The Great Game continues in Syria

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The Great Game continues in Syria

A routine refrain among casual observers in recent months has been a sense of relief that the conflict in Syria is coming to an end. However, the alleged shooting down of an Iranian drone, major Israeli air attacks in Syria, the downing of a Russian fighter jet and a Turkish helicopter, and a Turkish invasion of the north-west should shake this bout of wishful thinking to the core. The multiple wars in Syria have life and plenty of death left in them yet. 
The Syrian versus Syrian component is still ongoing, though the opposition is struggling for survival, at least in its armed form. As regime forces edge ever further into Idlib and decimate East Ghouta, it is tough to see a reverse in this process without a major change in the balance of power. 
This phase of the Syrian wars, and there are many wars, is all about the international and regional powers feasting on the cadaver of the Syrian state. Turkey is shaping the contours of a new power arrangement in the north, which will be deprived of any meaningful Kurdish threat. Yet the real long-term fallout for Syria will be the resentment caused by the numbers of Syrian Arab fighters who have become Turkey’s tool for this. Kurds, Arabs and Turks will have to learn to live with each other again at some point. 
Israeli involvement was — in comparison to the other regional powers — relatively low-key until the autumn of last year. It has played the role of a hunter lurking in the bushes as all its prey fight each other into exhaustion. It had stuck to its publicly declared lines of intervening only when it believed high-tech weapons were being transferred to Hezbollah, but Israeli leaders have also watched with alarm as Iranian influence has spread across Syria. This is what stands out about the confrontation last Saturday. This was an Israeli-Iranian clash in no uncertain terms. 
The Israeli version of events is that this was triggered by an Iranian drone — launched from an Iranian drone base near Palmyra — entering Israeli airspace, backing it up with video of the intrusion. Protestations of a violation of Israeli-controlled airspace may be valid but, given its 100-plus attacks inside Syria over the last seven years, pretty hypocritical too. 
Israel could be a useful weapon for Moscow to knock back Iranian ambitions and remind the Assad regime there is only one nation with the power of life and death over its survival and that will never be Iran.
Chris Doyle
But the story begs many questions, above all who in the Iranian military hierarchy authorized this drone intrusion and why? It was bound to provoke a massive Israeli response and, given Israeli technical superiority, the drone was always going to be spotted. Some suspect this was Iranian bait trying to suck Israel further into the conflict yet, if so, the reported targeting of at least 12 Iranian and Syrian military sites hardly benefits Iran. 
These Israeli strikes mark a step up in its attacks, which have been more frequent since September of last year. This time, Syrian forces were clearly engaged, when so often in the past the regime was passive. Previous Israeli raids had only been met with a tirade of hollow threats. 
Israel is clipping Iran’s wings. It is doing so at a time when the Syrian opposition has little chance of exploiting this to their advantage, such is their weakness. 
All Israeli actions will be calibrated to Russian levels of tolerance. Privately, Russian officials may not be too upset that Iranian ambitions are being dealt a blow. The Moscow red line is that the Assad regime should survive, but this does not extend to promoting Iranian interests. The balancing act is how far can the Iranian presence be hit without undermining what remains a very fragile regime. For President Vladimir Putin, the weaker the Iranian hand, the stronger the Russian position is to shape Syria’s future.
Iranian ambitions in Syria are barely supported by any other party in the Middle East or internationally. The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are its most ardent opponents, while Turkey, Russia and the European powers are hardly fans. The Syrian regime and its supporters do not wish to be in eternal serfdom to Iranian overlords. 
Perhaps Iranian overconfidence has been dealt a timely blow. Tehran may have to rein in dreams of permanent military or naval bases on Syrian soil. 
But Israel, whose officials warned that Iran is playing with fire, is not above dangerous arson itself. It should resist the temptation of getting further sucked into a conflict that, until recently, it had done well to distance itself from. 
A full-blown Israel-Iran confrontation is many steps closer. It could play out over Syria or over Lebanon. The fact that such a war would be highly costly to all sides and may not be in their interests does not mean, in this heated climate, that it will not happen. 
Central to determining the next stage will be Russia. Israel could be a useful weapon in the Russian playbook to knock back Iranian ambitions and remind the regime that there is only one power, and one power alone, who has the power of life and death over its survival and that will never be Iran. The icing on the Russian cake is that this would be welcomed with gusto in Washington. The Great Game in Syria is still very much in play. 
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. 
Twitter:@Doylech
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