US wars Middle East

Middle East wars could turn bloodier if US troops leave

In parts of Syria dubbed “de-escalation zones” by the government, what could yet prove a new regional conflict is escalating fast.

Its protagonists, Turkey on one side and the Syrian government with its Russian backers on the other, had only a few months ago looked open to forging a new alliance. Instead, they are now killing each other’s troops and are at each other’s throats.

This latest instalment in Syria’s war points to a much broader picture across the Middle East. As the United States pulls back and loses interest, the complexity of regional conflict is escalating quickly. In Syria and Libya – but also Iraq and elsewhere – regional powers are becoming locked in sometimes bloody rivalry, pushing in more resources as they struggle to gain the upper hand.

Nowhere has that been more apparent than around the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Idlib this month. Syrian troops backed by Russian air power are clearly hoping to crush the last bastions of opposition resistance, opening up supply routes across the country and to the capital Damascus. Turkey, however, is now pouring its own troops into the region, enraged by the death of 13 of its soldiers to Syrian shelling in the last 10 days.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 650 Turkish military vehicles including tanks have crossed into Syria since Feb. 2, bringing the Turkish military presence in the country to nearly 6,500. On Monday, it said Turkish forces had shot down a Syrian attack helicopter, killing three crew, while Russian air strikes were reported close to a new Turkish military column entering the country.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan struck a defiant pose, warning that Turkey would take military action across the whole of Syria should any more personnel be killed or wounded. The face-off, however, is hurling a wrecking ball through what until recently had been one of Erdogan’s diplomatic priorities, a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Last year, against the protests of its Nato allies, Turkey took delivery of a state-of-the-art Russian S-400 air defence system, and there has also been talk of Ankara purchasing Russian fighter jets after being suspended from the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

Whether that partnership can survive events in Syria is a very different question. Read More