Is the Syrian war about to get even more complicated?

Is the Syrian war about to get even more complicated?
Analysis: A lack of willingness among major powers to make substantial compromises will likely result in the Syrian war dragging on for years to come, writes Paul Iddon.
9 min read
12 April, 2018
The Syrian war has been raging for eight years [Getty]

The most recent chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, has seen the United States once again contemplate attacking the Syrian regime.

At this point in time in Syria - when Israel is believed to have launched a new airstrike that killed Iranian military personnel and France is deploying troops to help the US prevent Turkey from attacking a Kurdish-held city - such a development will simply add yet another complex layer to the ever more convoluted morass that is the Syrian conflict.

Coalition of the willing

Following the April 7 chlorine gas attack, in which approximately 60 people were killed, both US President Donald Trump and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron agreed in a phone call "to exchange information on the nature of the attacks and coordinate a strong, joint response", indicating that an attack against Syrian military targets in the foreseeable future was possible.

Almost a year to the day before the latest chemical attack, Trump ordered the firing of 59 ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria's Shayrat airbase, in retaliation for a lethal sarin gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

It's unclear if Trump will launch a similar "precision" strike against a regime military target this time around, or a more wide-ranging attack - to unequivocally demonstrate to Damascus that he is serious, since last year's attack doesn't seem to have deterred it from using such unconventional weapons again.

French assistance could prove valuable for any effort the US undertakes. It's worth remembering that after the deadly August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, that killed hundreds, the UK and France agreed to help the US reprimand Syria through military action for crossing President Barack Obama's "red-line" on chemical weapons use.

The US and Britain, however, quickly backtracked - after Congress and the British parliament both voted against military action - and later heeded Russia's calls to implement a unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolution, Resolution 2118, that compelled Syria to surrender its chemical stockpile for destruction.

French Dassault Rafale multi-role jet fighters, armed with long-range SCALP EG air-to-surface cruise missiles, were being readied to attack targets in Damascus and western Syria within hours on 31 August of that year, when French President Francois Hollande was told by Obama that the strike was being called off - reportedly leaving the French premier "stunned".

Hollande's successor, Emmanuel Macron, has been open to the idea of reprimanding Syria for chemical weapons use, even before this latest attack. In a frank discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year, Macron said France would immediately respond to any chemical attack in Syria - regardless of the perpetrator.

Russia is compelled to uphold the terms of Resolution 2118 it signed back in September 2013. If a credible threat of force is levelled against Damascus, Moscow may seek to pressure Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad to live up to his obligations under that resolution to stave off direct American and French attacks against his regime.

Russia vetoed a US draft resolution at the Security Council that seeks to properly investigate the Douma incident to determine who was responsible, possibly an attempt to cover-up any concrete proof of culpability on Damascus' part.

If Trump's comments about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin having to "pay a price" if Russia was in some way involved in the attack are serious then the US will unlikely heed any Russian objections against launching any attack.

The president's much more direct tweet, in reaction to Russia's claims it would shoot down any American missiles targeting the Assad regime, unequivocally declared: "Get ready Russia, because they will be coming."

Ironically in retrospect, during the aforementioned 2013 US threat to attack Assad, Trump lambasted President Obama by rhetorically asking in a tweet: "Why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria. Why can't we just be quiet and, if we attack at all, catch them by surprise?"

On 12 April the president went on to clarify that he: "Never said when an attack on Syria could take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!"

Israel re-enters the fray

Following Trump and Macron's vow to "coordinate a strong, joint response" to the Douma attack, missiles rained down on the major Tiyas (T-4) military airbase in the eastern countryside of Homs Province. The Syrian regime believed that the US and/or France were behind the attack.

Both countries denied it. Moscow and Damascus have since accused Israel of carrying out the attack. Israel has neither affirmed nor denied any involvement.

The attack killed 14, including a number of Iranian military personnel. Iran's own Fars News Agency puts the estimated number dead at seven. Israeli F-15 jet fighter-bombers reportedly carried out the attack and likely struck T-4 using long-range Popeye standoff missiles, which can hit targets up to 80 kilometres away. The jets are also believed to have used Lebanese airspace to launch the attack.

While none of this is necessarily unprecedented, it appears the Israelis did not give any heads-up to the Russian military in Syria before this latest strike, indicating that Israel no longer has any trust left in Russia - likely because Moscow has done nothing to curtail Iran's expanding footprint, mostly via militia proxies, in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov consequently described the attack as a "very dangerous development".

