Two weeks ago, standing on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, I wrote that this frontier was the “second most dangerous” war zone in the world today — after the Korean Peninsula. However, I’d like to revise and amend that column.
Having watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, where North and South Korean athletes marched week before last into the stadium together in a love fest; and having also watched Israel shoot down an Iranian drone from Syria, bomb an Iranian base in Syria and lose one of its own F-16s to a Syrian missile; and after America’s jets killed a bunch of Russian “contractors” who got too close to American forces in Syria, I now think the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world.
Where else can you find Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish troops or advisers squaring off on the ground and in the air — along with pro-Iranian Shiite mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan; pro-United States Kurdish fighters from northern Syria; Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) remnants; various anti-Syrian regime Sunni rebels and — I am not making this up — pro-Syrian regime Russian Orthodox Cossack “contractors” who went to Syria to defend Mother Russia from “crazy barbarians” — all rubbing against one another?
As the Washington Post pointed out, “In the space of a single week last week, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel lost aircraft to hostile fire” in Syria. The term “powder keg” was invented for this place.
But if this story has crept up on you and left you confused as to what US policy should be, let me try to untangle it for you.
The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don’t want to “own” this war. This is the ultimate rent-a-war. Each party wants to maximise its interests and minimise the influence of its rivals by putting as few of its own soldiers at risk and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.
They’ve all learnt — Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the US from Iraq and Afghanistan — that their publics will not tolerate large numbers of body bags fighting any ground war in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to be able to tell Russians that “Russia is back” as a superpower and that he’s the kingmaker in Syria — but he isn’t putting any Russian soldiers at risk. Instead, Putin is using Iran to provide ground forces and enlisting contractors, like those Cossacks from a private Russian company named Wagner, to fight and die — as dozens did the other day in a US air strike — on the ground.
Iran, which just witnessed an uprising by its own people, demanding that Tehran spend its money at home, not in Syria, is subcontracting the ground war that Russia subcontracted to Iran to Iran’s proxies — Hezbollah and various Shiite mercenaries from Iraq and Afghanistan. This way Iran can control Damascus and use Syria as a forward base but pay “wholesale”, not “retail”.
US Special Forces are arming and advising Kurdish fighters from northern Syria to carry out the ground war against Daesh. Turkey is using Sunni rebels to fight the same Kurds. In 2003, I had written a column in the run-up to America’s toppling of the then Iraqi president Saddam Hussain, which I supported, in which I warned: “The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq.” So in Syria today, the abiding rule is, “You own it, you fix it.” And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria — a gargantuan project — they all want to just rent their influence there.
There is something very 21st century about this war. But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources — or willingness to compromise — to stabilise Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to invest enough power and resources to stabilise it from the top down.
The “good news”, sort of, is that because everyone is so “loss averse” in Syria, it’s less likely that any party will get too reckless. The Iranians and Hezbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hezbollah neighbourhood in Lebanon and hit Iran’s homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.
Maybe, eventually, the players will forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war. Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.
— New York Times News Service
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author.