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An anarchic war rages over Syria

Last Updated : 21 February 2018, 18:02 IST
Last Updated : 21 February 2018, 18:02 IST

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The seven-year war in Syria did not end with the destruction of Islamic State's cross-border "caliphate" which, for three years, had occupied rival government and external forces. Instead, the defeat of the jihadis has led to a new, deadly and devastating phase in the struggle for Syria. Russia and Iran see a strong, sovereign Syria as an asset and a source of stability in a troubled region.

Turkey is determined to topple Syria's government regardless of the risk of the country's collapse, while the US and Israel seek to keep the conflict going in order to undermine Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Prolonging the war means prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and threatening Syria's existence as a state.

The first clash of wills began on January 20, when Turkish troops and tanks and surrogate militiamen launched an assault on US-backed Kurdish fighters in the north-western Kurdish-majority Afrin enclave.

Ankara is determined to drive the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. Turkey argues that the Kurdish SDF component is an offshoot of the separatist Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party, which has been fighting Ankara since 1984, and insists that Syrian Kurdish fighters cannot be allowed to occupy a wide belt of Syrian territory along the border as they would link up with the Turkish Kurdish insurgency.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also threatened to send his forces eastwards to drive the SDF from Manbij, a town where US troops are based. This could result in fighting between Nato allies, the US and Turkey, as well as their local surrogates. Some 2,000 US special operations troops train and advise the SDF.

The Turkish incursion was followed by a serious incident on February 3 when al Qaeda-linked elements shot down a Russian war plane on patrol over the north-western Idlib province.
Russia retaliated against the jihadis involved, killing 30, and stepped up its air attacks against their bases in Idlib towns and villages. Turkey is meant to be imp ­osing and monitoring a ceasefire in the province but the jihadis refuse to halt hostilities, prompting government forces to advance on insurgent-held areas.

Russia continues to back the government in its drive to retake Idlib, which contains the largest concentration of anti-regime elements, risking a clash with Turkey. Ankara has used Idlib to funnel jihadis and other insurgents and arms into Syria and would like to hold onto this province to maintain pressure on Damascus and compel Moscow and Iran to make concessions to Ankara.

The third incident involved both global and regional powers. On February 7, Russian and Iranian-supported government forces advanced on oil fields captured by US-backed Kurdish militiamen last autumn. US artillery and war planes attacked the column and killed 100 fighters and several Russian military contractors. The incident took place in Syria's eastern Deir al-Zor province where the Kurds, acting under US orders, have challenged the return of Damascus' control. The SDF holds 25-30% of Syrian territory in the north-east. This incident pitted government allies Russia and Iran against the SDF and the US. Washington seeks to hold onto this territory to insure it has leverage in negotiations and as a counterweight to the expanding permanent Russian naval and air bases in the eastern Latakia province on the coast.

The fourth event took place on February 10 when Israel shot down an Iranian drone overflying the UN-monitored buffer zone dividing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria. US-made F-16 jets attacked targets in Syria.

One of the planes was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. While the crew managed to eject and land in Israeli territory, Israel replied by conducting its largest-ever air raid on Syria, striking multiple targets. Since Russian advisers are posted at Syrian missile batteries, Moscow warned Israel about the risk of killing Russian soldiers.

Israel seeks to create a 40-kilometre deep occupation zone using proxies from al-Qaeda, local insurgent forces, and remaining IS fighters. Israel's objective is to prevent the Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces from approaching the buffer zone. To this end, Israel, which claims Iran is its most dedicated regional enemy, has been treating jihadi and insurgent wounded, providing arms and funds, and courting civilians on the Syrian side of Golan province.

The bit players in this "great game" are pro-government Iraq, an Iranian ally, and anti-government Saudi Arabia, which considers Iran its regional rival. Like Moscow and Tehran, Baghdad fears the ouster of Syria's government could precipitate the country into anarchy, thereby providing a vacuum where IS and al Qaeda can flourish. Riyadh - particularly Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman - is so obsessed with Iran, that he is prepared to risk a jihadi revival to counter Iranian influence.

Sunni Saudi Arabia sees Shia Iran as a far greater threat than Sunni jihadis who are menacing not only West Asia but also the US, Europe, Russia, Africa, the Asian-Sub-continent, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. But then, of course, Sunni jihadis have adopted the ultra-conservative, militant Saudi Wahhabi ideology.

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Published 21 February 2018, 18:00 IST

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