There are growing indications that the war in Syria has now entered a new and dangerous phase that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East in a broad regional war. The news that Iran has sent significant numbers of Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan troops to take active part in defense of Syria has the potential to transform the conflict into one with global implications as Iran’s key regional rivals – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – continue to support jihadi factions in their war against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
The escalation of the conflict comes in the wake of significant victories for the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and other foreign-backed terror groups in and around the major Syrian city of Idlib. As Reuters reported, sources with knowledge of internal discussions in Damascus have confirmed that the Syrian government had acknowledged strategic losses and was prepared for a lengthy and costly summer defense campaign. While undoubtedly true, there are key elements left out of the narrative of “impending collapse” and Damascus being “overpowered” by the Islamic State.
Chief among the crucial points omitted from the majority of western media coverage is the vital support that Turkey has provided, and continues to provide, to jihadi groups in Syria’s northwest. And it is quite likely that it was the direct military intervention of Turkish troops that spurred Tehran to finally sign off on a direct intervention of their own, using a combination of Iranian military and Shia militias from regional allies. Aside from Turkey though, Iran sees in Saudi Arabia and Israel two countries that have also been demonstrably providing overt and covert support to the anti-Assad extremist groups in order to further their own agendas. In this way, it seem that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini has finally abandoned the cautious approach in order to provide much needed support to his ally Assad, and to maintain the Shia alliance of Hezbollah-Syria-Iran.
While the war in Syria has been dominating headlines for more than four years now, it has clearly now reached a turning point. Only by combining an understanding of the situation on the ground with the reality of the politics and competing interests, can one discern both what is happening, and where this war is going.