For months it seemed like everything was quieting down on the Syrian front. The Syrian government of President Assad, backed by Hezbollah on the ground and Russian forces on air, had almost achieved what only a few years ago had seemed nearly impossible—total victory over ISIS, and other terrorist forces in the country. But over the course of February, the sands have again shifted quickly, as they so often have all throughout this bloody conflict.
Since the beginning of the Syrian war in March 2011, Israeli fighter jets have, on multiple occasions, admittedly entered into Syria, illegally according to international law, directly attacking the Syrian military to, in its own words, defend its “national interests.” While the question of how Israel's national interest lies in Syria remains unanswered, one of the most dramatic events in “the politics of the region,” according to political commentator and former senior advisor to numerous US presidents, Pat Buchanan, occurred on February 10, when another Israeli incursion into Syria was “confronted with devastating effect” by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
Israel had previously launched an attack on the outskirts of the countryside of Damascus on February 4, killing an unverified number of SAA fighters. Then again on February 6, which preceded the US bombing of SAA positions in Deir ez-Zor that reportedly killed hundreds of SAA members and, rumour has it, Russian servicemen as well (although there has been no verification of this from the Kremlin).
When Israeli jets again flew into occupied Syrian territories on February 10, the SAA finally responded, downing an Israeli F-16 and damaging another F-15, while the Russian and Syrian version of the story also includes the SAA shooting down an additional 13 out of 18 Israeli air-launched cruise missiles on top of that. This “shocked the Israeli military and political elite,” says Buchanan. Because, as analyst Elias Akleh put it, “Warning sirens wailed in many Israeli towns in the north” as “Israelis hurried into shelters and Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv had temporarily halted air traffic,” while Israeli forces scrambled to “cushion the shock of Syria's successful assault on an F-16 equipped with the 'latest American defensive Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) that is supposed to defend the plane from missile attacks'.”
This was particularly concerning as “the very expensive ECM failed to defend the plane against the older 1960s technology of the Russian S-200 missile that hit the planes.” And its significance, according to Buchanan, was that “Israel's air superiority which is at the core of its military superiority that has enabled it to dominate West Asia,” and previously annihilate the Egyptian air-force at its heyday, was for the first time successfully challenged. How this latest revelation would affect a region already near its tipping point, and its various actors seething hitherto because of one form of grievance or another, is of great significance and concern.
Meanwhile, in another corner of Syria, just across the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey has sent its forces to attack Afrin and President Erdogan has threatened to attack Manbij, 80 miles to the east, where US troops and generals are stationed with Kurdish forces that Turkey is determined to whip out. On being asked about the situation, Erdogan said, “(The Americans) tell us, 'Don't come to Manbij.' We will come to Manbij to hand over these territories to their rightful owners.”
Again, who Erdogan is referring to when he says “rightful owners” is difficult to determine, as evidence has shown Turkey to be among those who had previously led the charge to have President Assad removed from office, despite his seemingly recent shift in position. But one thing Turkey has made clear is that it will not allow a separate Kurdish state to be curved out of the area between itself and Syria.
According to reports also in February, clashes between the Kurdish YPG and Turkish forces in Syria have led to numerous deaths already and both sides have said that they were deploying additional armaments and men in the case of bigger assaults in their respective statements. As Turkey and US-backed forces prepare for a possible assault, SAA forces too have reportedly crossed the Euphrates into territories taken from ISIS, massing troops and fortifying their position in the Euphrates Valley, perhaps awaiting a possible three-pronged showdown.
What this shows, however, is that amidst the Machiavellian games that are being played out over Syria, where allegiances seem to shift in an instant, there are signs of clear cracks in the relationship between two key NATO members—US and Turkey—that have the two largest militaries out of all members of the alliance. What implication does this have for NATO moving forward? Is there any chance of Turkey leaving the alliance should it fail to come to an understanding with the US? For now, like every other side in this conflict, neither Turkey nor the US are showing any signs of backing down.
And this is where things get dangerous, as it increases chances of direct conflicts between countries now that most of the proxies, moderate rebels and terrorist outfits that were sent to Syria from other places, have all lost most of their influence and strength.
Moreover, it also increases chances of a direct conflict between two nuclear armed superpowers—US and Russia—whose media, by posturing along with their militaries, are doing the world no favours. For example, after a Russian SU-25 attack aircraft was shot down in Idlib Province in Syria by militants from the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham group (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) on February 3, using what the Russian military claims was an American-made portable surface-to-air missile, the media in both countries went haywire.
While the US media gloated about the US army's success of thwarting Russian and Syrian plans and hitting the SAA and, possibly, Russian servicemen, Peter Lavelle, host of Russia Today's most popular show on Youtube, Crosstalk, said on air that “It looks like the Pentagon is itching for some kind of a conflict and I would tell [the Pentagon] to be very careful because the Russians don't bluff.” Given these developments, it looks not only like Syria could ignite once again at any minute, but that the blood-bath this time could potentially engulf much greater numbers in a war that has already seen the highest number of casualties in the 21st century.
If that is not reason enough for all sides to take a step back, then, perhaps, Syrians and indeed the world had possibly celebrated chances of peace in Syria and the region too prematurely.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.