Escalation in Syria: Turkey and Israel


The war in Syria has long been recognised as being internationalised, with actors at the national, regional and global levels having an interest in the outcome and contributing directly to the ongoing violence. Last week we looked at the government offensives, which relate to the central incompatibility over the governance of Syria and what the nature of this should be. This week we look at two of the supplementary incompatibilities, which relate to the interests of two of the regional actors in the war, both of whom are Syria’s neighbours: Turkey and Israel. Their involvement in Syria demonstrates that the relationships between Syria and neighbouring states is dynamic as while their actions are undoubtedly adding to the violence their respective governments are also reacting to developments regarding other actors fighting in Syria.

The first incompatibility is between Turkey and the Kurds. Turkey has recently launched an offensive into the Afrin region of Syria, which is currently held and administered by the Kurds. While Ankara is opposed to the Assad regime, hosts Syrian refugees and actively supports the Syrian opposition its reasons for its current incursion relates specifically to Kurdish success in carving out a Kurdish administered region in northern Syria and the declaration by the United States that it would set up a border security force using the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ankara does not want a contiguous Kurdish area formed along Turkey’s southern border as it sees the Kurdish YPG/YPJ militias as a threat and doesn’t distinguish between the YPG/YPJ in Syria and the PKK separatists in Turkey. A spill-over from the fighting in Syria was the re-escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Turkey’s south-east, a bitter conflict that had raged since 1978 and fired up again in 2015. According to the International Crisis Group, this has resulted in the deaths of over three thousand people, including the state security forces, PKK militants and civilians. This is a major conflict that is currently overshadowed by the events in Syria. The Afrin incursion is both tragic and unnecessary as one of Syria’s more stable areas is now under assault and its people are being killed due to the perceived threat of the Syrian Kurds to Turkey in the eyes of the leadership in Ankara when in fact they are not. In a bizarre twist that is adding more violence to an already complex Syrian War, Damascus has sent its own troops into the area in support of their Kurdish rivals, bringing them into contact with Turkish forces. The increasingly authoritarian Turkish leader, President Erdogan, has promised to push further into Kurdish held territory in Syria (known to the Kurds as Rojava) where United States forces are based in support of the Kurds, who were the backbone of the SDF alliance that were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS in 2017. The US has currently stood aside in a battle between two of its allies.

The second incompatibility is between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran. Israel’s air attack in February on targets in Syria was an escalation of its existing campaign over Syria that until recently it was conducting with little public announcement. In a sequence of events that unfolded rapidly an Iranian drone was shot down over Israel and Israel responded by striking the base from where it was deployed during which an Israeli jet was shot down and Israel then targeted Syrian air defence systems. Iran explicitly denies any knowledge of the drone that triggered the exchange. While this may seem an excessive response to the violation of Israeli airspace by a single (unarmed) drone (which admittedly could have been armed) it is in keeping with the Israeli response to anything determined a threat, namely the application of disproportionate and immediate force. While Israel has a seriously adversarial relationship with Syria, in particular concerning Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, it is more concerned with the presence of Hezbollah, Iranian forces and Iranian backed militias that are currently supporting the Assad regime and have been instrumental to its ground campaigns. Hezbollah in particular are deemed by Israel as a direct threat, a justifiable concern as Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy that emerged from Lebanon’s brutal civil war and as a counter to an Israeli occupation of Lebanon. While Hezbollah is currently focused on battling the Syrian opposition, incurring serious casualties in the process, its raison d’être is its war with Israel, in which it lobs rockets into Israel from Lebanon. For its part, in the past Iran has denied that Israel even has the right to exist, so relations there are sour at best. At the bare minimum, Israel sees anything linked to Hezbollah as a legitimate target, and this includes arms dumps in Syria. The reason for the air assault on Syrian air defences is brutally simple: it prevents Israel operating in Syrian airspace with their usual impunity.

From a historical perspective both Turkey and Israel have had adversarial relationships with the Assad regime but their actions in Syria relate more to other actors in the Syrian War. This can be understood in the context of the ‘security dilemma’, which affects all states within the international system of states. While this may explain the reasons behind their interventions it does not follow that it legitimises them, even taking into account arguments that both are acting in self-defence, albeit pre-emptively. They are not alone in treating Syria’s borders and airspace as virtually meaningless or in supporting or opposing other actors in the conflict. The assault on Afrin is clearly the most serious escalation as it involves a ground offensive that is putting civilians in the firing line and is being carried out with the aim of adding to the territory of Turkish allied groups that neighbour Afrin and separate it from the rest of Rojava to the east.  As part of the bigger picture, the Turkish and Israeli actions demonstrate that Syria’s devastating war is far from being over and action is needed at all levels to de-escalate the violence. Thus far the contribution of foreign actors has mainly been to escalate and sustain the conflict for their own ends with little in the way of compromise to be seen.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.


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