Syria’s dangerous new phase

The US absence in Syria is offset by a greater Israeli involvement there within the context of understandings with Russia.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Smoke seen from an explosion at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border. (Reuters)
On collision course. Smoke seen from an explosion at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border. (Reuters)

What is happening in Syria confirms that the war there has entered a different stage. Those who are betting that the Syrian regime has rehabilitated itself are betting on a fantasy and proving they are detached from reality since the events of 2011.

Something has changed in Syria and it changed so fundamentally that some questions have become inevitable: Can Syria regain its former structure? Is it still possible to recreate what used to be called the Syrian Arab Republic in a new form?

What transpired from the recent Israeli raids on Damascus and its surroundings and from the official announcement of these attacks is rich in lessons. It revealed that Israel has gained in aggression and arrogance following US President Donald Trump’s announcement of a US military withdrawal from the east of the Euphrates.

Israel wants to confirm that it is directly concerned with any future arrangements in southern Syria. It wants to remind Iran it cannot celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the fall of the shah by boasting that its missiles are a stone’s throw from the Golan Heights, as it does in Lebanon through Hezbollah.

There are new rules in the game being played in Syria, rules based on understandings between Israel and Russia, which announced after the downing of its warplane in Syria last September that it would deploy a network of its S-300 air defence missiles there and reduce the manoeuvring margin for Israeli planes.

It is quite likely that these understandings were the result of recent meetings between Russian and Israeli officers aimed at closing the page on the recent past.

The September incident and the deployment of Russian missiles are not the only topics that have become a thing of the past between Israel and Russia. It seems that the announcement of the deployment of the missiles in Syria was part of a Russian campaign meant for internal consumption and nothing else. It was only natural. The Kremlin had to act angry in the eyes of the Russian people after the incident.

Another thing that has become a thing of the past is Trump’s ability to develop a strategy for Syria. It has become clear that the Trump administration had no strategy in Syria where the most important player in its eyes is Israel. The US strategy in Syria is Israel’s strategy.

Turkey also had entered the game in Syria in force and grabbed a part of northern Syria while eyeing Aleppo in the long run.

The next question to ask is: Where does Iran fit in this new equation in the Syrian theatre?

Many things have changed and cards have been reshuffled in Syria but the most relevant changes for Iran must be the reconciliation between Russia and Israel and the United States giving the green light to Israel to do as it pleases in Syria.

The United States will, of course, support anything that Israel does. This explains why Israeli officials did not shy away from officially and publicly announcing the Israeli air raids that had targeted the Damascus airport and other areas close to the Syrian capital. Israeli officials had once been careful not to publicise Israeli raids on Syrian territory. Now, they are being bold about it, especially when the target is Iranian presence in Syria.

The new phase of the war in Syria raises a different kind of questions. Perhaps the most important is how far Israel and Iran are willing to go in their skirmishes in southern Syria. Could these skirmishes escalate into a full-blown confrontation that might extend to Lebanon or maybe there is room for agreements between the two belligerents? There is no clear answer but this game is potentially very dangerous for the region.

What has not changed is the fate of the Syrian regime. It turns out that the regime has become part of the past, too. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s only concern, for now, is how to remain in Damascus and helplessly watch another stage that may not be the last in the process of fragmenting Syria.

The regime, which has no legitimacy of any kind, has no other alternative but to play the role of a false witness in the process of killing for good the Syria we have known. This is the same Syria that fell victim to the tyranny of the Ba’ath Party on March 8, 1963, and then to the tyranny of the despotic minority regime established by Hafez Assad.

Unless Turkey’s ambitions in Syria also change, it is not clear what will result from contacts between Ankara and Washington on the Turkish presence in Syria and on how to deal with the Kurds there. However, Turkey has established a permanent presence on Syrian soil and is waiting for the right time to expand further. Ankara believes that it has a right to a vital space where it can move freely, be it in Syria or in Iraq. Turkey is eyeing both Aleppo and Mosul.

The US absence in Syria is offset by a greater Israeli involvement there within the context of understandings with Russia. Turkey also is exercising a more aggressive policy there without overlooking Russian interests. Finally, in Syria there is a regime that refuses to accept that it has gone politically bankrupt and that betting on Iran sometimes and on Russia at other times will not benefit it in the long term.

The Syrian war has entered a completely new phase, open to all possibilities, including a full-blown confrontation between Israel and Iran if the latter insists on staying in Syria while looking for a deal with the Great Satan.