Israeli and Turkish attacks could prolong Syrian war

Israeli and Turkish attacks could prolong Syrian war
5 min read
22 January, 2018
Analysis: As Damascus consolidates control over much of the country, attacks by Syria's neighbours risk opening new fronts in the war, writes Paul Iddon.
Turkish tank crews prepare to roll into Afrin, a Kurdish-held canton in Syria [AFP]
2017 was another successful year for the Syrian regime, which has reconquered most of the country with decisive Russian support. With most of the opposition largely destroyed or in disarray, the war appears to be nearing an end in some form of victory for the regime.

However, two neighbouring countries have serious concerns about what comes next. For Israel, Iran's expanding footprint in Syria is a red-line, as is the growing power of the Syrian Kurds for Turkey.

Both have launched attacks inside Syria in January and may end up prolonging the war in order to neuter their enemies inside Syria.


The Israelis began January 2018 by launching both air and surface-to-surface missile strikes - on January 9, against a storage unit allegedly containing long-range missiles in Qutayfeh, northeast of Damascus. A second alleged attack, on January 16, was reported in the Israeli press. That unconfirmed attack struck a Hizballah weapons depot in Mezzeh military airport, southwest of the Syrian capital.

Israel has launched repeated airstrikes into Syria since at least January 2013

The first attack apparently targeted a storage unit with long-range missiles, while the second reportedly destroyed a weapons depot belong to the Lebanese-based Iranian-backed Hizballah Shia militia.

Strikes of these kind are far from rare; Israel has launched repeated airstrikes into Syria since at least January 2013. The targets are invariably sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles it doesn't want Hizballah to acquire - since such weapons could help that Iranian proxy to undercut the Israeli military's technological edge in any future war.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu essentially reaffirmed this month, following the January 9 strike, that Israel has "a longstanding policy to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hizballah in Syrian territory".

This policy, he added, "has not changed. We back it up, if necessary, with action".

What's noteworthy about these latest strikes is the fact they come as Damascus is consolidating its power over most of Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is presently engaging the remnants of his armed opponents in East Ghouta, Damascus, and the northwest province of Idlib. If he achieves victory in both these areas, which seems inevitable at this point, then he will control the majority of the Syrian state, and the vast majority of its population centres.

He will also have more forces freed up to risk directly retaliating against such Israeli strikes in the future.

Israel reportedly reached an agreement with the US and Russia in November - the US-Russia-Jordan Memorandum of Principles - to keep Hizballah or any other Iranian-backed Shia militias away from Israel's de-facto frontier with Syria in the Golan Heights. It remains to be seen if this can be successfully implemented.

Israel has consistently responded with overwhelming force to cross-border spillover fire since the Syrian conflict began and has vowed to destroy any adversary that approaches that frontier, essentially making the area a free-fire zone.

The January attacks were just another striking reminder of Israel's readiness to resort to military force to deny Tehran and its proxies any long-term foothold in Syria as well as a reminder that the war in Syria may not necessarily end with an Assad victory over his domestic opponents on the battlefield.


Turkey is also taking military action in Syria, arguing that it is fundamentally threatened by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) that control two-thirds of Syria's border with Turkey.

The Turks control the other third of that border, a sixty-mile swathe of land captured from the Islamic State group that separates the Kurdish northeast territories of Jazira and Kobane from the tiny canton of Afrin.

The Americans allied with the YPG, and the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition that it created, to fight IS in Syria. This has frustrated the Turks for years, and subsequently strained decades-old US-Turkish relations.

Since last summer, the Turks have been threatening to completely destroy the YPG in Afrin. Its deployment of forces in neighbouring Idlib province, which began last October, completed its encirclement around the canton and puts it in a position whereby it can strangle the YPG there.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed this month to launch an operation against Afrin and the SDF-controlled Arab city of Manbij - which the SDF captured from IS in the summer of 2016. Turkish forces surround Afrin, and once again cross-border Turkish artillery fire is hitting YPG targets all across the tiny enclave.
A boots-on-the-ground Turkish invasion of one of Syria's Kurdish regions could yet provoke a wider confrontration with the YPG across northern Syria

Erdogan has also threatened the Americans over their plan to build a 30,000-strong SDF force to guard the borders of Syria in the areas they currently control. The US has already backpedalled on the project, claiming it was a misunderstanding and that the force's purpose was "internally focused".

Washington also stated that it does not work with the YPG in Afrin, giving Ankara a de-facto greenlight to attack the territory. But a boots-on-the-ground Turkish invasion of one of Syria's Kurdish regions could yet provoke a wider confrontration with the YPG across northern Syria, potentially engulfing the quarter of the country currently under Kurdish control in a new war with Turkey.

In conclusion, while both these Israeli and Turkish actions are completely unrelated, and against different adversaries and targets, what they have in common is the fact both seem hurried in light of the fact Assad is regaining control over the country and could soon be in a position to reallocate his military resources to counter, or retaliate against, such attacks and incursions.

His regime has threatened to shoot down any Turkish fighter jets attacking Afrin and similarly would welcome the propaganda coup that would come with successfully downing any Israeli jet infilitrating Syrian airspace in the foreseeable future.

Until that day comes, both Israel and Turkey may scramble to afflict as much damage on their enemies in Syria as possible. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon