This is partly because of the endless killing in the multifaceted war that continues there. But it’s also because the rivalries among regional and global powers that drive the fighting could spill over into something much bigger.
In this tragic land, powerful military systems keep bumping against each other. At the end of the week before last, Israel attacked an Iranian drone base across the border in Syria. One Israeli plane was shot down by Syrian air defences, provoking further Israeli attacks on Syrian and Iranian targets.
Then last week the Russian foreign ministry confirmed that five Russians were killed and more injured by US air and missile strikes. Reports say hundreds of Russian and Syrian forces were killed or injured in the clash.
President Vladimir Putin decisively intervened in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Russian forces are still active in Syria.
But many of the Russians killed recently are private mercenaries. Apparently they include fighters who helped to carve out Russian-backed enclaves in southeastern Ukraine in 2014.
Russia and Iran are the two biggest winners of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Iran props up both Assad and the predominantly Shia Muslim government in Iraq. The Russian intervention has complicated the situation in Syria. The Iranian regime is trying to cash in on the Syrian alliance with various deals, but the regime is holding out to attract Russian and Chinese investment.
The main losers in Syria are of course the people themselves and the revolutionaries of 2011. Isis too has lost its strongholds in Syria, though some version of its jihadi politics will undoubtedly survive.
The other loser is the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He strongly backed the 2011 revolution and hoped to see Islamists like him take over in Syria. Not only has he totally failed to achieve this objective, but he faces a powerful armed Kurdish presence in northeastern Syria.
Assad pulled out of these areas, which were seized by the Kurdish nationalist People’s Protection Units (YPG). They are allied to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for the past generation.
Erdogan reacted by scrapping peace negotiations with the PKK and mounted a renewed offensive against the Kurdish areas in Turkey.
But he hasn’t been able to stop the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) playing a leading role in defeating Isis. This is partly because of the ideological commitment and military capabilities of the YPG, but they have also enjoyed massive support from the US.
The US has found the Kurdish-led forces its most reliable ally in fighting Isis in Syria.
Now that Isis has gone, the other players in the Syrian game are trying to move in on the Kurdish-controlled areas. The US strikes that killed Russians were directed against an Assad regime offensive against the Kurdish-controlled towns of Khusham and Salihiya.
In late January Turkish forces entered Syria to attack, in conjunction with its proxies, another Kurdish enclave around Afrin. Once again this risks military clashes among big powers. The US has announced it is keeping some 2,000 troops in northeastern Syria to support the SDF.
At the end of last week Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, flew into Turkey to meet Erdogan and other leading officials. Afterwards he announced the two governments were going to “lock arms” in northern Syria. What does this mean? Both Turkey and the US say they’re against Isis, but there are stories of ex-ISIS fighters participating in the Turkish assault on Afrin.
The real sticking point remains the YPG. Erdogan wants them and their US backers out of the ancient north Syrian town of Manbij. Tillerson just promised to “work on” this.
And now there are reports that the YPG has reached an agreement for the Syrian army to enter the Afrin region to help repel the Turkish offensive. The dangerous power struggle over Syria’s bloody corpse will continue.
US legislators plan more attacks