The Turkish foray into Syria is the latest development in Syria’s convoluted tapestry. Besides the national army and numerous militia of different ideologies and external backers, Syria also has five foreign armed forces on its territory — from Iran, Russia, Israel, the US and now Turkey. They all have competing interests and priorities, with some of them occasionally coming together to pursue specific initiatives jointly, but never losing sight of their own long-term concerns.
Thus, the Syrian government, Iran and Russia seem to have condoned the Turkish incursion, though Syria has publicly criticized it. Syria and Iran welcome the attack on the Kurds and the deepening divide between Turkey and the US. Russia backs Turkey as its partner in the Astana/Sochi peace process and welcomes its estrangement from the US.
The US is caught between supporting its Kurdish ally and not alienating Turkey, its long-standing NATO partner. Turkey, however, has taken a tough public position with the US on the Kurdish issue, bitterly recalling US assurances in 2016 that Manbij, 100km from Afrin, would be cleared of Kurdish forces. This has not been implemented, leading Erdogan to threaten a march on Manbij, where several hundred US soldiers are stationed, setting up a direct military confrontation with its NATO ally.
To placate Turkey, the US is said to have agreed to a 30km “safe zone” at the border that will break the contiguity of the Rojava, the Kurds’ western homeland along the Turkey-Syria border.
The real losers are likely to be the Kurds, let down once again by an unreliable partner.
The Syrian scenario grew more complicated this month when Israel shot down an Iranian drone, and then, in its retaliatory attack on Syria, lost an F-16 aircraft, its first loss of a plane in combat since 2006. It responded with massive firepower on Syrian and Iranian assets, with the fighting coming to an end only after a phone conversation between Putin and Netanyahu.
As the Syrian situation acquires new designs with every turn of the Middle East kaleidoscope, different projections are being made about the local and regional outlook. Russia remains a central player in Syrian affairs. Its principal interest is to push the peace process, but it has a tough time keeping its other partners, Turkey and Iran, in line: Turkey’s priority is to dilute Kurdish aspirations, while Iran seeks to keep Bashar Assad in power and retain its influence in the country.
Israel fears Iranian and Hezbollah military presence at its borders and has been asking Russia to guarantee a cordon sanitaire, while threatening military action that could escalate into a regional conflict. Russia remains keen to maintain good ties with Israel as a passageway to its engagements with Washington and has condoned Israel’s periodic military forays into Syria.
A writer in the Egyptian Al Ahram believes that, with the downing of the Israeli F-16, a new “balance of deterrence” has been achieved in the region. Israel no longer has unchallenged control of the Middle East airspace and is also vulnerable to a barrage of Iranian/Hezbollah missiles that would cross its defence systems and inflict considerable damage.
While the US is still struggling to safeguard its interest to maintain a regional presence based on its support for the Kurds, it still lacks the commitment and capabilities that Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia possess. In this situation, the real losers in Syria are likely to be the Kurds, let down once again by their dependence on an unreliable partner.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.