US and Russia Want to Avoid Syrian Escalation, But Are They in Control?

The U.S. and its Western allies avoided triggering a wider war in Syria last Saturday when they retaliated with precision missile strikes against President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack. But there are plenty of hazards ahead that could draw the big powers, as well as neighboring countries, deeper into the Syria quagmire — and into direct conflict with each other, however determined they are to avoid it, analysts said.

Washington and its allies may have given up on seeking the removal of Assad from power, and the rebels may now control only a few pockets of the north near the Turkish border and in the south adjacent to Jordan, but the Syria conflict remains far from over.

Microconflicts abound — although they are less “micro” from the point of view of those involved — with a struggle intensifying over the consolidation of spheres of influence. Several outside powers are determined not only to shape post-war Syria, but to retain significant long-term roles for themselves, as well as to maintain territory they currently control.

In the north, Turkey is continuing to press an offensive against America’s Syrian Kurdish allies and is threatening to expand it. Sunni Arab rebels and Kurds are at each other’s throats, risking drawing in the U.S. Al-Qaida remains a menacing and influential force. And remnants of the Islamic State group have yet to be mopped up.

Aside from Turkey, substantial territory is occupied by Iranian-controlled militias, including Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which has developed a number of military bases in the country, and Iranian-led Shi’ites from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

And the biggest challenge all foreign powers face in Syria is how to control their proxies and ostensible partners in a complex multisided struggle involving an array of militias and fighters and countries, all with conflicting agendas.

There was a sense of relief among Western political and military leaders in the hours after the U.S., France and Britain launched a barrage of 105 cruise missiles to obliterate three Syrian government facilities. The worst-case scenario of the Russians responding to the punitive strikes hadn’t materialized. And the Syrian military’s efforts to shoot down incoming missiles failed — despite claims to the contrary by both Moscow and Damascus, said Pentagon officials.

​Israel and Iran

But the threat of escalation remains, despite its absence Saturday, and one of the biggest risks, said analysts, rests with a menacing threat dynamic unfolding between Israel and Iran in Syria.

“The scale of Tehran’s military expansion across Syrian territory and the resulting threat that this poses both to Israel and regional security has become unsustainable, and the risk of a major conflagration and a potentially uncontrollable cycle of escalation has never been higher,” said Charles Lister, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organization, and author of the book The Syrian Jihad.

Israel has launched dozens of cross-border airstrikes targeting mainly Hezbollah in the past few years, with the latest earlier this month, when at least seven Iranian military personnel, including a top commander, were killed in an Israeli missile strike on an Iranian drone base in Homs province.

On Tuesday, Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, threatened reprisal, warning, “Tel Aviv will be punished for its aggressive action. The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned after the missile strike on the drone base that Israel “will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria, no matter the price to pay. We have no other option. Allowing Iran to strengthen itself in Syria is like accepting that the Iranians strangle us.”

Lister said the U.S. needs to include the issue of the military presence of Iran and Hezbollah “within its broader strategic calculations on Syria policy, and in coordination with allies, it should seek to aggressively contain and deter Iran and prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming truly inevitable.”

U.S. options

It remains unclear, though, how Washington can do that — at least, without courting the danger of being drawn deeper into a conflict that’s threatening to spill over in all directions, more so now than at any other time in the seven-year conflict. Containing Iran would also seem impossible, if U.S. President Donald Trump follows through on his stated aim of withdrawing soon the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria, where they are tasked with mopping up IS fighters but are serving also as protectors of the Syrian Kurds.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that one idea being raised by the Trump administration is to assemble a coalition force drawn from Gulf Arab states and Egypt to replace the U.S. military in northeast Syria, with the aim of it combating extremist groups and containing Iranian influence.

But analysts caution any Arab troops deployed would find themselves directly confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen and Shi’ite militias, prompting the likelihood of war spreading across the Middle East.

Turkey would also be unlikely to welcome Egyptian, Saudi or Emirati forces arrayed along its southern border, said analysts, and it is unclear how the force would be able to operate, as Egypt is supportive of the Assad government, while Saudi Arabia and the Emirates aren’t.

Even without throwing an Arab force into the equation, the endgame of the Syrian conflict is fraught with increasing unknowns and dangers. Despite a display of unity between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran at a recent conference in Ankara hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there are signs that the current understanding between the three may not have long to run.

Both Russia and Iran are pressing Turkey to relinquish control of the Kurdish city of Afrin and to hand it over to the Syrian government. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the most explicit, expressing disapproval of Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria and complaining it is in violation of Syria’s “territorial integrity.”

“Tehran appears to be increasingly concerned about Turkey’s plans in the north of the country,” according to Hamidreza Azizi, a political scientist at Iran’s Shahid Beheshti University.