WASHINGTON — Almost exactly seven years after the start of the Syrian civil war, the country is experiencing a dramatic surge in violence with unprecedented Israeli and US strikes.
As regional and world powers compete for territory, influence and natural resources within the war-ravaged state, the US and Israeli strikes could complicate the plans of Iran and Turkey in Syria and the rest of the region, as the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) comes to an end.
Israel’s massive air strikes that pummelled Syrian air-defence positions and Iranian targets on February 10 came on the heels of US attacks on forces loyal to the Damascus regime in Deir ez-Zor in the Euphrates Valley.
Israel’s raids occurred after its reported interception of an Iranian drone over its territory and the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus called the drone intrusion “the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years.”
Israel has often expressed resentment of the military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon but this was the first direct confrontation between the two arch-foes since the start of Syria’s war. Israel confirmed hitting four Iranian military targets during its raids on Syria.
Beyond escalating tensions with Iran, Israel’s strikes will cause ripple effects in Syria and Lebanon, increasing friction with the pro-Iran Hezbollah.
A few days before the Israeli raids, the United States carried out air strikes against pro-government Syrian forces in Deir ez-Zor. Washington seemed to be warning its NATO ally Turkey and other players in the Syrian drama, especially Iran, that it intended to play a major role in shaping the future of the war-torn country. More than 100 of the 500 pro-government Syrian fighters were killed, US officials said.
The United States rejected calls by Turkey to withdraw from Manbij, a strategically vital enclave in northern Syria under the control of US-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), which include Kurdish and Arab militias.
The US raids raised questions about relations with Russia in Syria. The line previously drawn to delineate zones of influence of the United States and Russia showed signs of breaking down following the US air strikes. The United States and Russia last year agreed that the Euphrates would be a dividing line between their forces in Syria. However, the defeat of ISIS means that conflicting priorities of Washington and Moscow could now come to the fore.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis called the push of the pro-Syrian troops over the Euphrates “perplexing” but was careful not to blame Russia. The US defence chief insisted the fighting in Deir ez-Zor did not indicate a deeper American involvement in the Syrian conflict. “We are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war,” he said.
The clash, however, followed the announcement by Washington of an open-ended US military presence in Syria. One declared goal by the United States is to make sure that ISIS does not make a comeback. Another is to prevent Russia from winning back all of Syria for its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and block further expansion of Iranian influence in the country.
Washington is bound to face criticism at home over its continued presence in Syria. “I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives,” US Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said in an Associated Press report.
The US administration’s determination to stay engaged in Syria and to keep backing and — if necessary — protecting the SDF is causing fresh tensions with Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his troops would march towards Manbij next, a city approximately 100km east of Afrin, to drive out the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from there as well and has called on the United States to withdraw its military units from the city. In response, two high-ranking US generals visited in a demonstration of support for the Kurdish fighters there.
In a bid to mend the growing rift with Ankara, US national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepared for separate visits to Turkey and Mattis was to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Nurettin Canikli, in Brussels.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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