The Syrian Labyrinth: Old Conflicts Wind Down, New Conflicts Arise

By Dr. Jonathan Spyer, Expert on Syria, Iraq, radical Islamic groups, and Kurds.

The wars in Syria are far from over. Israeli policy has been largely successful in preventing the fire from Syria coming over the border, and this effort should continue. But Iranian entrenchment in Syria complicates matters.

The series of wars that began in Syria in March 2011 constitute the greatest man-made disaster to have hit the Levant since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.  The figures speak for themselves.  Over 500,000 people were killed, another 5,200,000 registered as refugees, and an additional 6 million are internally displaced within the country, out of a total pre-war population of 22 million.  The cost of the damage caused by the conflicts is estimated at $300 billion.

The Syrian war has led to profound strategic changes. As a result, Russia is back with an overt military presence in the region for the first time in nearly half a century.  The Turks are in de facto occupation of a stretch of northwestern Syria, and the US is similarly the de facto custodian of 28 percent of Syria in the fertile Jazeera area, east of the Euphrates.  Israel and Jordan, on a smaller scale, have their clients on Syrian soil.  The war has also led to the first enclaves of direct control by the Salafi jihadis on the soil of an Arab country.  The Islamic State is nearly defunct as a result of the efforts of the Global Coalition, established in 2014 to defeat IS.  Further west, the al Qaeda network is currently the de facto ruler of a swathe of northwestern Syria in Idleb Province, from where it engages in sporadic conflicts with other Sunni rebel formations and the Assad regime.

Thus, Syria is today divided into enclaves and penetrated by the forces and influences of a variety of regional and global powers.

For a period, it became common to read in media reports that the Syrian war was “winding down.” While this phrase contains a kernel of truth, it needs to be examined carefully.

The “original” Syrian war – between the forces of the Assad regime and its allies against a largely Sunni Arab insurgency that emerged from the protests that began in mid-March 2011 – is, indeed, winding down.  The decision by the West not to back the Syrian rebels in earnest in 2012- 2013, followed by the Russian air intervention on September 30, 2015, ensured that the regime would not be defeated.  Assad and his allies have subsequently re-conquered the central and most populated part of the country and the prospect of their defeat at the hands of the rebels is now zero, unless a major world power were, once again, to intervene on behalf of the rebellion, which is extremely unlikely.  As a result, the regime-rebel war appears, in essence, to have been decided.  The regime will survive.  The rebellion, meanwhile, looks set to persist in outlying parts of the country for the immediate future.  In particular, the Turkish guaranteed enclave in the northwest looks most secure.

The second major conflict that has raged on Syrian soil over the last four years is between the Islamic State and the US-led Global Coalition.  This, too, is a contest that appears close to conclusion.  The Islamic State has lost the entirety of its territorial holdings in Iraq, while in Syria, the organization retains control over remote areas of the middle and lower Euphrates River Valley, as well as a section of the border with the Golan Heights.

Indeed, both the wars generated by Syria over the last eight years appear to be drawing to a close.  Islamic State is not disappearing, but is reverting back to its pre-2014 status as a Salafi Islamist insurgent network. The Sunni Arab rebellion will not disappear either, but it no longer stands a chance of achieving its goal of toppling the Assad regime.

What then is the direction of events in Syria?

A dispute exists among analysts regarding the interpretation of current events in Syria.  Some observers discern the slow but inexorable return of the status quo ante bellum to the country.  In this interpretation, only relatively weak and transient forces now stand between Assad and the reconquest of Syria.  Once the remaining pockets of the Sunni rebellion in the northwest and southwest have been defeated, the Kurds, east of the Euphrates, will be enticed towards making a deal with the regime. The Americans, whose regional policy is evidently confused and lacking in clear goals, will be induced to leave.  The Turks, reassured that Kurdish insurgents will no longer be in exclusive control of a large part of the northern border, will quit the enclave they control, and the war will thus conclude with the triumphant and unambiguous victory and return of the Assad state throughout the territory of Syria.

