A Black Hole in the Middle East

By Howard Munson IV

Just a few months ago it seemed that an end to the Syrian Civil War was in view. The Syrian government, with Russian air support and Iranian-financed Shia militia fighters from Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had been making steady gains against the remaining pockets of rebel-held territory in the country. Simultaneously, Kurdish Syrians, backed by U.S. artillery, air power, and Special Forces, had nearly liberated all ISIS-held areas of Syria. With rebels and ISIS both clearly losing, the possibility of ending the fighting with a negotiated settlement seemed promising. Two months later and peace appears as remote as ever. At this moment there are five separate conflicts taking place inside of Syria, each of which further circumscribe its present and likely its future.

The first two conflicts are generally familiar, the civil war itself and the fight against ISIS. Though the rebels and ISIS are plainly in decline, it is the conflicting agendas about what to do after their collapse that is further destabilizing Syria. The third conflict within Syria began just this past January, as Turkish forces began attacking the Kurdish-controlled Afrin Canton in northwestern Syria. Calling the Kurdish forces terrorists, the Turkish government has bombed and shelled Afrin for the last thirty-two days. This is particularly troubling as Kurdish fighters have been the most effective force against ISIS and function as American proxy “boots on the ground” in Syria, while the Turkish military is the largest American ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most important military alliance on the planet. Turkey and the United States both have military forces and proxy forces in Syria and are claiming overlapping territory. To further complicate this third conflict, on Feb. 20 forces of the Syrian government entered Afrin and Turkish forces fired on them. When asked about the possibility of a shooting war between Turkey and Syria, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed the Syrian government would not be able to move forces in fast enough and declared, “In the coming days we will lay siege to Afrin city.”[1] Last spring Turkey seized a section of northern Syria and has been training rebel forces there under the protection of the Turkish military for future use in Syria. A clash between Turkey, and U.S.-backed Kurds, or Turkey and Russian-backed Syrian forces could explode into a larger and even more devastating conflict at any moment.

In the central area of eastern Syria a fourth conflict flared on Feb. 7, 2018. A 500-man unit accompanied by tanks and artillery, made up of pro-Syrian government troops, Iranian militia, and Russia private contractors crossed the Euphrates River into U.S.-supported eastern Syria and began firing at a Kurdish military headquarters. According to numerous reports, U.S. Special Forces operatives imbedded with the Syrian Kurdish fighters called in large-scale U.S. air and artillery support and by the end of the battle, one Kurdish fighter was wounded while the Russian contractors alone reportedly suffered 300 casualties.[2] This is by far the largest engagement between U.S. forces in Syria and the Syrian government forces and their allies, especially Russians. Even though it seems unlikely that Russia and the Syrian government will soon repeat their test of the U.S. commitment to eastern Syria, the event clearly demonstrates that the United States military plans to maintain a predominant military posture inside eastern Syria for the foreseeable future.

The final conflict developing in Syria involves Israel. Surprisingly quiet during the Syrian Civil War, Israel has sporadically carried out air attacks inside of Syrian air space usually targeting what it claims are arms shipments going to the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Hezbollah is also a leading part of Lebanon’s current coalition government. On February 10, 2018 Israel launched large-scale air attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah military forces inside of Syria. Syrian air defenses fired on the Israeli aircraft and shot down one of the Israeli F-16s.[3] U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared on February 19, in reaction to increasing military preparations, “The worst nightmare would be if there is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah.”[4] Not only would such a conflict involve Israel and Lebanon, but also it would very likely include the Syrian government, Iran, and could possibly pull in Russia and the United States. During this February, therefore, the battleground that used to be a stable Syria before 2011 has gone from a civil war and humanitarian disaster affecting millions of lives, to a black hole of multi-directional military escalation threatening to engulf both regional and world powers.

[1] Hürriyet Daily News “Turkey will soon besiege Afrin as new phase of Operation Olive Branch begins: Erdoğan,” February 20, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/afrin-city-center-will-be-encircled-in-coming-days-erdogan-127607.

[2] Maria Tsvetkova, “Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded.” Reuters, February 15, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-casualtie/russian-toll-in-syria-battle-was-300-killed-and-wounded-sources-idUSKCN1FZ2DZ.

[3] Isabel Kershner, Anne Barnard, and Eric Schmitt, “Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet,” New York Times, February 10, 2018, accessed on February 20, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/world/middleeast/israel-iran-syria.html.

[4] Reuters, “U.N. chief warns of nightmare scenario if Israel, Hezbollah clash” February 19, 2018, accessed on February 20, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-guterres-lebanon/u-n-chief-warns-of-nightmare-scenario-if-israel-hezbollah-clash-idUSKCN1G31LT.

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