As part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, Syria came under French mandate in 1920 and gained independence in 1946. Their ambitions for the "Greater Syria" were dashed when the smaller states of Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan were created by Britain and France in the 1920s.

Following the World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French administered the area as Syria until granting it independence in 1946.  

In 1958 Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic, with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as president. However in September 29, 1961 Syrian officers in the U.A.R. army carried out an almost bloodless revolt and proclaimed  independence.               



Syria: No longer just a proxy war

The Syrian civil war has been raging unabated since March of 2011. What initially started as Arab Spring inspired protests disintegrate into all out civil war, which gradually sucked in new participants from every corner of the Middle East a                 nd beyond. Today Syria is a battleground in the battle between religions and superpowers, terrorists and nationalists, tirants and freedom seekers.

For the last seven years, most of the fighting has been attributed to multitudes of proxies currently present in Syria while the real puppet masters in the background have been minimizing their role in the carnage which so far claimed over half of million lives and many more millions displaced. The fact that many lives are lost every day plays very little role in how the world reacts to this tragedy. Each country, even remotely involved in Syria has it's own agenda and contributes very little to the effort in resolving the seven year old conflict.

Damascus_Syrian Army Checkpoint PD Photo taken by VOA correspondent Elizabeth Arrott

           Syrian Army Checkpoint in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Elizabeth Arrott, VOA PD

Several events took place during the month of February, 2018 that maybe are the signs of Syrian conflict entering a new phase. Almost spontaneously Iran, Russia, US, Turkey and Israel, all major regional players, had their militaries see action in Syria without trying too hard to hide them. It seems as if they are testing each other's resolve while delivering not so subtle messages.

Couple of those confrontations can have far reaching consequences. On February 8th, over 500 pro Syrian regime troops with suport of tanks and artillery made an attempt to overtake the headquarters of SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) situated on the eastern side of the Euphrates River in the Deir Ezzor province. SDF is made up of Syrian Kurdish fighters and Arab rebel groups which with the help of the US military has been successfully pushing ISIS out of the area.

American and SDF forces were able to repel the attack resulting in hundreds of dead pro-Syrian troops. Turns out that among the dead were number of Russian contractors as well as Iranian sponsored Shia militiamen fighting on the side of the Assad regime. Putin administration while criticizing the US refused to acknowledge that Russian "missionaries" worked for them, indicating that these people were on their own and that the Russian military is not fighting on the ground in Syria. Are we suppose to believe that a major military escalation in Western Syria involving Russian nationals was done without a knowledge of Russian officials?

Of course, nobody believes in that nonsense. Russia and Iran are planning to turn Syria into one huge military base from where they can dictate the policies for the entire region. The possibility of Russian-Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is terrible news for the rest of the world which unfortunately seems to be resigned to inevitable. The only power capable of limiting this "hostile takeover" are the United States and that is why the Russians and Iranians are doing all they can to "run the Americans out of town".

In addition, neither Russians nor the Iranians want the bad news of massive casualties in the foreign country affect their domestic politics. Unlike the situation with their military personnel, Russian goverment is not obligated to report the death toll involving private contractors or "missioneries". With upcoming March 18th presidential elections the rising financial and human cost of his involvement in Syria is not what Mr. Putin wants to see in the headlines.

Likewise, the Iranians do not have to provide an answer back home for hundreds of Shia militiamen who lost their lives in the ill conceived Euphrates river crossing. Most of them were Iraqis, Afgans or Lebanese Shias and they are being used on the frontlines for a reason. They are expendable.

US military presence in Eastern Syria substantially limits the Iranian ability to have an unrestricted supply route to Syria and Lebanon. They are often forced to use the alternative means to transfer military equipment and fighters which results in the higher cost of Iranian bottom line. Iranians do care about the financial implications of their war time expenditures.

Keeping Assad regime alive, financing Hezbollah, training Shia militias and supporting Huthie rebels in Yemen come at the high cost. If the recent anti-government and anti-corruption protests in Iran are an indication of their current state of the economy, they are beginning to feel the financial strain despite all the benefits they reaped from the nuclear deal.

During a recent press conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister, Presdent Trump commented on US presence in Syria: "We're there for one reason: to get ISIS, get rid of ISIS and to go home. We're not there for any other reason." Let's hope that the president did not mean a complete withdrawal, as that would allow Iran to establish a Shea crescent across the Middle East and make Vladimir Putin a main arbiter of the new regional order.

