|BER NEWS - melting ice
As 2018 began, it looked like the war in Syria might be drawing toward an ending that few in the international community wanted. Yes, ISIS was on the way to defeat as a conventional fighting force–but the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, controlled more than half of the country.
Barely seven weeks later, an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight. Instead, the war in Syria is growing like a tumor–worsening in some areas and infecting surrounding states. What began as a civil uprising seven years ago now looks more like an international conflict where patron states are replacing their proxies.
Since Feb. 3, the aircraft of four different countries have been downed over Syria. A Russian jet was hit by Syrian opposition fighters. Turkey says Kurdish fighters shot down one of its helicopters. An Israeli F-16 was downed by the Syrian regime after the jet carried out raids in Syria. And Israel says it shot down an Iranian drone entering Israeli space from Syria. On top of this, U.S. forces clashed with Russian mercenary forces who had attacked Kurdish forces backed by the U.S.
This dizzying array of overlapping and competing conflicts and alliances has become unmoored from the war that began in 2011. “Most of the conflicts that you see now have nothing to do with Syria per se,” says Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group. “They just happen to be fought there.”
With 400,000 people dead, the conflict in Syria is no longer just about the future of Assad, the Syrian people or even ISIS, which has now lost most of its territory. Instead, it’s a series of battles for geopolitical dominance.
The key player is Iran, which has extended its influence and reach inside Syria. Analysts say it now effectively holds the levers of power. “In the beginning, Iran entered Syria to support the regime of Bashar Assad, but Assad has ended up becoming a client of Iran,” says Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. “The Syrian regime has become almost hostage to Iran’s interests.”
That is too much for Israel, which sees a creeping Iranian military presence on its border. It launched a series of cross-border assaults in Syria on Feb. 10 in an overt show of force. Israel has carried out occasional strikes on Syrian territory since 2011, but both sides have shied away from raising the stakes. This time, things played out differently. Syria’s anti-aircraft system hit an Israeli F-16 as it returned from a raid, sending a message: Israel will no longer have free rein of Syrian airspace.