Why What Happens in Syria Matters Beyond Its Borders


The eight-year war for control of Syria has drawn in outside powers including the U.S., Russia, Iran and the European Union. In the latest chapter, Turkish tanks rolled into northeastern Syria to push back a Kurdish militia long seen as a key part of the U.S.-led international coalition that destroyed Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate centered in Syria. What happens in this Middle Eastern country will continue to reverberate far beyond its fragile borders. Here are some reasons why.

Syria’s Neighborhood Is Dangerous

A country of about 20 million before a 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad descended into war, Syria stands at the center of conflicts that have convulsed the Middle East. To the north lies Turkey, which has battled for decades against Kurdish separatists and is loath to allow the rise of a Kurdish proto-state from the chaos of Syria’s war. To the east is Iraq, whose own long-running conflict contributed to the rise of Islamic State. Syria also borders Israel, with which it technically remains at war, and Lebanon, long a center of instability. Assad’s alliance with Iran and its Lebanon-based Hezbollah proxy have provided a further layer of volatility.

Islamic State Still Poses a Threat

Rolling back the frontiers of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate took years of grueling warfare, and the jihadist group remains a threat. Members who melted into the Syrian population have been waging an insurgency that has included assassinations, ambushes and suicide bombings. The Kurdish YPG militia now under assault by Turkey control camps and detention centers whose residents include thousands of captured fighters and their families. What to do about the children of Islamic State fighters, growing up in the camps, has turned into an ethical and security conundrum. The Kurds have warned these places are “ticking time bombs.” A collapse in security at these camps and prisons due to the Turkish military operation could seed the Middle East’s next extremist threat.

Russia Sees Interests of Its Own

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been a key ally of Assad in his fight for survival. One reason for Russia’s interest is Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus, where Russia keeps a naval base it can use to project military power to the doorstep of Europe. By helping the regime reclaim nearly all the terrain once held by Syrian rebels, Russia has emerged as the premier power in Syria. Some of Trump’s political allies oppose a U.S. retreat in Syria for fear it would reward Russia as well as Iran.

Millions of Syrians Are Refugees

In addition to killing an estimated 500,000 people, the Syrian war triggered an exodus of refugees, some 3.7 million of whom fled to Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants his army to secure a “buffer zone” within Syrian borders to resettle 2 million of those people. That could set a confrontation between Turkey and the Assad government, which has warned that the return of refugees to Syria must be coordinated and cannot be used as a way to “ethnically cleanse” certain areas. Another option for Erdogan — which strikes fear in the hearts of many in the EU — would be to resume allowing migrants in Turkey to move on into Europe. Turkey receives EU funding to prevent that; Erdogan wants more.

Syria Might Have Untapped Energy Reserves

Though Syria has been only a modest producer of oil and gas, averaging 400,000 barrels per day from 2008 to 2010 (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp., and Total SA were among companies working in ventures with the state-run Syrian Petroleum Co. before the war. Most of Syria’s major oil assets are located in the Kurdish-controlled northeast. Further exploration could lead to the discovery of off-shore gas reserves, given that giant deposits were found in Mediterranean waters farther south near Egypt, Israel and Cyprus.

Kurdish Roots Extend Beyond Syria

The world’s largest ethnic group without a state of its own, the Kurds are an Indo-European people, mostly Sunni Muslims, numbering about 30 million, whose homeland is divided among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They had hopes, following World War I, of establishing a self-ruled state of Kurdistan. But that notion was quashed mainly due to opposition from the newly formed Turkey. On and off since 1984, Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have battled for an autonomous region inside Turkey. The impetus for Turkey’s military incursion into Syria is to prevent creation of a de facto Kurdish mini-state on its doorstep that could launch attacks on Turkey. The YPG says it’s interested only in protecting the lives of Kurds in northern Syria.

The Reference Shelf

  • Related QuickTakes on who’s still fighting in Syria and why, the YPG, the Syrian war and the Kurds.
  • The International Crisis Group explores the conflict over Syria’s northeast.
  • Another ICG report explains the risks of an escalation between Israel and Iran.

— With assistance by Selcan Hacaoglu

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