The Syrian conflict will likely go on for a while, but with a neoliberal administration in office in Washington, D.C, things could get really heated fast.
To make matters worse, the actions of external actors like Israel could make the situation even more explosive. Israel has made its intentions clear through airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria that it will not tolerate Iran establishing a foothold in Syria, which borders Israel.
However, with Russia’s intervention in Syria, the game has changed. Scott Ritter at Russia Today, wrote an op-ed covering Russia’s stern warning directed towards Israel, advising it to not get overzealous with its airstrikes.
In an official statement released at the end of February, the special envoy of the president of Russia to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, expressed Russia’s displeasure with Israeli attacks in Syria. “Sooner or later, the cup of patience, including the Syrian government, may be overflowing, and a retaliatory strike will follow, which will accordingly lead to a new round of tension. These attacks must be stopped, they are counterproductive. We hope that the Israeli side will hear our concerns, including concerns about the possible escalation of violence in Syria,” Lavrentiev stated.
Ritter the observed the harsh tone of Russia’s message to Israel:
The language, though diplomatic, leaves little room for misinterpretation. By using the term “including” about the Syrian government losing patience, Lavrentiev left no doubt that the other “inclusive” party was Russia. This linkage carries over into the not-so-veiled threat of a “retaliatory strike” and “possible escalation of violence.” In short, Lavrentiev’s warning was as blunt a threat against Israel that could be made short of stating the obvious – if Israel continues to bomb Syria, Russia will have no choice but to shoot down their planes.
Syria Is a total mess. As a part of its defense pact with Syria and its desire to keep Islamists bottled up in the Middle East, Russia began deploying armed forces in Syria in September 2015. Had it not sent troops to stabilize Syria, Islamic radicals — backed by the U.S.— would likely have filled the power vacuum once the Assad government inevitably collapsed.
Russia is in a geopolitical pickle, indeed, which Ritter outlined below:
One of the main issues confronting Russia was avoiding conflict in its airspace between its air force and the anti-Islamic State coalition headed up by the United States. This task was complicated by the fact that the US was really using the campaign to counter Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) as a cover for training and equipping Islamist forces dedicated to the removal of President Assad. The US also sought to leverage its influence with Syrian Kurds to create an autonomous region in northeast Syria that operated outside the control of Damascus.
Ritter also observed Turkey’s involvement in Syria which has further complicated matters due to its expansionist ambitions in the Middle East:
Russia faced a similar problem with Turkey, a NATO member whose Ottoman-like ambitions led to engage in a policy that, if successful, would have resulted in the absorption of the Syrian province of Aleppo into the Turkish political sphere. Like the US, Turkey had engaged in a years-long process of organizing and arming anti-Assad forces. These forces operated under the direct control of the Turkish armed forces, and when Russia supported Syrian government efforts to reclaim territory lost to these groups, its aircraft frequently became involved in direct military operations against Turkish military forces.
Countries like Iran are also heavily involved in Syria. Originally, Iran was invited by the Syrian government to step into this conflict. Iran’s relationship with Syria is long-standing. Syria was one of the few countries to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and has maintained strong ties since then, which has annoyed Israel.
Iran’s grand strategy of forming an “axis of resistance” has witnessed it forge stronger relations with Syria and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. Ritter observed that “Iran has used the Syrian conflict as a cover for facilitating military support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, both in terms of allegedly supplying that organization with precision-guided munitions capable of reaching Israel, but also establishing a de facto second front by helping Hezbollah establish itself in the Golan region of southern Syria.”
Due to the proximity of Iranian military assets and proxies, Israel has taken punitive measures in the form of airstrikes against alleged Iranian military targets and proxies in Syria. Because of the increased frequency of airstrikes against Iranian targets, Russia has advised Iran to pull its assets out of the sensitive region of Syria that borders Israel and focus more of its efforts on propping up the Assad government.
Russia has traditionally been rather restrained when it has come to Israel’s activities in Syria. Similarly, it hasn’t done much to stop Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy) from establishing a presence in Syria, an act that perturbs Israel. As a result, Israel has frequently turned to airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria, much to Russia’s annoyance. Up until now, Russia has been relatively restrained with regards to Israel’s strikes. However, Lavrentiev’s recent statements have perhaps changed the entire equation.
There is talk among a number of Israeli security experts about a potential conflict between Israeli and Iranian forces in southern Syria taking place later in 2021. Israel has not pulled any brisk moves so far because of the way Russia could potentially respond.
Ritter highlighted some of Russia’s recent maneuvers that have allowed Israel to gradually become more belligerent in Syria:
Currently, Russia has stood down its air defense network in Syria and has reportedly prevented Syria from employing advanced surface-to-air missile systems provided to it by Russia. Russia likewise has kept its combat aircraft from operating in areas where they could encounter Israeli aircraft. This policy of restraint seems to have emboldened Israel, which recently increased both the scope and scale of its airstrikes against Iranian positions inside Syria.
In sum, the Syrian conflict is a total boondoggle which involves a diverse array of actors throwing down with each other. The U.S. has no real national interest to be upheld in the Middle East which is a perpetually unstable region. Given the U.S. ‘s increasing levels of energy independence, it will not need to be a reliant on the Middle East for its energy needs.
A more assertive Russia can actually be a good thing since it will be more active in the Middle East and areas close to its sphere of influence. From there, Russia, not the U.S., can spend its blood and treasure in trying to stabilize this chaotic region.
In all honesty, external actors like Russia and China will likely bring more stability to the Middle East than the U.S. simply based on the fact that their respective foreign policies are not based on fanatic neoconservatism or neoliberalism, and instead rely on balance of powers and realist foreign policy precepts.