Syrian conflict could get even bigger and bloodier
by David Ignatius
Russian President Vladimir
Putin, right, shakes hand with
Syria President Bashar al-Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow
on Oct. 20. (Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press)
Obama says he doesn’t want to turn the Syria conflict into a proxy war.
Unfortunately, that’s already happening, as combatants join the battle
against the Islamic State with radically differing agendas that could
Let’s look at the confusing order of
battle: The United States has decided that its strongest partner against
the Islamic State is a Syrian Kurdish force known as the
YPG. But Turkey, nominally our NATO ally,
says the YPG has links with what it claims is a Kurdish terrorist
group. How’s that going to work out? No answers yet.
contends that it is fighting the Islamic State, alongside forces loyal to
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russian warplanes have been
bombing Islamist rebel
groups that are covertly supported by the United States, Turkey and Jordan
— and these brigades are fighting back hard. The rebels are posting videos
bragging about their success with
U.S. anti-tank missiles.
The battle looks eerily like Russia’s war in Afghanistan, in embryo.
Where’s it heading? No answer there, either.
Saudi Arabia and
Iran have been
fighting by proxy
in Syria for nearly four years. This may be the most toxic conflict of
all, because it feeds the Sunni-Shiite sectarian inferno that is
immolating the Middle East.
Look across the map
of shattered Syria and you see contradictory coalitions and partnerships.
With so many powerful military forces gathering in the same area, the
danger for accidents and miscalculations is large.
Why is this proxy
war escalating at the same time the outside powers are holding diplomatic
talks about resolving the conflict? The United States, Russia, Iran,
Turkey and Saudi Arabia sent representatives to Vienna last week to
explore the political transition they all claim to favor.
The meeting was not
No Syrian combatants
attended, and the outside powers
disagreed sharply about what a transition should look like.
“Fight and talk” is
a recurring cycle in Middle East conflict. So perhaps the recent military
escalation is the prelude to diplomatic negotiations, as each side tries
to extend its territory and strengthen its bargaining position before
serious talks begin. We should be so lucky. But both Assad and the rebels
seem as unready for compromise as ever.
Studying Syria from
north to south, it’s clear where “deconfliction,”
as the military puts it, is needed to avoid unintended disaster.
On the northern
front, the United States needs to deepen its consultations with Turkey as
it escalates support for Syrian Kurdish forces and their Arab allies.
President Obama is
sending fewer than 50
Special Operations forces to Syria, but make no mistake, this is a
significant commitment. The U.S. troops will need air support — not just
to bomb the Islamic State, but for resupply, rescue if they get in
trouble, and perhaps to enable the cycle of intelligence-driven “night
raids” that was so
devastating in Iraq.
What does Turkey
think about this expanded U.S. role on its border, especially after the
decisive election victory
Sunday by the sometimes Kurdophobic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Pentagon officials say the Turks should be reassured, because the United
States will now have greater oversight of the YPG’s
and can prevent supplies from getting to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or
PKK, which Turkey views as a terrorist group. It’s a reasonable argument,
but it needs Ankara’s assent.
On Syria’s southern
border with Jordan, the United States has quietly helped train a rebel
coalition known as the
claims 35,000 fighters in 54 brigades. Last week, Russian warplanes
some of those U.S.-backed forces at Al-Harra in southwest Syria, the site
of a former Russian signals-intelligence station captured by the rebels.
This is crazy. Moscow and Washington should look to de-escalate the
situation, rather than torch it more.
But in the
inexorable logic of the Syria conflict, worse is ahead. Maj. Essam
al-Rayes, the spokesman for the Southern Front, told me in a telephone
interview Tuesday that his forces expect a new Syrian onslaught this week,
backed by Russia, to recapture ground south of Damascus. This pursuit of
“victory” only helps the extremists.
What’s over the
hill, if the outside powers don’t find a path toward de-escalation? Here’s
one grim hint: I had visits over the past several weeks from leaders of
Kurdish political movements in Iran and Syria who envision the day when a
greater Kurdistan dissolves the borders of those nations, as well as
Turkey and Iraq.
If Russia, Iran,
Turkey and the other proxy fighters don’t help put the pin back in this
grenade, a more devastating, regionwide explosion lies ahead.