With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, questions have surfaced on whether this new conflict in Europe could soon take on larger dimensions. Yet, it is the current situation in Syria – with the tenuous existence of several armies hanging in the balance – where the possibility of a clash between NATO and Russia could occur.
The political impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine has already been felt in Syria. As Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing for his invasion, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signaled his support for Putin’s move to recognize the independence of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, two regions in Ukraine that have been controlled by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014. Assad also described Russia’s incursion as a “correction of history.”
Assad described Russia’s incursion as a “correction of history.”
The long-term consequences of any war are unpredictable, and Ukraine’s fortunes could affect the Syrian quagmire through two broad scenarios. Regardless of whether Russia can gain a clear upper hand in Ukraine or if the invasion seriously falters, Syria’s own conflict may feel the wider impact of the war.
Russia and its Syrian Allies
For Assad, the hostilities in Ukraine could have profound implications for the support he receives from Russia. Just days before the outbreak of the conflict, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Damascus to meet with Assad. The two sides discussed security and humanitarian cooperation and Shoigu carried out an inspection of the Khmeimim Air Base, which Russia has leased from Syria.
As the fighting got underway, Russia turned to Syria for battle-hardened fighters to help take the Ukrainian cities still out of Moscow’s reach. It is early on in the war, but so far there has been no hard evidence of pro-Assad Syrian fighters turning up in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia has strong connections with several militias in Syria and is likely to introduce foreign fighters the longer the conflict continues.
Russia turned to Syria for fighters to help take the Ukrainian cities out of Moscow’s reach.
Ukraine’s crisis comes as tensions have been simmering between the Syrian regime and the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF currently controls the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), widely referred to by the Syrian Kurds as Rojava. The SDF and regime forces clashed at the beginning of March, and there were reportedly casualties.
For its part, Russia has sought to maintain positive relations with the SDF while positioning itself as a mediator between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus. If the United States does eventually pull out of Syria, the SDF may have no choice but to align itself with Russia in order to secure some level of protection against neighboring Turkey, which considers the SDF a terrorist group.
However, as the Clingendael Institute noted in its April 2021 report on the YPG — the Kurdish militia that heads the SDF — “While the [SDF] is on speaking terms with Russia, this cannot be called a partnership in the sense of a relationship based on shared objectives. Rather, Russia seeks to reunite the [SDF] with the regime that is clearly not (yet) willing to entertain anything like a more federal governance structure for Syria if the informal negotiations between [the SDF] and the regime are anything to go by.”
Nonetheless, Assad should be worried. If Russia emerges from its assault on Ukraine greatly weakened, the Syrian regime could see its Russian partners drastically reduce their involvement in Syria. This would, in turn, leave the regime more reliant on Iran and China for future support.
Iran now appears keen to move forward with finalizing a nuclear agreement with world powers.
Iran now appears keen to move forward with finalizing the nuclear agreement with world powers, despite Putin’s recent efforts to complicate the negotiations after Russia was buried under a mountain of international sanctions for its invasion.
On the other hand, if Russia is able to walk away from its raid on Ukraine with a self-proclaimed “victory,” Moscow might attempt to adopt a more aggressive policy to better support Assad’s forces. The Russian military could accomplish this by helping the regime tackle the two major areas outside of its control: Idlib Province and the AANES.
The United States and its Allies
Since 2015, policy makers in Washington have watched Russia gain international notoriety for its military intervention in Syria, which helped rescue Assad as he struggled to put down an armed uprising that began in 2011. This move allowed Putin to gain a reputation as a military mastermind for boldly placing Russia’s forces in an armed conflict that in reality was relatively risk-free for Moscow, all while allowing Putin to shore up a key ally, gain battlefield experience, and test new weapons.
The Russian intervention in Syria generated a level of soft power.
Furthermore, the Russian intervention in Syria generated a level of soft power which claimed that Russia was there for its allies and only wished to promote security and stability. This greatly contrasted the actions of the United States – which in Putin’s view, has had a pesky habit of toppling every regime that ran afoul of Washington.
However, with the war in Ukraine now raging, Moscow is suddenly faced with a loss of soft power. The United States and its allies will no doubt actively find ways to exploit this situation to isolate and confront Russia globally.
