having been contacted by the Americans, were unable or unwilling to stop an attack by its regime allies against a target they knew would be protected by significant US firepower. It shows that the Russians have little communication with Syrian forces in that area or little influence over them.

In the northwest the Turkish incursion into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Afrin district has been taking an increasingly heavy toll. Last weekend, Ankara lost 11 soldiers as well as a helicopter in clashes with Kurdish forces. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was typically aggressive in his response to the losses, saying: “We might lose a helicopter, but they’ll pay the price for this.”

The Turkish forces are fighting Kurds in mountainous terrain where the Turks’ advantages in technology and armoured vehicles are somewhat blunted by the nature of the terrain and the local knowledge of the defenders. Nearly two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed, and video of German-manufactured tanks operating in Afrin has caused heated debate in Germany.

Complicating matters for all concerned is the fact the Kurds whom Turkey is fighting in Afrin are from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the same group that has formed the backbone of the US-trained and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces in the east of Syria. The Assad regime has allowed the YPG unhindered passage through Syrian government-controlled areas to reinforce its forces in Afrin.

It is unclear how many, if any, US-trained YPG fighters have redeployed from eastern Syria to help their fellow Kurds fight the Turkish military. If they have, this could lead to some awkward bilateral discussions between Ankara and Washington.

All the main external actors have different strategic aims in Syria. Israel and Turkey are driven by geographic reality as they share borders with Syria and seek to remove the perceived threat from Iranian and Kurdish forces respectively. Iran seeks to spread its political influence and realise a return on its investment in blood and treasure, while Russia wants to retain its influence in a decades-old ally and guarantee its financial investments there.

Washington’s strategic aim post-Islamic State is less straightforward. It has continued to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down but it is not clear that maintaining a foothold in the country’s east will achieve that. Mattis’s claim following the failed attack in the east, that “We are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war”, is a difficult one to maintain if the regime and its supporters continue to attack Washington’s allies, or if the US-supported YPG fighters decamp to Afrin to fight Turkish forces. If the US not careful it may well be that the Syrian civil war engages with American forces rather than the other way around.

Washington has tried to avoid this scenario by busying itself on the diplomatic front. Last month two deputy assistant secretaries from the State and Defence departments visited Turkey, National Security Adviser HR McMaster was in Ankara for talks last weekend, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is visiting Turkey this week as part of a five-nation Middle East visit. The need to ease tensions between Ankara and Washington, as well as to avoid regional states being dragged further into the Syrian civil war now that Islamic State has been largely removed from the equation, is likely to be high on the agenda.

Former US president Barack Obama was slow in dealing with the Islamic State threat in Syria because he saw the main effort as being in Iraq and because he did not want to become decisively engaged in Syria. The Trump administration considered the defeat of Islamic State a priority. This it has largely achieved, but without a clearly defined strategy for dealing with the broader civil war.

Now Washington finds itself with several thousand troops in eastern Syria allied with an organisation that is combating one of America’s NATO allies in northwestern Syria. The US is not yet decisively engaged by any means, but it will also be difficult to extricate when the time comes.

But the shift in focus away from Islamic State and back to the Syrian civil war also has highlighted the ambiguous role played by Moscow. Its intervention in September 2015 without a doubt saved the Assad regime. And despite Obama’s prediction that Russia’s military role meant it would get sucked into a quagmire in Syria, Moscow has calibrated its military contribution such that its losses are politically, and certainly militarily, manageable.

But Syria is proving to be much more of a diplomatic quagmire than Moscow would have anticipated. Russia’s long-term leases on its naval and air bases show just how much it sees itself as a part of Syria’s future, but it is likely to have anticipated more progress on the diplomatic front by now.

The increased Russia and Syrian airstrikes in eastern Damascus and Idlib province following the failure of recent talks likely reflect Moscow’s frustration at the slow pace of progress and are an indication it still believes it can selectively use military pressure to force opposition groups to the negotiating table.

In the past Russia has criticised Israel for striking targets inside Syria, claiming that it should avoid any action that heightens tensions in the region, and called for sovereignty to be respected. On this occasion the foreign ministry in Moscow said it was “absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen”. Netanyahu, meanwhile, called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in the region.

The reality is that Moscow likely has far less control over the other elements involved in the Syrian conflict than is imagined. The drone incursion against Israel mounted by the Iranians, the attack on the US-supported base in the east and the failure of the Russian-sponsored diplomatic talks in Sochi, which were boycotted by the main opposition and Kurdish groups, show how difficult it is for any one actor to dictate events in Syria.

Ankara and Washington want Assad to go, Moscow and Tehran want him to stay. Proxies from both sides have sufficient military capability at the moment to deny victory to the other, but none of the states capable of intervening in a decisive manner wish to do so.

For the foreseeable future expect more skirmishes to establish advantage for one side or the other, or for agreed rules of behaviour to be sought, punctuated by diplomatic initiatives. The fight against Islamic State in Syria was hard, but the Syrian civil war continues to defy an easy resolution.