The Ukraine Crisis Further Complicates Foreign Intervention in Syria

Despite early assessments that Russia would begin drawing down its military forces in Syria due to its need for more troops in the Ukraine invasion, it appears that no such reduction has actually occurred. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has ambitions of recreating an imperial Russian empire, apparently does not want to weaken Russia’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean, a position that gives him substantial influence in the heart of the Levant. However, the Ukraine crisis has other implications for Syria, notably giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the confidence that he can potentially pursue another military incursion against the Kurds in northern Syria without incurring much international wrath. This is a possibility that Iran is seeking to prevent by stepping up its cooperation with the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Israel seems to be taking advantage of international attention on Ukraine to increase its air strikes in Syria. While nothing is certain at this point, all of this maneuvering holds potentially drastic consequences for the Syrian people, consequences that could be avoided with the aid of US diplomatic intervention.

Confusion about Russia’s Plans in Syria

Russia’s poor performance in the first months of the Ukraine invasion initially led to speculation that Putin needed to draw down troops from other deployments in order to redeploy them in Ukraine. Indeed, some drawdowns have taken place in areas on the periphery of the former Soviet Union, such as the South Caucasus. Some international observers believed the same would happen in Syria, where Russia has had a substantial ground and air force presence since the start of its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war in September 2015.

Although the Ukraine war has obviously been a drain on Russia in terms of troops, equipment, and finances, the current situation does not necessarily translate into a Russian retreat from Syria.

In public testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early June, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul disputed the claim that Russia was withdrawing troops from Syria, stating, “We have not seen a notable change in Russian activities in Syria.” She also dismissed reports that substantial numbers of Russian-supported Syrian mercenaries were being deployed to Ukraine, noting, “We have not seen a large-scale movement like that on the ground,” though she added, “We are continuing to monitor that closely.” Presumably, Stroul was speaking authoritatively based on US intelligence assessments.

Russian Interest in Staying in Syria

Although the Ukraine war has obviously been a drain on Russia in terms of troops, equipment, and finances—and especially due to the harm caused by sanctions imposed by the West—the current situation does not necessarily translate into a Russian retreat from Syria. Putin’s intervention in Syria has not only strengthened Russia’s strategic position in the heart of the Arab world, it has also demonstrated to everyone concerned that Russia can come to the aid of an ally in time of need. Moreover, Russia has for the most part been able to finesse its relations with Turkey and Iran (though more with the former than the latter), despite disagreements over their respective Syria policies. And given Putin’s imperial ambitions, it is hard to imagine that he would want to diminish Russia’s role in Syria, where it not only has air bases, but also a naval base at the warm-water port of Tartous that it has maintained since Soviet times.

Turkey’s Renewed Plans for Invasion

Over the past several weeks, President Erdoğan has threatened to invade northern Syria once again, in order to capture territory currently held by Syrian Kurds, particularly the People’s Protection Units (YPG), whom he has labeled terrorists. The Turkish plan purportedly involves extending 20-mile deep “safe zones” along the Turkish-Syrian border that would include the areas around Tal Rifaat and Manbij, as well as other towns like Kobane, Ayn Issa, and Tal Tamr to the east. Why Erdoğan is saber-rattling now is open to speculation. One theory is that with Turkish elections only months away Erdoğan wants to divert public attention from Turkey’s troubled economy. Another theory is that he wants to take advantage of Turkey’s heightened importance due to the Ukraine crisis, in which it has tried to play the role of a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, banking on its good relations with both countries. Erdoğan may hope that under these circumstances any military incursion into northern Syria would receive less international condemnation than in the past because the international community today values Turkey more than it has in recent years, and because Turkey holds veto power over the approval of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.

Erdoğan may hope that any military incursion into northern Syria would receive less international condemnation than in the past.

If the latter interpretation of Erdoğan’s thinking is correct, then he is surely miscalculating. Other players in northern Syria, including the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and the United States, have all voiced opposition to a Turkish military incursion. And in fact, in response to reports of Turkey readying its troops to cross the Syrian border, both Russia and Iran have been sending reinforcements to areas that Turkey is eyeing, including Russian helicopters that have landed at an air base close to Tal Rifaat. Meanwhile, Turkish state-run media outlet Anadolu Agency reported that Russia was flying reconnaissance flights over Tal Rifaat and establishing air defense systems in Qamishli, a city in Syria’s northeastern corner that is home to many Kurds. Russia has also publicly stated that it hopes Turkey will refrain “from actions which could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria.”

To be sure, this is not the first-time Russia and Turkey have been at odds over Syria. But the potential for a Russian-Turkish clash still prompted Ankara to invite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks on June 8 to dampen the tensions. In a press conference after his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu, Lavrov expressed “understanding” for “Turkey’s security concerns in northern Syria,” and, in what amounted to a gratuitous slap, accused Washington of “feeding” illegal forces in Syria—a clear reference to the US partnership with the YPG.

Some commentators have interpreted Lavrov’s choice of the word “understanding” as Russia’s subtle way of giving the Turks a green light for a military incursion. However, it could also mean that Russia was merely acknowledging Turkish concerns without endorsing or approving them. For a host of reasons, Russia wants to maintain friendly relations with the Syrian Kurds, and being seen as approving Turkey’s possible military campaign would almost certainly ruin those ties.