Such a view is not entirely lacking in merit.  Certainly the regime and its allies are moving forward, conquering swathes of the country.  The eastern Ghouta rebel enclave is, at the time of writing, being bloodily reduced by the regime and Russian air power.  This was the last enclave held by the insurgency in the environs of Damascus.  Eighty percent of it is already in the hands of the regime and there are no chances of the rebel enclave surviving.  The Islamist insurgents of the Jaish al Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al Rahman organizations in Ghouta are currently set to accept transport to Idleb Province in the northwest. Yet, either way, eastern Ghouta will be lost.

The regime has also begun an offensive into southern Idleb Province, and appears to have set its sights on Deraa in the south.  A delegation of Syrian Arab Army officers has visited the area, according to pro-regime media reports.  Their offer to the rebels is to surrender or face a regime assault, similar to what took place in eastern Ghouta.

Nevertheless, I shall argue here that the view of imminent regime victory and restoration in Syria is somewhat simplistic and, in essence, needs to be understood in a more comprehensive manner from two directions.

Firstly, the entity that is conquering ground in Syria while bearing the regime’s banner is very different from the pre-March 2011 Assad regime.  Most importantly, the crucial role played by Iranian and Russian forces in preserving the regime has altered, perhaps irrevocably, the balance of power between the regime, itself, and its allies and patrons.  Indeed, it is questionable as to whether the Assad regime should be considered sovereign in the areas it controls, and certainly the differing Russian and Iranian “projects” are being pursued in Syria without the need for Assad’s permission.

The Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit in Ankara on April 4 was focused on Syria, bringing together three of the four foreign powers with a major stake in the country (the United States was excluded).  The fact that the Syrian government was not invited to attend the summit is testimony to the balance of power.

Secondly, the notion that the regime, regardless of its internal balance of power, will shortly complete the destruction of all other forces present in the country and render itself the sole wielder of power in Syria also requires further examination.

At least two enclaves controlled by forces other than the regime appear to remain fairly secure in existence for the foreseeable future.  These are: 1) an area of control comprising the entirety of eastern Syria and controlled by the Syrian Kurds in the shape of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its allies, in alliance with the United States.  This area contains the greater part of Syria’s oil and gas resources; and 2) A smaller area of northwestern Syria from Jarabulus to northern Idlib controlled by the Turks, in alliance with certain remnants of the Sunni Arab rebellion.

For as long as the US remains committed to the survival of the Kurdish dominated enclave that comprises around 28 percent of the entire territory of Syria, it is difficult to see how the regime-Iran-Russia side can reunify Syria.  The events of February 7 in southern Deir al Zor (when US artillery and airpower pulverized a Russian and regime force that attempted to capture ground east of the Euphrates) demonstrate the unparalleled ability of the US to assert its will against any other force in a conventional setting.  The latest statements by US officials appear to indicate American determination to retain this area.

With regard to the Turkish-dominated enclave, unlike the Kurdish-US space, it was able to come into existence only with Russian “permission,” that is, with the tacit consent of the key backer of the Assad regime. However, with Turkish forces now on Syrian soil in considerable numbers, they will be removed only with the consent of Turkey, or by the application of extreme pressure from Russia, which does not appear to fit with the Russian strategy in Syria.  Russia, unlike the regime, appears to be committed to a political solution, involving itself as the mediator between all parties, rather than the complete victory of the Assad regime and its return to all parts of the country. As a result, the Turkish controlled enclave also looks set to survive for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, in this regard, Israel is also determined to prevent the arrival and consolidation of Iran-associated forces near the border with the Golan Heights.  Given the strength of the Iranians on the side of the regime,  it is not clear that Assad could or wishes to prevent Iranian elements from accompanying any regime return to this border area. This militates against any early attempt by the regime to re-conquer Quneitra province adjoining the Golan, due to the risk of war with Israel.

For all of these reasons it is likely that, for the immediate future, Syria will remain divided into enclaves, rather than returning through a clear regime victory to the peaceful, but repressive rule of the Assads.

