The proxy wars in the Middle East slowly give way to new confrontations that pit the real parties against each other. No longer do we see tensions fueled by armed groups, small and large, and terrorist organizations. At this point, the various stakeholders are getting their hands dirty. Keeping in mind the number of countries involved in tensions over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Yemen, it is possible to describe the situation as a ‘low-intensity World War III.' The future intensity and scope of this war will be determined by the parties.
Arguably the most important power struggle is taking place in Syria, where there are four main actors: Turkey, the United States, Russia and Iran. It is important to recall that three out of those four countries do not share borders with the war-torn country and the U.S., Russia and Iran continue their activities in Syria for the purpose of expanding their spheres of influence and maximizing their regional influence. By contrast, Turkey deployed troops to Syria to secure its southern border, protect its citizens and facilitate the return of refugees to their native country. Having dealt a heavy blow to Daesh terrorists by carrying out Operation Euphrates Shield last year, the Turks have recently launched Operation Olive Branch against the terrorist group PKK. The United States, in turn, continues its cooperation with the PKK's Syrian branch, the People's Protection Units (YPG), in Syria. Meanwhile, the Russians are working closely with the Assad regime and the Iranian-backed Shia militias.In recent months, Syria has become a conflict zone, where individual players work together in limited areas. In Idlib, where a de-escalation zone has been established, Turkey and Russia coordinate their actions. By contrast, Iran and the Assad regime are unhappy with the joint Turkish-Russian effort to stabilize the area — which is why they have repeatedly targeted Turkish troops in Idlib. Another important point is that Washington is unsettled by the clashes in Idlib. Most recently, pro-American groups have downed a Russian plane in the area.
At the same time, the Assad regime and Iran are frustrated with Operation Olive Branch and therefore have been providing assistance to the PKK terrorists in Afrin. Interestingly enough, the same parties recently targeted PKK elements elsewhere in the country, where the U.S. sided with the terrorists to strike the regime forces and Iranian-backed militias.The already complicated situation in Syria has just become messier with the involvement of Israel last week. The following developments took place on Saturday: Israel downed an unmanned drone reportedly belonging to the Iranians and proceeded to launch airstrikes against regime positions around Damascus. Meanwhile, the Assad regime downed an Israeli F-16. The Israelis retaliated by launching additional airstrikes.
At the same time, Israel has been threatening Lebanon, which could potentially be the next stage in this low-intensity world war. It is important to recall that the Lebanese government last week announced that it would retaliate against future attacks by Israel. Again, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reportedly detained in Saudi Arabia, which, together with the United Arab Emirates, had been siding with the Israelis against Lebanon. It would appear, however, that the two Gulf countries failed to reach their goals — provided that Israel got directly involved this time. To be clear, it looks like the Israelis are primarily interested in territorial expansion. And the Trump administration's controversial Jerusalem move appears to be part of the same ill-intentioned plan.
It goes without saying that the missing piece of the puzzle is Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting a devastating proxy war. Although the developments in Yemen have been largely ignored in the grand scheme of things, the situation could further escalate depending on which direction the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Lebanon take in the future.
Simply put, the Middle East is going through a painful period with many twists and turns. In this chaotic environment, Turkey has no choice but to take decisive steps without delay to secure its borders and neutralize terrorist threats.