The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria

Two weeks ago, standing on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, I wrote a column positing that this frontier was the "second most dangerous" war zone in the world - after the Korean Peninsula.

I'd like to revise and amend that column. Having watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, where North and South Korean athletes marched last week into the stadium together in a love fest; and having also watched Israel shoot down an Iranian drone from Syria, bomb an Iranian base in Syria and lose one of its own F-16s to a Syrian missile; and after US jets killed a bunch of Russian "contractors" who got too close to our forces in Syria, I now think the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world.

Where else can you find Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish troops or advisers squaring off on the ground and in the air - along with pro-Iranian Shi'ite mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan; pro-US Kurdish fighters from northern Syria; ISIS remnants; various pro-Saudi and pro-Jordanian anti-Syrian regime Sunni rebels and - I am not making this up - pro-Syrian regime Russian Orthodox Cossack "contractors" who went to Syria to defend Mother Russia from "crazy barbarians" - all rubbing against one another?

As The Washington Post pointed out, "In the space of a single week last week, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel lost aircraft to hostile fire" in Syria.

The term "powder keg" was invented for this place. But if this story has crept up on you and left you confused as to what United States policy should be, let me try and untangle it for you. The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don't want to "own" this war.

This is the ultimate rent-a-war.

Each party wants to maximise its interests and minimise the influence of its rivals by putting at risk as few of its own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.

They've all learnt - Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the US from Iraq and Afghanistan - that their publics will not tolerate large numbers of body bags fighting any ground war in the Middle East.

The writer believes the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world; all parties in the conflict want to maximise their own interests and minimise the influence of their rivals by putting at risk as few of their own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for their goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

President Vladimir Putin wants to be able to tell Russians that "Russia is back" as a superpower and he's the kingmaker in Syria - but he isn't putting any Russian soldiers at risk.

Instead, Mr Putin is using Iran to provide ground forces and enlisting contractors, like those Cossacks from a private Russian company named Wagner, to fight and die - as dozens did the other day in a US airstrike - on the ground.

Iran, which just witnessed an uprising by its own people, demanding that Teheran spend its money at home, not in Syria, is subcontracting the ground war that Russia subcontracted to Iran to Iran's proxies - Hizbollah and various Shi'ite mercenaries from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This way Iran can control Damascus and use Syria as a forward base to put pressure on Israel but pay "wholesale", not "retail".

US Special Forces are arming and advising Kurdish fighters from northern Syria to carry out the ground war against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is using Sunni rebels to fight the same Kurds.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan all use various Sunni rebels to fight the pro-Iranian, pro-Shi'ite regime forces, and Israel is using the long arm of its air force.

In 2003, I had warned in a column in the run-up to the US toppling of Saddam Hussein: "The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq."

So in Syria today, the abiding rule is: "You own it, you fix it."

And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria - a gargantuan project - they all want to just rent their influence there.

There is something very 21st century about this war. But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources - or willingness to compromise - to stabilise Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to invest enough power and resources to stabilise it from the top down.

The "good news", sort of, is that because everyone is so "loss averse" in Syria, it's less likely that any party will get too reckless.

The Iranians and Hizbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hizbollah neighbourhood in Lebanon and hit Iran's homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.

Maybe, eventually, the players will get tired and forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war.

Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria'. Subscribe