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These 5 Proxy Battles Are Making Syria’s Civil War Increasingly Complicated

6 minute read

Seven years into Syria’s “civil war,” the country is at greater risk than ever of being overrun by the proxy wars of other nations.

These five facts explain just some of the foreign clashes currently raging in Syria.

Israel vs. Iran

Over the weekend, Israel intercepted an Iranian drone that had flown into Israeli airspace from neighboring Syria through Jordan. Iran has been openly supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for some time now (much of that through its proxy Hezbollah), while Israel has tried to generally steer clear of the Syrian quagmire, at least publicly.

But with the breach of Israeli airspace by perennial foe Iran, Israel was forced to respond, launching an airstrike on Syrian and Iranian military positions. The Syrians shot down an Israeli jet (the first Israeli jet to be downed by an enemy since 1982), and the Israelis continued to hit numerous military positions. It is the closest Iran and Israel have come to war since the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, and sets a new precedent for the rules of engagement for Israel in Syria.

Seven years on, Syria manages to keep pulling in new actors, and with them their accompanying blood feuds. That’s incredibly disheartening — not to mention dangerous.

Turkey vs. Kurds

But Syria is not just being used to wage proxy battles between international powers — it’s also being used to wage domestic fights, too. Case in point: Turkey.

When Turkey first joined the Syria fray in the summer of 2015, it was ostensibly in response to an ISIS suicide bombing in the border town of Suruç. But the fact that Kurdish forces within Syria were making significant progress battling both Assad and ISIS also weighed heavily on Ankara; indeed, some even argue that Kurdish advances were the primary motivating force for Turkey’s entering the war.

Kurds are an ethnic minority of roughly 30 million, the majority of whom live in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. For millions of Kurds, an independent Kurdish state has always been the ultimate—but elusive—end goal. Turkey itself has the largest Kurdish population, at roughly 15 million, or 18 percent of its total population. While some Kurds have decided to work within the Turkish political system, others have opted for violence, headlined by the Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). More than 40,000 people have been killed in Turkish-Kurdish violence over the years. For the Turkish government, the success of Kurds in Syria emboldens the Kurdish separatist movement within its own borders. That’s why Turkey has been targeting Kurdish units in Syria…

U.S. vs Turkey

…bringing Turkey into direct conflict with the U.S. Given Washington’s other two ongoing wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan), the U.S. has been understandably hesitant to wade too deeply into the Syrian morass. There are currently around 2,000 American troops in Syria as part of an anti-ISIS coalition, but the U.S.’s real contribution to the war in Syria has been its 11,000+ U.S.-allied airstrikes against ISIS positions, as well as its training and equipping of anti-ISIS forces, among them Syria’s Kurdish militias.

Washington’s support for Kurdish militia forces has long irked Ankara, but things came to a head last month when the U.S. announced it would help establish a 30,000-strong border force in northeastern Syria, the backbone of which would be comprised of Kurdish fighters. This was wholly unacceptable to Turkey, which launched a wide-ranging military offensive known as “Operation Olive Branch” (Ankara was obviously in charge of naming). And suddenly, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, two NATO allies are engaged in a direct proxy war, with repercussions that will potentially long outlast Syria’s war.

Russia vs U.S.

At least the NATO dustup should please Moscow; it’s probably less pleased about the toll the Syrian war is beginning to take on Russian personnel. Russia joined the fray to prop up Assad, Moscow’s long-time ally. Syria is strategically important for Russia, housing Moscow’s only naval base with direct access to the Mediterranean. Along with Iran, Russia has been instrumental in solidifying Assad’s hold on the country, and has in the process burnished Russia’s credentials as a serious player across the Middle East. Russia has presidential elections in about a month. Much of Putin’s popular appeal rests on his ability to restore Russia’s place in the geopolitical order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Syria is one of the shiniest examples he can hold up.

But this week brought news that dozens or even hundreds of Russian fighters were recently killed in a failed attack on a U.S.-Kurdish base in the Deir Ezzor region in support of Assad. When questioned about the news, the Kremlin responded that the individuals in question were mercenaries rather than members of the Russian military. Either way, Syria has become the unlikely site for what could have been the deadliest skirmish between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War. Let that sink in.

Secularists (Russia/U.S./UAE) vs. Islamists (Turkey/Iran/Qatar)

All these proxy wars aside, Syria is a microcosm for the defining conflict playing out across the Middle East today: secularism vs. Islamism.

On one side, you have those pushing for a more secular Syria—Russia, the U.S., and the United Arab Emirates to a large degree. On the other side, you have those pushing for an Islamist Syria—Turkey, Iran and Qatar. (While Iran and Turkey favor a Shia/Sunni ideology, neither oppose increasing the influence of Islam in the Syrian political system.)

And while each of these players have different political interests and factions that they back in Syria, they represent in aggregate two wildly different visions of Syria’s future. Whichever constellation of actors emerges victorious will go a long way in determining Syria’s future tilt towards one of the two extremes.

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