Russia got involved in the Syrian conflict iin September of 2015 as a result of official invitation by the Assad regime who at the time was perceived to be on its last legs. Putin received a silent nod from the Obama administration who saw the Russian intervention as a "win-win" proposition with very little downside. The prevailing sentiment among President Obamas's advisers was that the Russians would be weakened by jumping into Syrian civil war quagmire while at the same time doing our job of fighting the Islamic State.

Unfortunately, Putin entered the conflict under the false pretence and misled everyone by using the oldest trick in the book called "bait and switch". Instead of fighting ISIS terrorists and promote the political transition in the war torn country, he spends most of his military resources fighting the Syrian rebel forces. The reason for that is simple, he came to Syria to save Bashar Assad's regime and to change the power structure of the Middle East, not to defeat the Islamic Caliphate.

Another worrisome event took place on February 10th, two days after the failed attempt by pro-Assad forces to dislodge US troops from Western Syria. An Iranian drone launched from a Syrian base has entered the Israeli airspace where it was promptly shot down. When Israeli fighter jets retaliated against the targets that housed the drones they encountered massive anti-aircruft fire from Syrian air defences. As a result, one of the Israeli F-16s was hit and crashed in Northern Israel. Two pilots were able to eject in time and survive the encounter.

IAF-F-16-2016-12-13 PD Major Ofer, Israeli Air Force

                     IAF F-16 fighter jet on the mission. Photo by Major Ofer, Israeli Air Force PD

Israel followed up with additional raids against the Syrian air defences and Iranian military targets around Damascus area. Iranians denied any involvement, but enough of the drone material has survived that Israeli experts were able to unequivocally identify it's origin as Iranian made and navigated by Iranian operators. Moreover, it appears to be a relatively new design which was copied from American UAV that was downed by the Iranians in 2011.

Is this a coincidence that Iran sends the drone to Israel, knowing full well the possible implications and two days later US base in Eastern Syria comes under attach from the well organized and heavily armed Syrian regime forces? Not likely. While the Iranians denied involvement in the drone incident at the same time the spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council said that this was "a clear warning to Israel. The era of Israeli strikes in Syria is over."

This looks like a setup conceived in Tehran and meant to send a message to Israel who is categorically opposed to construction of Iranian military bases in Syria. From time to time, Israeli air force takes out targets in Syria that are preserved to represent an imminent danger to the Jewish state. Those Israeli actions interfere with a long term goal of Iranian Revolutionary Guard to build military bases and missile factories on Syrian and Lebanese territory. They already suspected to have sleeper cells along the Israeli Golan Heights border.

Russia severely critisized Israeli actions as some of their military personnel who operate Syrian air defenses came close to be hit. At the same time Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov rebuked Iranian rhetoric regarding Israel: "we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests.”

At the Munich security conference held on February 16th, Russian ambassador to Israel, Alexander Shein, pronounced that "if Iran attacks Israel, Russia will stand alongside the US to defend Israel, but also defend Iran's presence in Syria". This is a mixed message at best. While Russian officials speak in a friendly manner about Israel, their actions are anything but. The same Russian ambassador does not consider Hamas or Hezbollah to be terrorist organisations. Apparently Russian law defines terrorists only those organisations that target Russian interests only.

That definition is not going to work for the Israelis. Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons are hell bend on destroying tne "Zionist entity" by any means necessary. Russian assurances ring hollow due to the fact that ever since they got involved in Syrian conflict, the danger barometer reading for Israel went through the roof and no amount of sweet talk is going to make the rotten cake taste good. Today Israel's enemies are better equipped, better trained than ever before and gained a lot of confidence in their abilities through Syrian battleground experience.

Using the Russian military as an umbrella, Iran has methodically created favorable conditions for itself for a possible showdown with the Jewish state. Syria, Lebanon and Gaza Strip will all be used to surround and isolate Israel and when ready to ignite a war forcing the Jewish state to fight on three fronts.

Back in June, Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim fighters would be ready to fight against Israel if the war broke out. Commander of Iraqi Shiite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, currently fighting in Iraq and Syria, confirmed as much swearing to stand alongside his Lebanese brothers in any potential conflict with the Zionist entity.

These organizations are just part of Iran sponsored military forces currently present in Syria. While it is difficult to verify the exact number of these militiamen there are credible reports that they outnumber the native Syrian forces under President Assad's control and in turn are the current allies of Vladimir Putin.

 He is a willing participant in the brutal Syrian war which cannot be said about the Western alliance, who for the most part are resigned to the role of the onlookers. Russia has a history in Syria going back decades when the Soviet Union was providing military assistance to Bashar Assad's father Hafez. The only difference is that Vladimir Putin is a lot more nuanced politician than his Soviet predecessors. When provided with a chance to participate and greatly influence the potential realignment of the power structure of the Middle East he jumped on it without hesitation.

It's nice that Bibi Netanyahu meets with Putin every few months in order to maintain a civil discourse and prevent major misunderstandings, but to draw from it a conclusion that Russia is Israel's friend is foolish. He keeps the open communication channels with Netanyahu wisely using Israel for his own leverage against the Iranian allies. At the same time Putin would not think twice about backstabbing "his good friend Bibi" if it benefits Russian interests.

For Israelis the big question is, have Russians helped to create an Iranian Frankenstein monster they can no longer control? The other intriguing question is are they really interested in getting dragged into the religious war between Jews and Muslims? The end goal of ayatollah regime is the conquest of Jerusalem, the idea which they will never abandon. The goal of Vladimir Putin is to return a former glory to Russia and in the process push the Americans and their allies out of the Middle East.

None of the potential answers will put Israelis at ease. They view the world around them through the prism of the shadows of the Holocaust. For Israel defeat is not an option because it could spell the end of the nation. Look at the atrocities the Assad regime and Islamic State committed against the fellow Muslims. If given an opportunity, what do you think Iranians and their Arab allies are going to do to the Jews?

Loss of the fighter jet is a relatively inexpensive but important lesson for Israelis who sometimes exhibit a foolish overconfidence. They need to reevaluate their military tactics, especially those that apply to the air force, the most important asset in their military arsenal. Making proper adjustments to the new reality around them could mean the difference between life and death in the next war.

While Israelis should be able to defend themselves against the Iranian, Syrian, the Shia militias, Hezbollah and Hamas consortium the Russian military presence changes the equation as it is extremely difficilt to imagine any circumstance under which Putin will side with Israel over his current allies. Two countries have divergent positions when it comes to U.S. role in Syria. Vladimir Putin and company badly want the Americans out. For Israel's national interests the U.S. presence is imperative, as it may prove to be an invaluable deterrent against the potential enemy onslaught.

The current U.S. policy for the Middle East is somewhat unclear. We know they are committed to wiping out ISIS, but whether their position will evolve beyond that goal remains to be seen. We do know that American military commanders have no illusions about the destructive role that Iran and Russia play in the region.

US_fire_support_for_SDF_at_Raqqa PD

                    U.S. Military fires artillery rounds in support of SDF in Raqqa, Syria PD

On February 27th, 2018, General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before the House of Armed Services Committee that: “while we continue to confront the scourge of terrorism, Iran’s malign activities across the region pose a long-term threat to stability in this part of the world".

 General Votel did not hold back when addressing the Russia's role in the ongoing conflict: "On the diplomatic front, Moscow is playing the role of arsonist and firefighter – fueling the conflict in Syria between the Syrian Regime, YPG, and Turkey, then claiming to serve as an arbiter to resolve the dispute... Russia and Iran are both trying to bolster a brutal regime in Syria, limit U.S. military influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fracture the longstanding U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership".

Speaking of Turkey, here is another Middle Eastern power broker who decided to come out of the shadows of their proxies and enter the Syrian war theater. We can respectfully disagree with General Votel about the "strategic partnership" with Turkey. That ship has sailed since president Erdogan has dismantled Turkish Democratic institutions, jailed academics, journalists or anyone who dared to criticize him. He is openly pushing his Islamist agenda and makes present day Turkey look more like Pakistan.

In the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey opened up it's borders with Syria for any jihadist who wanted to join rebels fighting Assad regime. Most of them ended up joining the ranks of the Islamic State who in turn was selling Syrian oil to Erdogan and his cronies at the fraction of the cost. Erdogan declared an unprovoked war against the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin and with the help of few thousand proxy fighters from Free Syrian Army is trying to destroy YPG, a Kurdish militia who happens to be the most valuable American ally in a fight against ISIS.

At the beginning of the Turkish military campaign, Erdogan had incorrectly claimed that 55 percent of Afrin was Arab and that Kurds there were “brought from elsewhere." He had also promised to return the enclave “back to its true owners.” Actually the opposite is true. It was Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, back in 1970's who forcefully displaced Kurds from the area and replaced them with Arab settlers in order to diminish Kurdish influence.