I now turn to look in greater detail at each of the enclaves, seeking to analyze the various components of each, and the extent to which their agendas may differ from one another.

I will subsequently review the emergence of new conflicts on Syrian soil, being fought between various elements of the existing enclaves, not always with the agreement or participation of other elements, before finally considering the Israeli interest in Syria.

Enclaves in Syria

The “regime” side: Assad, Iran, Russia

The Assad regime came close to defeat on a number of occasions during the Syrian civil war, but unless the US were to enter the war to seek its destruction, its continued existence is no longer in question.  Credit for this – to a very considerable degree – must go to Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies.  However, it is also noteworthy that the core elite of the Assad regime has remained loyal and largely intact throughout, with no defections from the innermost circle, even at the lowest point.  The security structures of the regime also never fragmented or collapsed.

Today the regime is in control of 55-60 percent of Syrian territory, along with around 75 percent of the country’s remaining population.  It controls the “spine” of major cities in Syria’s west – Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.  It also controls the entirety of Syria’s coastline (which was never lost by the regime) and Latakia province, the home province of the Assad family and of the Alawi community from which it comes.  The regime also has a limited military presence within the Kurdish-controlled area (specifically at Qamishli military airport and in an area known as the “security square” in Qamishli city).  The regime also maintains social and economic links to the Kurdish areas, including paying the salaries of some officials.

Large parts of the Syrian Arab Army became unusable during the war, because of the dubious loyalty of Sunni Arab conscript soldiers to the regime.  With 300,000 strong on the eve of the war, the Syrian Arab Army today, according to some estimates, is able to field as little as 80,000 troops.

The consequent acute shortage of manpower, which has constituted the main strategic problem for the regime throughout the war, was largely addressed by Iran.  Teheran has used two means: firstly, the deployment of proxy forces on Syrian soil.  In this regard, there are currently around 20,000 fighters affiliated with Iranian proxy militias in Syria.  These include around 6,000 Lebanese Hizballah fighters, who have played a crucial role on the Syrian battlefield since 2013, Iraqi militias, including Hizballah Nujaba, Badr and Asaib Ahl al Haq, and volunteer Shia fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan (al-Fatemiyun) and Pakistan (al-Zeinabiyun).  A recent article in Haaretz, meanwhile, quoted an “IDF estimate” on this subject giving slightly different figures: 2,000 Iranian advisers and fighters, about 7,500 members of Lebanese Hizballah, and about 9,000 militia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition, the Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) maintain around 3,000 of their own personnel in Syria, according to figures in an article by Ali Alfoneh, a leading Iranian researcher of IRGC activity.  From early in the war, the IRGC was also tasked with the establishment of locally recruited structures parallel to the official armed forces, which were more trustworthy than parts of the army in their loyalty to the regime, and could therefore help make up the numbers for the Assads.  These include forces that are officially part of the Syrian security forces, such as the National Defense Forces, which plays a crucial auxiliary role in the regime’s war effort.  For example, the NDF is responsible for the maintenance of the network of checkpoints in Damascus’s old city.

The Iranian-established forces also include locally recruited groups under the direct control of the IRGC – prototypical “Syrian Hizballah” forces analogous to Lebanese Hizballah and the various Iraqi militias using variants of this name.  Unlike the NDF, these forces are not officially part of the Syrian security forces.  Rather, they are directly connected to the IRGC.  A variety of such organizations have emerged, with no apparent effort yet being made to unite all pro-Iranian forces under a single organizational banner.  Such forces include Quwat al-Ridha from the Homs area, al-Ghalibun from the Sayida Zeinab area in Damascus Governorate and the 313 Brigade from the Deraa area.  In all these cases, both IRGC and Lebanese Hizballah personnel are directly responsible for recruiting and training members from these formations.

The crucial contribution of the Iranians to the survival of the regime and the independent structures created by the Iranians on Syrian soil, indicates that independent Iranian power today constitutes a crucial facet of the “regime” side in the Syrian war.

