The situation in Syria has become positively dizzying. Yaroslav Trofimov published a piece at the Wall Street Journal this past Thursday that explains just how absurd the war has become. “Here’s what happened in Syria over the past week or so,” Trofimov writes. “Try to make out who’s whose friend—and who’s whose foe.”
The Russian-backed Syrian regime gave free passage through its territory to American-backed Kurdish militias so they could fight against America’s NATO ally Turkey.
The Syrian regime at the same time attacked these American-backed Kurdish militias in another part of the country, triggering U.S. strikes that killed more than 100 Syrian troops and a significant number of Russian military contractors.
In yet another part of Syria, Turkey threatened to attack American troops embedded with these Kurdish forces, prompting a counterwarning of an American military response.
And it doesn’t stop there:
Russia, meanwhile, stood by and didn’t use the vaunted S-400 air-defense system it had deployed to Syria as Israeli bombing raids wiped out as much as half of Syria’s own air defense capabilities.
Moscow also remained determinedly silent over the Russian deaths in U.S. strikes, the first time a large number of armed Russian citizens were killed by the U.S. military since 1920.
Let’s see…Russia also lost a military jet (to a missile fired by Syrian rebels who cooperate with Turkey), as did Israel (to a Syrian regime missile), while Turkey had a helicopter shot down (by a Kurdish missile) and Iran a drone (by an Israeli chopper.)
Trofimov believes that the seven-year war is entering a deadly new phase in which great powers US and Russia are competing with each other and, depending on the day, with and alongside regional powers like Turkey and Iran for dominance in the area. Continued disorder and escalation is likely.
So far, the US has failed to articulate any clear strategy in Syria. It is not even clear who our allies are anymore. We have tried to maintain a positive relationship with our Turkish allies even as we support Kurdish forces that fight against them. In trying to curry favor with both, we have succeeded with neither. Muddled thinking prevails.
Secretary of State Tillerson visited Ankara on Friday, promising better coordination with Turkey and affirming that both countries have “precisely the same” objectives in Syria. Whether that statement is true and whether Tillerson’s attempt at a Turkey reset will work is still very unclear.
The US probably cannot roll back Russian involvement in Syria for now. The American people lack the interest and the will to engage in such a massive task. At this point regional powers, Israel included, are treating Vladimir Putin as the de facto kingmaker of the area. This harms our prestige.
But does it harm our interests? Russian hegemony in the Middle East, while not ideal, may not rise to the level of a strategic threat. So say some.
But Russia is not an honest broker. Russian meddling in the region will only empower a revisionist Iran, which will continue provoking its enemies Jordan and Israel. This will force Israel to strike back at Iranian assets, “mowing the grass” to halt any significant build-up of military personnel and hardware. These low-intensity confrontations will inevitably reach a head and cause a true regional war to break out. Of course, civilians will bear the brunt of the fighting.
Russia and Iran’s continued build-up of influence in Syria presents a strategic threat to the US and our allies. We need a clear vision of what we want to accomplish. We need clear red lines, and we need to enforce them. We must create facts on the ground—to have mass and to take up space—in a way that challenges both countries’ influence. “Until the situation becomes clearer,” writes Adam Garfinkle over at The American Interest, “having some U.S. power in theater functions as a kind of insurance policy against worst-case developments.”
Some people think the situation in Syria can’t possibly get any worse. But it can, and it very well might. We need to get ahead of it.
Robert Nicholson is the Executive Director of The Philos Project and the Co-Publisher of Providence.
Photo Credit: Raqqa Internal Security Force students dismount a vehicle during urban movement drills for Quick Reaction Force training near Ayn Issa, Syria on January 12, 2018. This training is part of the overall Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve building partner capacity mission which focuses on training and improving the capability of partnered forces fighting ISIS. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Elizabeth Barlow.