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Ukraine war changed the rules of the game in Syria

The developments that Syria has witnessed since the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine indicate that the entire region is on the verge of major events that are difficult to predict.

There are distinct signs of Turkish determination to launch a military operation in northern Syria. This confirms that the vacuum left by the Russian focus on Ukraine has whetted Turkey’s appetite, just as it has whetted the Iranian appetite, which in the current circumstances raises a lot of Israeli concern.

Ankara cannot stay out of the game in Syria. This is not only because of its interest in the Kurdish issue and fear of the establishment of a semi-independent Kurdish entity on Syrian territory, but also because Turkey considers itself a partner in sharing the Syrian cake, just like Iran, Israel and even Russia.

Moscow has seemed in fact content with its military presence on the Syrian coast … that is, in Tartus and Latakia (the Hmeimim air base) in particular.

It is clear that there is a vacuum created by Russia  after it was drawn into the Ukraine war more than 100 days ago. In Syria, Russia used to balance all forces after its direct intervention in the war  there in September 2015. Russia took into consideration Israeli and Iranian concerns at the same time and forced Turkey into a measure of self-restraint after Moscow established a special relationship with Ankara culminating in Recep Tayyip Erdogan buying an S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it was a direct result of a series of Russian measures that forced Erdogan to submit to Moscow’s will and avoid obstructing its role in Syria.

During the past seven years, the Russians played a pivotal role in Syria, which they wanted to use as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the Americans. They stationed their troops in the Jazira region and took control of most of Syria’s riches, including oil, gas, water and agriculture. They also  provided protection for the Kurds, represented by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It is natural for Turkey to move again into Syria and to break free from the restrictions that held it back in the past, namely Russian, Iranian and American restrictions. The first step was to get rid of the restrictions dictated by Israeli considerations. Israel’s calculations in Syria changed after Russia plunged into the Ukrainian quagmire because of the miscalculations of Vladimir Putin. On February 24, the Russian president thought that the invasion of Ukraine was going to be a picnic and that no one would challenge him, just as had happened in Syria. He forgot that Ukraine is in Europe and that what was permitted in Syria, where he could kill as many Syrians as he wanted, will not be possible in Ukraine.

Turkey and Israel are united by Russia’s inability to manage the game in southern Syria. Russia was able to set limits, albeit in theory, to Iranian encroachment. It was also able to coordinate with Israel, which was interested in preventing the militias affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards from getting too close to the Golan. Most important of all, every strike directed by Israel at Iranian militias or at Iranian weapons storage sites was carried out with Moscow’s approval. On the other hand, there was a Russian-Turkish understanding regarding northern Syria.

It will be useful in the next few weeks to closely monitor what Turkey does now and to see how far it will go in its incursion into Syria and how deep its coordination with Israel will be. It is no longer possible to ignore the existence of common interests between Turkey and Israel in Syria in the absence of the active Russian role.

It is difficult for Israel to stand idly by in the face of Iranian expansion in southern Syria, an expansion that also affects the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which has been complaining for several weeks of an increase in the smuggling of weapons and drugs into its territory from southern Syria.

Turkey is not indifferent to the vacuum created by Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. It will take advantage of this void in one way or another. Iran is ready to do the same. The first Turkish concern remains the  Kurds. This will lead to opening of channels of communication with the US and not only with Israel.

In the final analysis, Ukraine has changed the Syrian rules of the game. Developments are of direct concern to Turkey. This is happening at a time when Iran and its presence in Syria are under the American and Israeli spotlight because of Tehran’s nuclear programme and the behaviour of its proxy militias.

Written By
Khairallah Khairallah

Arab Weekly
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