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Nov 30, 2018 | 10:00 GMT

6 mins read

The Next Phase of the Syrian Conflict Could Be the Most Damaging

A Syrian air force Sukhoi Su-22 fighter jet flies over the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk on the southern outskirts of Damascus during airstrikes on the Islamic State in April 2018.
(RAMI AL SAYED/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • The battle between the government and rebels is winding down as Damascus gains the upper hand and the Islamic State collapses, but there will be a greater risk of clashes among intervening states in 2019.
  • The United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel could all become embroiled in a clash with one of the other countries involved in Syria. 
  • While all these countries will work to minimize the chances of escalating the conflict due to the inherent dangers of a greater war, they cannot eliminate the risks entirely.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming year.

Syria's civil war may not be forgotten — least of all by the millions the maelstrom has affected — but the conflict no longer drives the international news cycle as it once did. In large part, that's because Syrian government forces have succeeded in seizing control of most of the country's population centers and because most of the remaining front lines have become relatively frozen. Nevertheless, even as hot conflict becomes less common in the country, the year ahead remains fraught with the risk of perhaps the biggest firestorm yet: this time, not just among government forces and rebels, but among the many states that have entered the Syrian arena.

The Big Picture

The Syrian conflict remains a critical flashpoint and has drawn in great and regional powers alike. With so many countries involved in the civil war, there is an increasing risk that these outside powers could clash with one another and ignite a conflict with global ramifications.

Over the past several years, powers both great and regional have converged upon Syria to pursue a variety of interests and objectives. Some of these goals — such as defeating the Islamic State extremist group (which is now a shadow of its former self thanks to international efforts) — are held in common, but many more are not. Turkey, Israel, Iran, the United States and Russia might have little interest in engaging in open warfare with one another, but their pursuit of different goals, as well as the simple lack of room to maneuver in a crowded theater, means any military operations run the risk of provoking — inadvertently or otherwise — a state-on-state clash. Such a conflict could have global ramifications.

A Crowded Theater

The primary risk arises from the continued desire by the Syrian government and its allies, especially Iran, to take back more territory. Aside from a few isolated Islamic State pockets that loyalist forces are still attempting to capture, Damascus and Tehran could turn their attention to two principal areas: northern and northwestern Syria, where Turkish-backed rebels are in control, and northeastern and eastern Syria, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are dominant. While the presence of nearby Turkish and American forces could limit Damascus and Tehran's ability to advance into these areas, loyalist forces are unlikely to remain completely passive.

As it is, some military activity around Idlib province appears almost inevitable, thereby raising the risk of a direct clash between loyalist forces and Turkish forces embedded in the area alongside some of their rebel allies. And should Damascus secure Moscow's assistance for military operations in Idlib, the chances of a Syrian-Turkish clash would only increase. Russia's priority is to leave the conflict (preserving its gains) while maintaining cordial relations with Turkey. But Moscow is becoming increasingly irritated at Ankara's lack of progress in dismantling some of the more extreme rebel groups in Idlib, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — the latest incarnation of Jabhat al-Nusra — which has continued to carry out attacks on Russian forces. Because Damascus is seeking any excuse to resume military operations, a Kremlin eager to settle the conflict could back an Iranian and Syrian offensive into Idlib, risking a clash with Turkey.

A map shows the areas controlled by different forces in Syria

Across the country to the east, the United States is revamping its aims to curb Iran's interests and presence. A significant number of Iranian forces are near SDF positions in eastern Syria, and the two sides have already fought several skirmishes. If the acrimony between Washington and Tehran increases in 2019, a battle between Iranian forces and the SDF in the area could ignite a larger clash in Syria between U.S. and Iranian forces. Moreover, in such closed confines, a conflict would likely draw in Syrian and possibly even Russian forces.

Turkey is another country with an acute interest in the area. Keen on further weakening the People's Protection Units (YPG) in the region, Turkey initially sought to outlast the United States before moving to crush the largely Kurdish group in the area, but Washington has forced Ankara to rethink the strategy after it announced its intention of remaining longer in Syria. Turkey will take great care to avoid a direct clash with U.S. forces in Syria (even if its regional machinations do nothing to ease the tensions between the nominal NATO allies), yet it will continually seek ways to weaken the YPG in the year ahead. Turkish forces could strike select YPG leaders and other targets of importance, while Ankara could also instigate a clandestine campaign against the group by assassinating leading members and fomenting revolts among Arab members of the SDF. Regardless of Turkey's course of action, it will not remain on the sidelines.

Israel, too, has its own overriding reason for wading into the civil war: Iran. The country has struck Iran a number of times inside Syria, occasionally drawing retaliation from Tehran, as occurred in May. At the same time, their quarrel could easily draw in other powers in Syria. In September, soldiers manning Syria's air defenses attempted to resist an Israeli airstrike, only to accidentally shoot down a Russian aircraft in the process. Intent on mitigating the chances of a repeat incident, Moscow provided its Syrian partners with better air defense equipment, while also threatening retaliatory action against Israel. Yet Russia's efforts are unlikely to force Israel to completely halt its attacks. Accordingly, with little room for error, future Israeli strikes against Iranian targets could touch off a confrontation between Israeli and Russian forces or a wider war with Iran that could also involve a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Risk of a Misstep

None of the states that have entered the Syrian morass is eager to battle any of their fellow powers, meaning all will take the utmost precautions to minimize escalating the conflict. But with major forces deployed in such proximity to one another — along with the constellation of conflicting interests and competing ambitions to grab territory — the risks that a spark could ignite a wildfire are tremendous. The conditions also mean that there is little chance that the risk of conflict in Syria will diminish anytime soon.

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