Pro-regime, non-SAA militias are not merely light infantry forces.  Rather, almost every item in the pre-war arsenal of the Syrian army can be found in the inventory of one of the militias.  This includes tanks, such as T-55/54, T-62, T-72, and T-90, as well as artillery, such as BMP-1’s, 2S1 Gvozdika, and ZSU-23-4, as well as a variety of anti-tank guided missile systems.

Similarly, Russia has played a pivotal role in the survival of the regime.  From the outset, Russia prevented a UN-led response to the Syrian crisis, thanks to its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Russian weaponry, supplied in defiance of international sanctions, enabled the regime war effort to continue in the crucial 2012-14 period and the Russian air intervention in September 2015 saved the regime from probable defeat that year.

As a result of this record, Russia has been able to develop its military infrastructure in western Syria, establishing an airbase at Khmeimim in Latakia Province, and with ambitious plans for the development of its naval facilities in Tartous and Latakia.

Russia has also made itself indispensable in the diplomacy of the conflict, setting in motion its own Astana process to rival the UN-sponsored Geneva process.  Moscow has enjoyed only very partial success in this area.  The Sochi conference of January 29-30, 2018 was supposed to set the seal on Russian efforts in the diplomacy of the conflict, but failed to produce results. Yet, while efforts to settle the conflict on Moscow’s terms have proved elusive, Russia has managed to make itself the indispensable arbiter for all parties wishing to act in the Syrian arena (with the exception of the United States).

Importantly, Moscow performs this role without permission from the Assad regime, and sometimes in direct contravention of its preferences.  For example, the Turkish reduction of the Kurdish-controlled Afrin Canton in January-March 2018 was made possible only by the withdrawal by Moscow of its protection of the canton and of its personnel stationed there.  Moscow has a long standing relationship with the PYD, but evidently concluded that drawing the Turks away from their alliance with the West was worth the price that the destruction of the Afrin canton would exact from this relationship.  What matters here, however, is that Moscow facilitated the Turkish entry into Afrin directly against the wishes of the Assad regime.  Regime media outlet SANA issued blood curdling threats to the Turks prior to their entry, depicting it – accurately, of course, – as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

But the regime was evidently powerless to prevent the Turkish move, once the Russians had given the green light.  A regime decision to dispatch a limited number of pro-regime militiamen to stand with the Kurdish fighters against the Turks proved to be of only limited symbolic significance.  This episode indicated the extent to which the Russians constitute an independent actor in Syria, accepting no obligation to conform to the Syrian regime’s wishes (despite the fact that Moscow, in its public statements, contrasts the supposed legitimacy of its presence in Syria as deriving from the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government, in contrast to the US).

Anecdotal evidence supports the contention that in Damascus, itself, Russian personnel are not under the jurisdiction of Syrian authorities.

The balance of power between the regime and Russia and between the regime and Iran facilitates this reality.  The regime owes its continued existence to both the Iranians and the Russians. The price of this is in the regime’s exclusive sovereignty.  Both Teheran and Moscow are today pursuing their own projects on Syrian soil.  These projects are themselves not entirely compatible.  The Iranians are building a paramilitary infrastructure separate from the formal structures of the Assad regime and not under its control, in the contiguous land area between the Iraq-Iran border and the borders with Lebanon and the Golan Heights.  The Russians are concerned with preserving and expanding their military infrastructure in western Syria and making themselves the key power broker in the country.  Neither of these projects is subject to the veto of Bashar al-Assad.  The regime is not fully sovereign even in the areas of the country that it controls.

At the same time, the Russians appear to be interested in reviving and strengthening the core structures of the Syrian state.  The formation of the Fifth Assault Corps, under Russian tutelage, announced on November 22, 2016, is an example of efforts by Moscow to reimpose centralization on the various military structures operating on behalf of the regime.  The Corps’s efforts at recruitment have been relatively successful, but since military groups not affiliated directly with regime command and control structures still proliferate, there is as yet no prospect of the full reintegration of all pro regime elements under regime command.

