As talks about cease-fires and humanitarian aid drag on, the situation in Syria is becoming overwhelmed by dramatic military moves in the north of the country. President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its military backers have collectively thrown caution to the wind in favor of increased warfare that risks a wider regional conflagration while the U.S. and its allies scramble awkwardly to respond.
What happens in northern Syria, from Aleppo in the west to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in the east, may define the geopolitical fortunes of regional and global powers for years to come. In the immediate future, though, we should expect Syria’s downward spiral to accelerate if three key trends persist: Syria’s fragmentation into half a dozen hostile component parts with wildly different aims, an increased reliance on military action on all sides and the likely fragmentation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) into thousands of hardened militants dispersed across the region and the rest of the world.
Northern Syria is strategically important for all the parties fighting one another; it has special significance for ISIL, which foresees an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil in northern Syria near Dabiq. Many ISIL fighters would welcome fighting and dying in a conflagration between good Muslims and evil apostates; other armed forces also seem willing to play their part in the fighting but purely for strategic gains.
The nature, range and aims of the many groups now fighting in northern Syria are kaleidoscopic, with more than a dozen inching toward a free-for-all. A college cafeteria food fight might be the best analogy for the bullets, mortars and missiles whizzing around in the area.
The initial four years of civil war saw Syria fracture into four zones controlled by the government, the Kurds, ISIL and scores of Islamist and secular-nationalist rebel groups. Russia stepped in last September with daily airstrikes to shore up the Assad government, mostly by attacking rebel forces in the center and north of the country but barely touching ISIL. Iran and Hezbollah have fought for Assad in the past three years, and with the recent air support from Russia this month, they have begun to drive rebels out of areas around Aleppo. An imminent government victory there would tip the nationwide balance on the ground dramatically in Assad’s favor while creating perhaps half a million more refugees who would head for Turkey or Europe — where they are not wanted.
Driving back rebels around Aleppo has bolstered the positions of Syrian Kurdish fighters, especially some who have taken over some rebel areas around the town of Azaz that control access to a critical Turkey-Syria border region. An expanded Kurdish autonomous region frightens Turkey because of its decades-old conflict with Turkish Kurds, who seek greater self-rule. So Turkey started shelling some Syrian Kurdish positions this week, and Syrian troops have fired some artillery shells into southern Turkey. In fact, several small Kurdish forces across northern Syria are simultaneously fighting ISIL, the Assad regime, other rebel forces and Turkey.
This volatile mix is being been made even more deadly by Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s plans to strike and support several different groups in Syria. Enhanced Turkish-Saudi military cooperation, especially if undertaken with a U.S.-led coalition, aims to crush ISIL and would bolster the rebels trying to topple Assad because it would lower the ISIL threat to those rebels and allow them to regain some territory from ISIL. It is a good bet that one aim of a possible Turkish-Saudi move into Syria is to strengthen some rebels so they can help bring about Assad’s downfall, an explicit Saudi goal.
A new Turkish foray into Syria would not be out of character, as Turkey previously attacked neighboring states such as Iraq to protect itself against perceived Kurdish threats to its national security. But Saudi Arabia’s direct entry into the Syrian war would be more serious, given the inexperience and awkwardness with which Riyadh has been asserting itself militarily around the region in recent years. It risks repeating the reckless miscalculation of its nearly one-year-old war in Yemen, which has created a humanitarian catastrophe, given ISIL and Al-Qaeda ground to expand their footholds there and saddled Riyadh with costly long-term reconstruction duties in Yemen, mostly without conclusively achieving its main goals.
Beyond aiming to hit ISIL’s heartland, Turkey wants to clear Syrian Kurdish forces from its southern border, including some Kurds whom the U.S. supports in the fight against ISIL. Reacting to the Turkish-Saudi move, the Russian prime minister last week said that dynamics in the Middle East today look like the Cold War days. He also warned that Saudi-Turkish military action in Syria could spark a long-running ground war, even a “third world war.”
Rarely in modern history has any single region seen simultaneous military action by so many global, local and allied parties. The prospect of the three big regional powers — Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — all militarily engaged in northern Syria amid U.S., Russian, Kurdish and other troops raises the frightening specter of a catastrophic regional war that could be sparked accidentally or deliberately. This would warm the hearts of the ISIL fighters with their prophetic expectations but cause massive new pain and problems for most other people in the region and the rest of the world.