For their part, the Syrian Kurds, facing yet another possible Turkish invasion, are feeling vulnerable once again. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes YPG fighters, stated in early June that they are ready to “coordinate with forces of the Damascus government to confront any possible Turkish incursion and to protect Syrian territories against occupation.” At the same time, the SDF is wary of being overwhelmed by Syrian government forces. On June 5, SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi stated that the Syrian government should use air defense systems against Turkish air forces, and that SDF forces were open to working with Syrian government troops to defend against a Turkish incursion. He added, however, that there was no need for Damascus to send more troops to the area. Meanwhile, pro-Syrian regime newspaper al-Watan reported that the Syrian government was moving troops, tanks, and heavy weapons into position near the Turkish border.

Although the Biden Administration has rekindled relations with Ankara to some extent, it has also warned against a possible Turkish military incursion into Syria.

Although the Biden Administration has rekindled relations with Ankara to some extent—

supporting, for example, the proposed sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey in the face of considerable congressional opposition—it has also warned against a possible Turkish military incursion into Syria. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 8 that “We are completely unstinting in our efforts with the Turkish government to back them off on this ill-considered venture.” Leaf underscored that the Turkish government is “very well aware of our views.” The Biden administration believes that such a military operation would harm the civilian population in the area, put the roughly 900 US troops who are currently in northeastern Syria at risk, and, because the SDF has been the US’s main partner in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), also undermine the battle against remaining IS militants. Moreover, during the last presidential campaign, Biden was highly critical of then President Donald Trump for his rapid pullout of US forces from the Syrian border with Turkey following a phone call with Erdoğan in October 2019, an action that facilitated a Turkish military incursion. Biden and his team undoubtedly want to ensure that Erdoğan knows they will not countenance another such incursion, especially since the last one led to atrocities against Syrian Kurds and damage to Washington’s reputation as a reliable and dependable ally.

Iran’s Complicated Posture in Syria

Like Russia, Iran and Iran-affiliated militias such as Hezbollah have been strong backers of the Assad regime, even prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. However, while Iran and Russia have not always been on the same page with regard to operations in Syria, Iran’s relations with Turkey have significantly worsened. Tehran has labeled Turkey’s previous military incursions in Syria an “invasion,” and has called the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army “terrorists.” In addition, Iran believes that a Turkish seizure of Manbij would jeopardize Shia settlements in the towns of Nubbul and al-Zahraa. Local forces in these towns have reportedly been trained and equipped by Hezbollah and other pro-Iran militias under the coordination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran has sent warnings to Ankara not to go ahead with a military incursion, but it is doubtful that the country has the same pull with Turkey as do the US and Russia.

Iran has sent warnings to Ankara not to go ahead with a military incursion, but it is doubtful that the country has the same pull with Turkey as do the US and Russia.

In response to the largely erroneous news that Russia was withdrawing troops from Syria, Chair of the Commission of National Security and Foreign Policy in the Iranian Parliament Vahid Jalalzadeh stated in early June that reports that Iran was going to replace the Russians in Syria were mistaken. He added that because Iran and Russia were invited by the Syrian government to have troops in the country, “We will not take the place of a country and no country will take our place.” Jalalzadeh’s comments may have been made to assure Russia that Iran was not seeking to take advantage of the Russian misadventure in Ukraine by beefing up its presence in Syria. But they also may have been intended to signal the Israelis that further Iranian entrenchment in Syria is not in the works, since despite its tough anti-Israel rhetoric, Iran knows that the IRGC and pro-Iran militias in Syria remain vulnerable to Israeli air strikes.

Israel Stepping Up Attacks

Meanwhile, Israel has increased its air-based attacks on targets in Syria in recent weeks. It struck targets south of Damascus on June 6, and another strike on June 10 caused significant damage to runways at the Damascus International Airport, so much so that the Syrian government had to temporarily suspend all flights to and from the airport. Why Israel has chosen to ramp up attacks at this time is unclear, but the goal may be to inflict as much damage on Syria and its Iranian allies as possible while the world remains focused on the Ukraine crisis. Because a great deal of Iranian military assistance to the Syrian government and pro-Iran militias goes through the Damascus airport, the Israelis may have been cautioning Tehran that it should desist from bolstering these forces in Syria, even if the goal is to ward off a Turkish military incursion. It is also possible that Israel was sending a signal to Russia in response to reports that Russia has recently conducted air defense drills with Syria. Although Israel and Russia continue to coordinate regarding Syrian airspace—with Russia getting advance warnings of Israeli strikes so as to avoid inadvertent confrontation— the goal of Israel’s recent strikes may be to put a stop to Russia’s joint drills with Syria. However, this would be a risky strategy for Israel to pursue.

Implications for Syria

While the world reels from both wheat shortages and higher gas prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, current and potentially impending actions of outside players in Syria are making a tragic situation even worse. Another possible Turkish military incursion would undoubtedly lead to more bloodshed among the civilian population in northern Syria, and to clashes between Turkish-backed troops and both the Kurds and Iranian-backed militias. Meanwhile, IS remnants have been regrouping, and have staged significant attacks in northeastern Syria since the beginning of the year. IS would like nothing better than to take advantage of more chaos in northern Syria to make gains on the ground. Russia, meanwhile, continues to play a cynical game in Syria. And although it may not actually intend to draw down troops in the country, Russia may not be in a strong enough position to persuade Ankara to put off its military plans. The Biden Administration should therefore redouble its efforts to dissuade Erdoğan from moving ahead with a military incursion, while at the same time stopping Israel from attacking Syria’s civilian infrastructure. The long-suffering Syrian people need an end to violence, not additional aggressions that will only serve to further destabilize the country.