How Syria's Instability is Expanding in the Shadow of Gaza

March 16, 2024 Topic: Syria Region: Middle East Tags: SyriaGazaHamasIsrael-Hamas Conflict

How Syria's Instability is Expanding in the Shadow of Gaza

The reality in Syria today is one of never-ending conflict in which international actors advance their regional interests through escalatory military means at the expense of a solution to the conflict.

Conflicts across West Asia are expanding amid global attention on Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). A major—if largely unrecognized—casualty of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war is the world’s capacity to mitigate and address other equally pressing conflicts. Syria offers one case study exemplifying this dynamic, proving that merely “freezing” conflicts or allowing them to fester can have disastrous effects down the road, especially when malign actors use instability to advance their interests.

Many experts and officials have expressed concern regarding an expanded Israel-Hamas war. They identify warranted and real risks, especially when observing the substantial uptick in violent incidents across Syria since October 7. Indeed, major stakeholders engaged in Syria’s thirteen-year-old war have taken significant steps to advance their interests in Syria from the shadow of Israel’s plausibly genocidal acts in Gaza and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands.

Turkey’s actions in Northeast Syria (NES) stand out. Ankara committed to a new, sweeping air campaign against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES; formerly AANES)—respectively the armed and governing wings in the sub-region—in recent months. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now threatening another ground operation into NES, regardless of “threats” that prevented previous operations. He is referencing the Russian and U.S. troop presence in Northwest Syria (NWS) and NES, respectively, whose presence has blocked any such advance given the associated risks to them.

Other actors are also working overtime to advance their interests in Syria. Iran and its Axis of Resistance have reportedly made substantial advances throughout the country since October 7, with local sources indicating that Tehran has actively expanded the number of in-country military facilities in recent months through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

In parallel, Iran-backed militias attacked U.S. military installations roughly 180 times in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan since October 7 out of solidarity with Palestine. Washington continues to respond to these attacks with military force, largely against the same militias in both Syria and Iraq.

Other examples abound. Jordan has increased strikes on captagon smuggling rings in southern Syria amid increased border smuggling operations—which the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Iran-backed militias support and continue to expand. Israel regularly bombs the Axis of Resistance throughout Syria, including civilian infrastructure like the Aleppo and Damascus airports, given reports of IRGC weapons smuggling at these sites. Regime forces continue to launch unprecedented strikes on opposition forces holding out in NWS.

Each of these actors understands Syria’s reality within broader regional geopolitics, even if all claim to reject an expansion of the Israel-Hamas war. Some actors—namely Iran—claim solidarity with Palestine to advance their interests, striking U.S. forces at little to no cost. These and similar actions boost the Axis of Resistance’s popularity across the region, as witnessed by the Yemen-based Houthi movement’s attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea.

Many Western policymakers and experts incorrectly reject assertions that these actions are connected to the Israel-Hamas war. Yet the true reasoning behind the attacks is largely meaningless relative to the intended goal these actors aim to achieve through their actions and rhetoric. Indeed, in the case of Iran, Palestinian solidarity is a means of undermining Tehran’s rivals in West Asia, with the hope of forcing a U.S. withdrawal from the region.

Thus, Syria remains a core component of regional competition but continues to be deprioritized in relation to other international and regional issues. Although roughly 500,000 people have died in the war, the gradual slowdown in hostilities over the years and the rise of new conflicts around the globe has subsequently caused world capitals to shift focus. Yemen and Ukraine come to mind, with the latest round of brutal fighting in Gaza further degrading international capacities and political capital to stay focused on Syria.

Equally concerning, the default strategy across each of these conflicts increasingly involves hard policy tools and efforts to “freeze” the conflict. Indeed, as the world faces ever-increasing instability due to the high degree of long-running conflicts, world leaders are opting for quick, one-off solutions that fail to produce peace or de-escalate the situation. As such, conflict management has become the name of the game, much to the detriment of true, sustainable stability in West Asia and other parts of the world.

This reality exists because of a lack of political courage—not alternative policy options. Indeed, world leaders are choosing to allow a frozen status quo to hold in Syria, abiding by rigid policy stances with vague objectives. The U.S. military presence in NES personifies this reality as it is unclear why U.S. forces remain in the country after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS). 

Washington lacks a real Syria policy and claims that its forces are necessary to prevent an IS resurgence when the true reasoning for the deployment has strong connections to the post-9/11 “forever wars”—namely limiting Iranian influence and breaking the already-present “Shia Crescent” from Lebanon to Iran.

As such, the reality in Syria today is one of never-ending conflict in which international actors advance their regional interests through escalatory military means at the expense of a solution to the conflict. This prolongs the war amid many newer regional and global issues, straining the capacities of major stakeholder countries to address any one conflict. Worse, the United Nations system is increasingly facing major funding constraints that are causing aid cuts in Syria—one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.

West Asia, let alone Syria, has limited capacity for so much instability—which is actively worsened by opportunistic policy decisions on all sides of the Syrian war. Spiraling instability is the result of this situation, ultimately worsening peace prospects in the country and other conflicts while expanding the risks of broader war and humanitarian suffering. At a certain point, world leaders with influence must make tough decisions that are people-centric and pragmatic if they hope to improve the geopolitical situation and mitigate the ongoing slide into broader regional and global instability and competition.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.