How telling that just as all the Great Powers were making nice and divding their turf in Syria, it starts to look like the US could get drawn into the war against Assad—against its will. Until now, the US has been giving Bashar Assad a wide berth, not interfering with his relentless campaign of aerial terror, but instead concentrating its battle on ISIS. But on Aug. 18, the US for the first time scrambled jets (presumably from Incirlik air base in Turkey) in response to Assad regime aggression after its Kurdish anti-ISIS partners came under bombardment. The US has special forces troops embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which were bombed by regime warplanes near Hasakah. (BBC News, Aug. 20; WP, NBC, EA Worldview, Aug. 19) This should put paid to the persistent calumny that the Kurds are collaborating with Assad. But it obviously also holds the risk of direct superpower confrontation, as Russian warplanes are backing up the Assad regime.
The incident at Hasakah came days after the SDF took full control of Manbij from ISIS. The jihadists resorted to using 2,000 civilians as human shields to ensure their escape in a 500-vehicle convoy, headed for the nearby ISIS-held town of al-Bab. (BBC News, Aug. 16)
A video on AJ+ shows jubilant Manbij residents burning their burqas, shaving their beards and lighting up cigarettes in celebration of their liberation. But there is a side not being portrayed here… Manbij, a mixed Arab and Kurdish town, was liberated by the Kurdish-led SDF. Even the heroic behind-lines anti-ISIS group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has expressed fears (warranted or not) over anti-Arab reprisals in areas liberated by the SDF. There is potential for further trouble in Manbij and other liberated areas if the SDF do not play their cards carefully.
The fate of the ISIS capital Raqqa, the ultmate objective of the SDF campaign, will really determine the future course of the conflict—along with that of Mosul, the principal ISIS-held city in Iraq. Will the impending fall of Raqqa and Mosul mean the beginning of the end for ISIS, or will it just fuel the sectarian war that they thrive on in vampiric manner?
And this reckoning approaches as the Syrian war is beoming even more internationalized. On the same day as the Hasakah incident, Russian jets carried out their first air-strikes from a base in Iran. The bombers flew from Hamadan, in Iran’s west, allegedly to strike ISIS positions near Aleppo. At least 19 civilians were killed in those strikes, according to monitors on the ground. The Iranian military presence in Syria has been growing in recent months, but this signals an unprecedented degree of cooperation between Assad’s two biggest foreign sponsors, Tehran and Moscow. (The Guardian, Aug. 16)
The Great Power convergence of interest in Syria continues. Turkey now says its cooperation with other powers in Syria could even extend to Iran. And for the first time the Turkish government has broached a solution in Syria that would leave Assad himself in power for a transitional period. (Asharq al-Awsat, Aug. 20) Turkey has in recent weeks been softening its stance on Assad, but this indicates how deep the convergence really goes. Further evidence is provided by Russian state media reports that Turkey could actually open the Incirlik base to Moscow’s warplanes. (RT, Aug. 21)
But even if none of the Great Powers consiously seek war with each other, rival imperial forces in combat and proximity obviously holds a frightening threat of international escalation—as was evidenced in Sarajevo in 1914.
And just to make it more… interesting… there is also a growing Chinese military presence in Syria. China lags far behind partners Iran and Russia in its Syria involvement, but it may be seeking to catch up. This week Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission, traveled to Damascus to meet regime Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij and pledge greater support. (Reuters, Aug. 16)