Meanwhile, the United States has kept a small number of SDF-supporting troops to battle against the Islamic State terrorist group in the Syrian desert. The United States still shares a military theater with Russian forces and, although the two adversaries execute their missions separately, they sometimes collaborate by carrying out joint patrols.
The most infamous instance of violence between the United States and Russia in Syria remains the February 2018 clash which saw several hundred pro-Assad fighters, along with Russian mercenaries, perish in a failed assault on US positions in the Deir Ez-Zor Governorate.
The US has kept a small number of SDF-supporting troops to battle against the IS terrorist group in the Syrian desert.
In 2019, when former President Donald Trump ordered a sudden troop withdrawal from Syria, Russian military personnel were quick to seize the empty US bases and released video tours from inside the premises on Russian media channels. For their part, the US soldiers, unhappy to abandon their positions to a foreign adversary, left behind crude messages for the Russian forces to find.
Occasionally, these units have engaged in standoffs and Russian military vehicles have blocked or aggressively driven US armored personnel carriers off the road. In one such incident, in August 2020, four US troops suffered injuries.
On the ground, tensions continue to rise. Just days prior to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russian fighter jets had to be escorted by US military aircraft as they ventured into International Coalition airspace. As of now, there does not appear to be any new US policy guidance regarding communications lines with the Russian forces for the US military stationed in Syria.
Turkey will be especially important to the United States and Ukraine. And its role in Syria could see Ankara’s position in the Syrian conflict intensify. The last major regime offensive against Idlib Province – a region outside of Damascus’ control – in December 2019 to March 2020, saw many of Turkey’s observation posts in the area encircled by pro-Assad fighters.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to maintain ties with Russia, it condemned Putin’s invasion and said it was a “heavy blow to regional peace and stability.” Furthermore, as the Ukrainians began to defend themselves against the Russians, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones were widely praised for their ability to destroy Russian military convoys.
Ankara later sought to downplay the use of its drones, saying that it was merely a “private sale,” not a type of military aid to Ukraine. Still, some observers have suggested that Turkey’s place in NATO could actually be rehabilitated.
Certainly, ties between Turkey and the rest of NATO have been severely strained in recent years. Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage noted in Foreign Affairs that “Russian actions that destabilize the wider region could push Turkey back toward the United States, which could in turn drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow. This would be good for NATO, and it would also open up greater possibilities for a US-Turkish partnership in the Middle East.”
A US-Russia conflict in Syria would put Turkey in a difficult situation.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Turkey’s long-term goals in Syria differ from those of the United States. Turkish-supported rebels recently attacked SDF positions with drones near Manbij, east of Aleppo. A US-Russia conflict in Syria would put Turkey in a difficult situation with regards to its local allies.
Like Turkey, Israel is in a difficult position. Israel’s primary concern is retaining an open line to Russia so it can continue to conduct air strikes on Iranian-backed targets in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has sought to position Israel as a potential mediator in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and even traveled to Moscow to meet directly with Putin in hopes of a solution.
To be sure, both Israel and Turkey will continue to be important allies for the United States in the region, and the two countries are moving quickly to rebuild their bilateral ties after many years of tense relations.
If the war in Ukraine escalates to a greater global geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West, instead of withdrawing from Syria, the United States might be forced to enhance its military assets in the country and further bolster its support of the SDF. This would include a dramatic increase in diplomatic support, humanitarian aid, and US military infrastructure.
Syria could become part of a decades-long military and diplomatic confrontation
Already, the Biden administration is moving to ease sanctions on certain rebel-held areas in Syria, including the AANES. This situation might lead to the SDF’s political power in the northeast to achieve greater recognition. Meanwhile, Syria could become part of a decades-long military and diplomatic confrontation with a partition running roughly along the Euphrates River, with the SDF controlling the east and the regime holding onto the west.
Since the Assad Regime is so closely aligned with Moscow, it might very well end up becoming an even bigger target for the United States, and in doing so, Washington could indirectly punish or distract Russia. Similar to the history of East and West Germany during the Cold War, a divided Syria could remain a flashpoint well into the 21st century.