American soldiers face off against Russians in Syria, and kill them. Israel loses its first military plane in more than three decades, to Syrians. Israeli police ask for Prime Minister Netanyahu to be indicted. And the president of Turkey threatens the United States with a “slap.” What is going on in the Middle East? Several regional governments face significant internal turmoil. Even more are using war-torn Syria to fight for position. And while American lives are at risk, unlike the past 50 years, Washington is pursuing its interests from the edges, rather than the center of the action.
First, let’s review, for those of us who have been busy with the stock market, North Korea, or the Olympics: A series of military escalations among Israel, Iran, and Syria led to the first shooting down of an Israeli military jet in more than 35 years. In retaliation, Israel destroyed something like 40 percent of Syrian air defenses. When the sides wanted to slow the escalation, and signal that each had made its point, where did they turn? Russia, which is strongly situated to play power broker in Syria. Washington was not present in the conversations, and Secretary of State Tillerson didn’t add an Israeli stop to his Middle East trip this week.
But elsewhere in Syria, Russia and the United States are increasingly in conflict — not just in geopolitics, but in firefights. An American drone destroyed a Russian tank in eastern Syria, reportedly killing three members of its crew. A U.S. military spokesman “refused to speculate” on the nationality of the dead, whom analysts assume to have been Russian. Days earlier, when Syrian government-backed forces attacked a base of the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces, American air strikes helped fight them off, killing more than 100. Somewhere between 4 and 40 of the opponents killed were … Russian mercenaries. This time it was the Moscow government which had no comment. But Russian media reported that survivors were recuperating in Russian military hospitals.
Elsewhere in Syria, Kurdish forces allied with the United States and against ISIS have drawn intense opposition from Turkey, which fears they will partner with Kurds inside Turkey to press for a state of their own. Turkey has partnered with other Syrian groups to attack the Kurds, and threatened to overrun a town where U.S. forces train Kurds and other Syrians. When the U.S. military warned Ankara not to follow through on this threat, an angry Turkish president Recep Erdogan threatened Washington with “an Ottoman slap.” And no, it is not usual for NATO heads of state to threaten to slap each other.
On top of all that, if we needed a reminder that many governments in the region are fragile and sitting atop angry publics, Israel, the region’s best-established democracy, saw its police recommend that Prime Minister Netanyahu be charged on multiple counts of corruption, for taking bribes and threatening to close down a newspaper whose coverage he disliked.
Why is all of this happening at once? Three reasons.
The region’s main players have complex internal politics that tick along regardless of external affairs — much like the wriggling sack of crazy that is American domestic politics these days. Corruption investigations against Netanyahu have been bubbling along for years, for example — there are too many for us to list them all here. Last week’s massive pro-regime demonstrations in Iran, with their chants of “death to America” and “death to Israel,” are best understood as the government’s answer to massive domestic protests over economic hardship that erupted with little warning earlier this year.
But at the same time, changes in the conflict in Syria have set off a regionwide scramble. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad now feels secure enough to start attacking more remote rebel strongholds. It wants Moscow’s help, but Moscow wants to hold onto its king-maker position while limiting its troop exposure in an election year (sound familiar?). So in lieu of sending its own troops, Moscow has apparently permitted a Russian mercenary company to make a deal to supply forces. Iran, Assad’s other enabler, is steadily building up its military reach, and ability to support its ally Hezbollah, the strongly anti-Israeli guerrilla group, from Syrian territory. The Israelis have said they will not allow Hezbollah or Iran to build up a presence near their border, which analysts say means that the kind of attacks that took place last weekend are “the new normal.” Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and a U.S. ally in NATO, has made its peace with Russia and Iran but cannot live with the Kurdish guerrillas building an ever-stronger statelet on its border. The Kurds, whose aspirations upset every state in the region, are playing a strong military and propaganda hand — including by trumpeting their unprecedented inclusion of women in political and military roles.
People have been talking for years about what the Middle East would look like if the United States took a more limited and purely self-interested role. Well, that time has come. Make no mistake, American interests and American lives remain deeply involved. Hundreds of U.S. troops are on the ground in Syria; thousands more nearby in bases in Qatar and Turkey. Washington is flying sorties against ISIS and other forces daily, and planning to contain and push back Iran is one of the Trump administration’s major security preoccupations.
But despite that, Washington has relatively few levers to affect what happens in Syria, not so much because of the limits of its military stance but because it has so little to offer on the diplomatic front. Not aid for rebuilding even post-ISIS Iraq, let alone any part of Syria. Not aid or placement for refugees. Not political leadership at peace talks. Not the ability to cut a deal with Russia or Iran, given the levels of domestic political rhetoric on both topics in Washington. As two analysts of the Israeli-Syrian conflict politely commented, Washington’s strategy in Syria remains “opaque.” When advocates of restraint in U.S. foreign policy called for limiting U.S. aims in the Middle East, none of them ever called for limits in thinking ahead about cause and effect. Yet here we are.