The Sunni Arab rebellion

The Assad regime’s cardinal strategic problem from the onset of the war, as mentioned above, was a shortage of loyal manpower.  The corresponding core problem for the Sunni Arab rebellion was the inability to achieve unity.  From the first days of the armed rebellion, a myriad of small armed formations proliferated.  The rebels never succeeded in creating a single and authoritative political and military leadership.  This stymied their efforts from the start.

The rebellion was also unfortunate with regards to its allies.  While Iran and Russia offered uncompromising and vital support to the regime from the outset, individual rebel militias received differing measures of support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the United States and other western countries, as well as Israel.  The piecemeal approach to support served to further entrench the divisions among the rebels.  Formations at various parts of the war became associated with their particular patron, such as Liwa al-Tawhid in the Aleppo area (Qatar), the short lived Harakat al-Hazm (the US), and later the Sultan Murad Brigade (Turkey).  Factions competed with one another for the support of foreign donors. The result was a chaotic mishmash of forces that was never able to develop a comprehensive strategy to defeat the regime.

Western support for the rebellion was half-hearted from the start.  The Obama Administration’s commitment to efforts to conclude a deal on the Iranian nuclear program precluded a real effort against the Iran-supported Assad regime.  Absence of Western commitment, and perhaps also the natural tendencies of the rural and devout areas in which the armed rebellion originated, led to the rapid dominance of the rebellion by Sunni Islamist militias.

By mid 2013, the rebellion had taken the form that it has retained until today – namely, a series of loosely coordinated Sunni Islamist militias, some of which (Ahrar al-Sham, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) have networks throughout Syria, while others (Jabhat al-Shamiyeh, First Regiment etc) are purely local initiatives.

The various networks are recipients of outside support. No central structure for the organization of the rebellion or the provision of assistance has ever managed to impose itself on the insurgency.

Despite these major structural drawbacks, the rebellion came close to victory in 2015.  The emergence of the Jaish al-Fatah rebel coalition, bringing together Turkish, Qatari and Saudi supported militias into a single structure, brought the rebellion close to victory in the summer of that year.  This prospect triggered the Russian intervention in September, which then ended any prospect of the rebels toppling Assad, and initiated the slow erosion of the rebels’ territorial holdings, which has continued until today.

At the present time (March 2018), the rebellion remains substantively in control of territory in only three outlying parts of the country (Idleb and parts of Aleppo Provinces, Deraa/Quneitra, and the area around al-Tanf in the south east).

In these areas, the rebel forces no longer constitute an independent, insurgent force with a clear political agenda.  Rather, the rebels are today essentially military contractors, working in cooperation with states with interests in Syria.  This is most clear in northwestern Syria, where the rebels assisted the Turkish armed forces in the destruction of the Kurdish Afrin canton in January-March, 2018.  This action destroyed the canton, and established a territorially contiguous area of Turkish control extending from Jarabulus in the east to northern Idleb Province in the west.  The area is underwritten by the direct presence of the Turkish army and is therefore far more secure than other rebel areas.

In the Tanf area, in Homs Governorate, the US maintains a base in the desert 23 km southwest of al-Tanf town.  The declared purpose of the base is countering IS.  US, British and Norwegian personnel have been engaged in training Syrian anti-government fighters at the base since its establishment in mid-2016.  The rebels at al-Tanf are gathered under the banner of the Maghawir al-Thawra organization, formerly known as the New Syrian Army.  This is a very small organization, today probably numbering not more than around one hundred fighters.

Regarding Israel, a number of recent reports have asserted that direct Israeli aid to the rebels has increased in recent months, as it has become apparent to Jerusalem that the good offices of Russia will not be sufficient in keeping Iran-supported forces away from the border.  Among the groups mentioned as receiving Israeli aid are the Fursan al-Jolan group and the Ahrar Nawa organization.  Israel does not formally confirm such support, but according to the reports, it has increased in recent months, following the termination by the US of further financial support to the rebels in December 2017.

The relationship with certain rebel groups has gone alongside an Israeli program of humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians in the Quneitra area.  At this stage of the war, it is not clear how long the program of limited support to the Quneitra rebels can prevent a regime return to the border area.