Antagonising Russia could hinder Israel's capability to strike high value targets across Syria, such as advanced anti-air or anti-ship missiles it does not want the Hizballah group to obtain. One reason T-4 is a high value target for Israel is because it believes Iran is using it to supply Hizballah with arms.  

In February, after shooting down an Iranian drone violating its airspace, Israel launched a wide-ranging attack against several bases in Syria - including T-4, from where the drone was reportedly launched and remotely operated - resulting in the loss of one of its F-16s.

The only reason it didn't continue to attack sites across Syria was reportedly because Russian President Vladimir Putin dissuaded Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from doing so, since some of the strikes impacted in close proximity to Russian personnel in Syria, in "a furious phone call".

Russia could well seek to deter any future US, French or Israeli attacks against regime targets by deploying more sophisticated long-range S-400 anti-aircraft missiles and advanced Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighter jets to Syria in the near future.

The Manbij standoff

In the week before the Douma attack, France announced it was dispatching troops to bolster the US ground presence in the Syrian city of Manbij. The US helped the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group capture the city in the summer of 2016.

France's deployment of troops to Manbij is clearly a move to help the US block another Turkish offensive against the Kurds

Turkey has since threatened to attack Manbij on numerous occasions, saying that its Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) adversary, that forms the backbone of the SDF, retain a presence there. Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed group which has fought a 34-year insurgency against the Turkish state.

Since Turkish troops and their allied militias conquered the isolated north-western Kurdish enclave of Afrin on March 18, following a two-month operation, Ankara has reiterated these threats, increasing tensions in that part of Syria. 

France's deployment of troops to Manbij is clearly a move to help the US block another Turkish offensive against the Kurds. It comes shortly after French Prime Minister Macron met with an SDF delegation in Paris's Elysee Palace.

Around the same time, Trump announced he was contemplating withdrawing US troops on the ground - of which there are approximately 2,000 - in Syria. He later agreed to retain the troop presence for "a little longer" upon being urged to do so by his entire national security team.

Turkey was, understandably, quite confused to see the US president announcing a withdrawal as the French premier simultaneously vowed to deploy troops.

If Trump does decide to strike Syria in the near future, he will unlikely need these ground forces in order to do it, especially if the April 2017 Shayrat strike is any precedent to go by. The US has airbases in the wider Middle East region and any aircraft carrier deployed to the 5th fleet in the Gulf has a strike radius of more than 1,000km - easily capable of hitting targets across Syria.

Furthermore, US troops in Syria are situated in the Kurdish-majority northeast, where the regime does not have a major presence - with the exception of troops and paramilitaries currently fighting against the Islamic State group remnants in the eastern Deir az-Zour province.

What's noteworthy about the current situation in Manbij is that two NATO allies - the US and France - are essentially being deployed to deter another NATO ally, Turkey. While certainly bizarre this isn't wholly unprecedented given the fact that the air forces of Turkey and Greece - two American-armed NATO members - have frequently engaged in tense standoffs over the Aegean Sea for decades. The latest such example was just this week when a Turkish Coast Guard helicopter flew at low altitude towards Greek airspace and had warning shots fired towards it.

The historical rivalry between those two NATO powers also resulted in the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 and the partition of that island nation. However, a US rivalry and standoff with Turkey would be quite unprecedented and could spiral out of control if Ankara opts to attack Manbij in disregard of the American and French presence, and risks killing those soldiers.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency published a map showing the locations of existing French military bases in northeast Syria, where France has helped the US-led coalition and the SDF to destroy IS, in a clear rebuke to Paris' Manbij deployment.

Ankara also this month hosted leaders from Iran and Russia to discuss solutions to the Syrian crisis. While the three countries clearly have different goals in the conflict they all would welcome a US withdrawal from Syria.

Mere days after the summit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Turkey should hand over Afrin to the Syrian army. Turkey has essentially disregarded and dismissed out of hand the positions of both those countries.

Furthermore, even though Iran and Russia, to varying different degrees, back the Assad regime, Turkey has reiterated its desire to see regime change in Syria, a position it previously seemed to discard back in January 2017. All of this demonstrates the shaky foundation on which this pseudo-tripartite alliance currently stands.

No end in sight

All of these developments indicate that the Syrian conflict is showing little sign of any let-up. They are also another indication of how foreign intervention in the country is contributing to the prolonging of the conflict.

This, along with the lack of willingness from the major powers involved to make substantial compromises to bring the conflict to an end on acceptable terms to all parties involved, will likely result in this war dragging on for at least another couple of years.

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

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon