THE DANGERS OF A PROXY WAR IN SYRIA
By Fanar Hadad*
Today -Feb 12
A wider conflict will reverberate across the world and have implications for Southeast Asia.
Saturday saw a dangerous escalation in the Syrian conflict.
Israel intercepted an Iranian drone that was launched from Syrian territory into Israeli airspace in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli military officials described as an Iranian “attack” and a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty.”
In retaliation, Israel launched 12 simultaneous airstrikes on targets in Syria. The Israeli military confirmed that one Israeli F-16 fighter was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. Both pilots safely ejected.
Israel has launched over 100 airstrikes against targets in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. This is the first time Israel has lost an aircraft. Israel responded by carrying out further airstrikes in what the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) described as a “large scale attack”
Israel aims to prevent Iran and its allies Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iran-aligned paramilitary groups, from consolidating their gains in Syria.
Iran has repeatedly vowed to destroy Israel.
Mr Netanyahu said after Saturday’s airstrikes that Israel will continue to defend itself against infringements of its sovereignty and Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria.
The conflict in Syria began in 2011 as an uprising against the Assad regime. But as Syria fragmented, it soon became an internationalized civil war with different major powers supporting different sides in a proxy war for influence in the Middle East.
The initial struggle against the Assad regime is winding down in the regime’s favor. But there are risks of new conflicts emerging out of the competing interests of the major powers.
Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, Turkey and the United States are each trying to expand and consolidate their gains in Syria.
Last month Turkey launched a major incursion into northwest Syria in order to prevent Kurdish groups whom Turkey regard as an existential terrorist threat from establishing a contiguous proto-state straddling the length of the Syrian-Turkish border.
These Kurdish groups have been trained and supported by the US as part of the fight against the Islamic State.
The US is bolstering Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of Syria, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson already announcing US intentions of maintaining a long-term presence in Syria.
Russia and Iran are helping the Syrian regime reassert its control over as much of Syria as possible in order to consolidate their own gains and interests.
Russia has supplied the Assad regime with sophisticated military equipment including surface-to-air missiles that may have downed the Israeli F-16.
Israel views Syria as a threat, not so much in itself, but because it is a potential launch pad for Iran to project power and undermine Israeli security.
Syria’s relations with Iran go back decades and their ties have long facilitated Iranian support to Hezbollah – Israel’s most potent non-state adversary. The Syrian conflict has augmented Iran’s presence and assets in Syria and has enhanced Hezbollah’s capabilities.
The International Crisis Group, an internationally respected independent NGO, has warned of the potential for Iranian-Israeli-Syrian conflict in southwest Syria is high.
Unclear lines of demarcation, overlapping and clashing interests increase the risks of miscalculation and overreach leading to a broader – possibly regional – war.
As noted by the International Crisis Group and others, Russia is best placed to broker a workable agreement between Israel on the one hand and Syria/Iran (and by extension Hezbollah).
Russia has emerged as a key player.
Moscow enjoys relations with all parties concerned and has a vested interest in maintaining peace. A regional war – even a localized war in southwest Syria – could jeopardize the gains that Russia had made in Syria over the course of the conflict.
Russia could try to clarify some limits for all parties to abide by and put some distance between Israel and its rivals in Syria.
Saturday’s events underline the need for a buffer between Israel and Syria/Hezbollah/Iran.
There is currently a “de-escalation zone” that prevents Iranian assets from moving towards the 1974 armistice line between Syria and Israel. But this agreement has already been overtaken by events on the ground with the Syrian regime’s retaking of jihadi-held territory within the zone.
It would be in Russia’s interests to try to bolster the de-escalation zone which they, alongside Jordan and the US, initially sponsored. Russia could also use its influence to pressure Iran into limiting its activities near the border areas.
Israel too needs to recalibrate its outlook to better gauge what is and what isn’t reversible from the carnage of the Syrian conflict. Returning to the pre-2011 status-quo-ante is a non-starter and Iran’s gains in Syria over the past seven years cannot be completely rolled back.
A new modus vivendi is needed. Ideally, this should be achieved through dialogue, international mediation and carefully calibrated enforcement and not war. But the ideal is seldom possible in the Middle East.
The greater probability is that incidents such as those witnessed on Saturday will be repeated. If they develop into a wider conflict, the reverberations will be felt globally.
The Middle East has always had an influence on Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Given the risks of an escalation, it is important that Southeast Asian Muslims understand that the geopolitical interests that underlie and drive th e Syrian conflict have nothing to do with our region.
*Fanar Haddad is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He previously lectured in modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Exeter and, most recently, at Queen Mary, University of London.
(First published in Today – http://www.todayonline.com/world/middle-east/dangers-proxy-war-syria)