Jordan, too, which emerged as an early supporter of the rebellion, has now reduced its backing for the Southern Front rebel coalition, the main non-jihadi rebel grouping active in Deraa Province.  Instead, Amman is seeking to normalize the situation with Syria in the area north of its border.  Jordan’s role was crucial in ensuring the US and Russian guaranteed de-escalation agreement in Deraa and Quneitra Governorates.  Given the regime and Russian attitudes toward de-escalation zones elsewhere, of course, it is unlikely that this agreement will guarantee quiet in the immediate to long term in the Deraa area adjoining Jordan.  Amman will probably, however, be amenable to a return of the regime to this area. The Jordanians have been cooperating closely with the Russians since 2015, with a joint center to share intelligence maintained in Amman and Jordanian contacts with the Southern Front and other rebel initiatives in Deraa. Amman’s interest is in maintaining quiet, to avoid a further influx of refugees into its borders.

Thus, the Sunni Arab rebellion launched against the Assad regime has failed.  It no longer has any chance of defeating the regime.  Nevertheless, the issues that caused its outbreak have not been resolved, and the rebellion’s various alliances with neighboring powers, particularly Turkey, means that it is likely to survive in some outlying parts of the country.


The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, declared in March 2016, is currently in control of around 28 percent of Syrian territory, in the area east of the Euphrates River.  Dominated by the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), the federation is not recognized by a single country.  Nevertheless, the alliance established between the Syrian Kurds and the United States in the (still unfinished) war against the Islamic State remains presently in place.  The US officially maintains a presence of 2,000 troops in the area (the real figure is probably about double).  The events in the area of the Konoko gas field on February 7, 2018, when US forces fired on and destroyed an attacking force consisting of Russian military contractors and pro-Assad militiamen indicated American willingness to defend the area.

The longer term US strategy regarding the Kurdish dominated enclave is not clear, however.  The US has avoided any open ended commitment and, notably, did not act to prevent the destruction of the Afrin Canton, which lies outside of the area of the war against IS and forms the basis for the US-Kurdish alliance in Syria.  Statements by senior US officials appear to indicate that Washington sees its presence in the area as related not solely to the IS war.  Thus, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 12, 2018 that the US would retain its presence in eastern Syria to provide an alternative political model within the country to Assad’s brutal rule and to counter “Iran and its ability to enhance its presence in Syria.”

This statement appeared to indicate a more ambitious and broader US agenda regarding eastern Syria than had previously been outlined. However, US policy in this regard appears to be somewhat of a work in progress. In the first week of April 2018, reports emerged suggesting that President Trump had ordered a dramatic reversal of US policy, including a US withdrawal of forces within five to six months, and the end of US support for reconstruction programs in eastern Syria.  This, according to an Associated Press report, was ordered against the “unanimous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community.” It is not clear if the regime’s subsequent use of chemical weapons in Douma and the resulting US and allied raid on a number of facilities in Syria will serve to alter Trump’s policies in relation to Syria, or if the raid was, in the words of Defense Secretary Mattis, a ‘one time shot,’ at least unless the regime uses CW again. Meanwhile, the situation within the US-Kurdish area of control is relatively stable, with the authorities established by the PYD and its allies in clear control.

For as long as the US remains committed to its presence in eastern Syria, the future of the Kurdish enclave looks secure.  There remains a question mark over America’s commitment, however, and the Afrin events show that without US air support, the SDF would not be able to maintain its position for long against external attacks from either the regime, Russia or Turkey.

There are also indications that the ambiguity of the US position may be encouraging elements that would like to see the US depart Syria in the belief that encouraging instability in the Kurdish-US area may help precipitate this. An insurgent organization calling itself Harakat al-Qiyam has emerged in recent weeks in Kurdish controlled eastern Syria.  A number of prominent individuals linked to the authorities have been assassinated, while further attacks appear likely.  Yet, the area east of the Euphrates River remains relatively peaceful and, as stated above, this area of control will remain invulnerable for as long as the US remains committed to its survival.

