Russia’s conflict in Ukraine has dramatically damaged Moscow’s once-dominant role in Syria, putting growing strain on the agreements it had in place with major parties such as the US, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. While some powers involved in Syria’s civil war are using the new circumstances to their advantage, Russia is attempting to maintain its central position by reminding everyone that Moscow’s will still counts for a lot in Syria, including the relative de-escalation of fighting even as the country’s civil war shows no signs of ending. This power competition over Syria, on the one hand, and the growing risk of turning Syria into a battleground for settling scores over Ukraine, on the other, could lead to dangerous new escalation and the end of whatever limited stability Syria has seen recently as a result of increased cooperation among these very same outside powers that are now at odds.
President Vladimir Putin’s invasion reversed some of Russia’s strategic gains from its previous engagement in the Syrian crisis. Russia became a more visible and prominent role in the Middle East and beyond as a global power embroiled in a conflict with far-reaching consequences. Russia’s opinions were important in the Syrian context, and collaboration with Moscow became a must for other nations participating in Syria’s civil war. Moscow gained a unique dual position with soldiers on the ground and direct access to all major participants on the Syrian battlefield, most notably President Bashar al-Assad. It was not only an inescapable mediator in all critical issues surrounding the conflict, but it was also a de facto “local” collaborator in Syria for nations such as Israel, Turkey, and even the United States.
In Syria, Russia and Israel developed tight ties, notably over the problem of Iran’s presence. Despite ups and downs, the collaboration has lasted the test of time, allowing Israel to conduct frequent strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. They have kept a “deconfliction system” in place to avoid Israeli and Russian forces from accidentally colliding in Syria during those operations. Meanwhile, in northern Syria, Turkey and Russia formed a complicated relationship of collaboration and struggle over a variety of problems, including the final Syrian opposition bastion in Idlib province, Kurdish self-government, and border security. Russia and the Biden administration also had instances of good collaboration, as as when they collaborated on humanitarian concerns, resulting in Russia not vetoing critical cross-border aid delivery to the opposition-held north. They even established a political track, with Russian and American officials convening in Geneva. All of this not only pushed Russia to the center of the Syrian jigsaw, but it also contributed to the country’s de-escalation in recent years, with quieter frontlines and fewer significant clashes.
The war in Ukraine has thrown Moscow and Washington off track, and there is a good chance that direct, cross-border humanitarian aid delivery into northern Syria—the mandate for which needs to be renewed by the United Nations Security Council this summer—will fall victim to U.S.-Russia squabbles and be vetoed by Moscow. A scenario like this would make collaboration between the two considerably more difficult, undermining Washington’s emphasis of humanitarian help in Syria. A Russian veto would also have a significant impact on the economy of Syria’s opposition-held northwest, where impoverished Syrians are already facing increasing costs for essential necessities as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
So far, the separate agreements between Russia and Israel, as well as Russia and Turkey, have shown to be more resilient. Despite Israeli condemnations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia stated that military cooperation would continue; Israel has since bombed Iranian targets many times within Syria. Turkey, for its part, has walked a razor’s edge. It has criticized Russia’s invasion, sold several Bayraktar TB2 armed drones to Ukraine without the customary publicity, and blocked the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to Russian and non-Russian vessels in accordance with the Montreux Convention. But it has done so without joining the Western-led sanctions against Moscow, fearing the economic effects as well as Russian reprisal in places like Syria. Russia, for its part, has made an effort not to antagonize Turkey, including apparently opposing the Assad regime’s latest attempt to increase fighting in Idlib.
However, as the war in Ukraine continues, it will put additional pressure on major nations’ positions in the Syrian crisis, making it impossible to preserve all existing arrangements. Some Israeli observers are concerned that Russia is growing less tolerant of Israel’s bombings in Syria, not just because of Israel’s tougher comments against Moscow over Ukraine, but also to indicate Israel’s status as a military force claiming control of Syria’s airspace. Both Turkey and Russia have displayed symptoms of escalation along the Syrian-Turkish border, and violations of the area’s weak cease-fires have become increasingly prevalent. In this sense, an immediate conclusion to Ukraine’s war might help to sustain some of the relative calm in Syria, and possibly even a restoration to certain pre-invasion arrangements. However, a protracted conflict in Ukraine may indicate that the worst is yet to come in Syria as relations between Russia and other foreign parties deteriorate.
The conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s weaker position in Syria have also heightened rivalry among important regional countries seeking to extend their own influence in a sovereignty-deprived nation in the heart of the Middle East that has been a heated proxy battleground for more than a decade. In this regard, Iran has made the most evident achievements in Syria. Not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Iran went back to doing what it does best: expanding on additional Syrian land via Iranian-backed militias and the proliferation of Iranian armaments. The war in Ukraine provided the ideal backdrop, with Russia quickly engulfed and unable to confront Iran. However, Russia may have given Iran more room to expand its reach in Syria in order to frighten Israel as well as some Western and Arab countries, all of which regard Iran’s position in Syria as a security threat, and to remind them of Moscow’s importance in any effort to counter Iran’s influence on the ground. Simultaneously, Putin’s expensive assault of Ukraine reawakened the Syrian regime’s recurring dread of extinction, prompting Damascus to bolster its other ties—first with Iran, and then with other Arab countries via Assad’s unexpected visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Three days after the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe, Syrian spymaster Ali Mamlouk was in Tehran, apparently to seek additional Syrian support for greater surrender to Iran. Several Arab countries also made significant advances. One may see Assad’s travel to the UAE as an attempt by the Emiratis—backed by certain Arab nations, Israel, and possibly even some Western governments tacitly—to fight Iran’s attempts to exploit Russia’s retreat and shifting objectives in Syria as a result of Ukraine. In another assertive move, the Emiratis have opened channels of communication between Turkey and the Assad regime, as recently reported in Turkish media and by Damascus-based sources. Russia, for its part, convened a meeting between Mamlouk and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, in mid-April in Moscow, reminding everyone of its involvement in Syria. They allegedly addressed “security and intelligence problems,” as Russia attempts, according to a Turkish government source, to “rearrange the situation in Syria” in order to reduce fallout from the Ukraine crisis.
All of this reinvigorated activity in and around Syria, set against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict, might end up going in any direction. However, it demonstrates how sensitive Syria is to geopolitical rivalries 11 years into its civil conflict, and how much it has become a playground for global countries. If Russia’s conflict in Ukraine continues, it may demonstrate how tensions between these powers over Ukraine eventually erupt on the frontlines, hinder humanitarian supplies, and take even more lives in this devastated nation known as Syria.