Kurdish officials rightfully accused Turkey of the planned ethnic cleansing which current operation in Afrin resembles. YPG also accused the Russians of giving OK to Turks by withdrawing observers, it deployed in Afrin last year. That unfortunate action allowed the Turkish air force to bomb Kurdish areas with impunity. Ironically few weeks later the same air force killed 36 pro-Assad Shia fighters who happen to be Russian allies. There seems to be "no honor amongst thieves".

U.S. has no presence in Afrin, but it has a military base in another northern Syrian enclave called Manbij. It is currently under the protection of U.S. coalition with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where YPG plays a significant role. Turkey claims that YPG has ties to a radical Kurdish party called PKK, which it considered to be a terrorist organization. But then Syrians and Russians call a Turkish ally, Free Syrian Army, a terrorist organisation while Turkey has been a staunch supporter of Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group.

All of that is pretty confusing. The bottom line is that while Erdogan was letting terrorists pass into Syria, YPG was instrumental in the liberation of Raqqa, the designated capital of the Islamic State. Turkish government is prepared to enter Manbij as soon as they are finished in Afrin and President Erdogan is demanding that U.S. forces leave or Turkey will deliver an "Ottoman slap" to anyone standing in their way including the Americans.

YPG-SDF_fighters_near_the_Euphrates_east_of_Raqqa PD

                                       YPG-SDF fighters near the Euphrates river, Syria PD

This is not how the strategic partners talk with each other. It's not clear how U.S. will react to any threats or aggression emanating from the Turks, but for now they are staying put. It would be extremely disappointing if they will sacrifice a valued and loyal ally like Kurds to appease an emerging Middle Eastern dictatorship. U.S. already has a bad reputation in the region for the history of abandoning their allies and potential withdrawal from Manbij that would leave Kurdish fighters at the mercy of wannabe Ottoman Sultan will only reinforce it.

Couple of remote Kurdish enclaves will not satisfy Erdogan's ambitions. He is not just going to sit back and watch Russia and Iran make inroads into his back yard. Allowing the current Turkish leadership to taste the victory would lead to much bigger problems down the road as their appetite for more conquests will grow. Also, just like the Iranians, Erdogan dreams of the ultimate prize, the eternal city of Jerusalem as he often portrays himself as a Muslim protector of the Holy City.

On December 12, 2017, couple of days ahead of OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) conference about the status of Jerusalem held in Istanbul, Turkish daily newspaper Yeni Safak which has close ties to ruling AKP party and in turn to President Erdogan published an article titled “What If an Army of Islam Was Formed against Israel?”. Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRY) uncovered and translated the article which pretty much called for 57 member states of OIC to form a united army of Islam with the goal of attacking Israel and liberating Jerusalem.

It needs to be noted that the OIC emergency meeting took place as a result of U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving it's embassy there. Diring the conference Erdogan was highly critical of American move and declared the formation of a new alliance to defend Jerusalem. He did not go as far as calling for an Islamic army to attack Israel, but his mouthpiece newspaper has provided a glimpse of what might be on his mind.

For some time now the complexities of the Syrian civil war were difficult to understand due to the sheer number of participants and their diverging agendas. At one point the number of Syrian opposition groups alone could have been counted in thousands and only an expert could name dozens of Shia militias fighting to save Assad regime.

Proxies in Syria were used do the dirty work, fight on the front lines, secure the supply channels and influence the behaviour of neighbouring governments. With their help some of the major players were able to claim minor roles in the giant butcher shop that is Syria today. Countries like Iran took full advantage of what proxy strategy offered, enabling them to extend their tentacles across the entire region.

But even the success can have negative consequences. With a diminishing role of Syrian rebel groups and near complete collapse of the Islamic State Califate the attention paid to the victors is difficult to avoid. If earlier in the conflict, we had difficulties identifying or even pronouncing the names of the participants, today it's pretty clear who the real shot callers are.

Unfortunately that is not good news. While proxy warfare in Syria claimed countless lives and untold misery for it's people it still had a localized nature. Now that we have seen incidents of major military powers like Russia, U.S., Iran, Turkey, Israel just to name a few, engaged in direct confrontations on the Syrian soil, a further escalation of the conflict and the spillover effect it can have on the global scale is a real possibility.

  By Charles Katel,  March 12, 2018