Islamic State

Islamic State has lost all its urban holdings in Syria, but it remains active in Deir az-Zur and Hasakeh provinces.  In recent weeks, IS has rallied and carried out a series of counter-attacks, due to the absence of SDF fighters who departed to fight in Afrin.

The movement appears set to continue as a Sunni Salafi insurgent movement in Syria (and Iraq, of course, where it originated and is stronger).  However, Islamic State is unlikely, for the foreseeable future, to rise again as a major de facto sovereign force in the country.  Rather, it is set to remain as one among many Salafi jihadi formations seeking to engage in insurgency against other elements in the country.

In this regard, a number of recent indications suggest that Islamic State is far from spent as a fighting force in the Syrian context.  IS in mid-March launched a counter-attack against Assad regime forces in southern Deir az Zur province.  Twenty five regime soldiers were killed, and the jihadis captured an oilfield.  In the same week, the organization captured the Qadam district in the southern suburbs of Damascus, adjoining the Palestinian Yarmuk refugee camp.

IS today still controls around five percent of Syrian territory, though its holding are scattered.  A franchise of the organization, the Khaled Ibn al Walid Brigade, controls a section of the border between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.  IS enjoys growing popularity among the residents of the Palestinian Yarmouk Refugee camp adjoining Damascus.  Its main area of activity, however, remains the middle and southern Euphrates River Valley.  In this area, US bombings have decreased since the liberation of Raqqa, and the departure of large numbers of Kurdish forces to face the potential threat of a Turkish push into Kurdish-controlled north east Syria has further eased the pressure on IS east of the Euphrates River.

New conflicts emerging in Syria

As noted above, the “original” conflicts in Syria – regime against rebels and IS against Global Coalition – are winding down.  On their ruins, however, new conflicts are emerging. These are not all new in and as of themselves.  Some are conflicts of long standing, which are now, for the first time, being fought out on Syrian soil (such as the Turkish-PKK clash). Others have been generated by the Syrian dynamic (such as the standoff between the US and Turkey, which is a product of the two countries’ support for different elements within Syria).  All of these have two interesting and notable elements in common: they all involve non-Syrian players on both sides.  They also involve non-Arab players as the primary factors on both sides.

The new conflicts are as follows.

Turks vs. Kurds

Turkey recently destroyed the Kurdish Afrin Canton in “Operation Olive Branch.”  This was the second largest scale Turkish ground incursion into Syria, the first being Operation Euphrates Shield in late 2016, which split the Kurdish cantons and established an area of Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel control. Following the completion of Operation Olive Branch, Turkish President said, “we marked a comma. God willing, a full stop will come next…. Now we will continue this process, until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobani], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniyeh) and Qamishli.”

These towns are all in the main Kurdish autonomous area, mainly east of the Euphrates.  The Turkish President appears to be signaling a Turkish determination to destroy the Kurdish gains made in the course of the last five years, in their entirety. It is not clear if a Turkish assault on Manbij and the areas to its east will take place, but the prospect of an ongoing Turkish-Kurdish standoff in northern Syria continues to loom.

Turks vs. US and France

The Turkish stated determination to destroy the Kurdish area of control in north east Syria raises the astonishing but real possibility of direct US-Turkish confrontation.  The US has around 2,000 troops in Syria, if not a considerably larger number.  The US has made it clear that it will not abandon Manbij (though President Trump appeared in late March to make a contradictory remark suggesting an imminent US withdrawal from Syria).  French President Emmanuel Macron has also expressed support for the continued existence of the Kurdish enclave, and a willingness to deploy French troops to protect it against the danger of a Turkish incursion.

Russia vs. US

On February 7th, US air power and artillery destroyed a force seeking to seize the Konoko gas field in southern Deir ez zur.  The attacking force included Russian fighters working for the “Wagner” private military company.  Wagner is controlled by an individual close to President Putin, named Yevgeny Prigozhin. The company has also been active in the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine, acting as an irregular force operating on behalf of Russian interests.

This episode draws attention to the sharp clash between US and Russian interests in Syria. The US, as mentioned above, appears committed to the maintenance of the SDF-controlled area in eastern Syria.  Russia is committed to the interests of the Assad regime.  The SDF controlled area, despite being depicted as an outlying area of little value in some Western coverage, in fact, contains the greater part of Syria’s oil and gas wealth.  The Assad regime has an enormous bill for the reconstruction of the areas it controls, amounting to around $300 billion.  The Russians and the regime are keen to seize the gas and oil fields of Deir az Zur, currently controlled by the SDF and the US.  This determination may well lead to further US-Russian friction. Given the Russian pattern of behavior elsewhere, these are as likely to take the form of Russian attempts to subvert US efforts through the use of proxies as they are to involve further frontal tests of US resolve.

Israel vs. Iran

The events of February 10, 2018, in which Iran sent an armed UAV into Israel, an Israeli F-16I aircraft was downed after a retaliatory raid on the base from which the drone was launched, the T4 base outside Palmyra, and Israel then destroyed a large portion of Syria’s air defense capacity, represented a significant uptick in this  long process of confrontation.  The subsequent action against Iranian facilities at the 47 Brigade base south west of Hama and the additional base near Nairab Airport on April 29th was a further demonstration of determination.

Iran has played a vital role in preserving the Assad regime, and is presently engaged in the construction of an extensive infrastructure across southern Syria. This structure includes permanent bases, the presence of around 3000 IRGC personnel on Syrian soil, around 20,000 members of proxy militias, including Lebanese Hizballah, and an ongoing attempt to build local “Syrian Hizballah” type forces, as discussed above.  Israel appears  determined to prevent these structures from establishing themselves on the border between Qunetra Province and the Golan Heights, and indeed further into Syria.

Jerusalem has made efforts to induce Russian pressure on the Assad regime to prevent the Iranians from establishing themselves on the border.  It is not clear at the present time whether the Russians or the Assad regime have either the will or the ability to achieve this. If it is not achieved, Israel will face the choice of acquiescing to a de facto presence of the Iranians and seeking to deter them, or acting to destroy the Iranian infrastructure close to the border, if attempts to deter Iran from moving forward with this project prove unsuccessful.

Conclusion: The Israeli interest in the Syrian war

Syria has collapsed in on itself, and is currently playing host to a variety of conflicts.  The Israeli interest is in maintaining the security of the border, preventing the strengthening of the Iran-sponsored element in Syria and Lebanon, and preventing the strengthening of Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi forces.  In practical terms, two elements are most urgent:

The first is ensuring that Iran is not able to extend its paramilitary infrastructure to the border. To achieve this, Israel must make clear to both the US and Russia that if the Iranians are not prevented from achieving this goal, Israel will act against it, with severe potential repercussions for the Assad regime, which will seek to defend the Iranians, in hopes of greater stability in Syria via a political process.

The second is ensuring that the Assad-Iran-Russia side of the war is not able to consolidate control over the entirety of Syria and achieve a strategic victory.  A number of means exist to do this.  Firstly, the rebellion in Deraa and Quneitra Provinces is not yet defeated, and in this part of the country non-jihadi, non-Islamist rebel formations, such as the Southern Front, exist.  It is in Israel’s interest to ensure that they remain in existence.

Secondly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with US backing, control around 28 percent of the territory of Syria, in the strategically important, oil and gas rich portion of the country.  It is in Israel’s interest that this area of control be maintained, as it acts as a partial block to Iranian contiguity between Iraq and Syria, and prevents the consolidation of regime rule in the country, maintaining a western stake in the fragmented country.  All available influence with the West should be used to prevent an early US departure from Syria, which would put this entity at risk.

Lastly, Israel should continue to avoid being drawn into the Syrian maelstrom. The wars in Syria are far from over. The various conflict systems will continue to play themselves out. Israeli policy has been largely successful in preventing the fire from Syria coming over the border.  This effort should continue.

Published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security: