Of course, other factors were involved too. The Middle East is a warren of intentions, and nothing is ever what it seems. In the fight against the rebels, Assad has received help from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a political and military group based in Lebanon that is widely considered a terrorist organisation in the West, backed by Iran as a proxy in the decades-long Israel-Iran proxy conflict. Iran, a major regional power of the Middle East, has long sought to extend their influence against Saudi Arabia, which, largely thanks to their petroleum power, holds the most sway in the Middle East.
With the instability in Syria, Tehran has found an opportunity to potentially lengthen their arm and have used their highly effective ally Hezbollah to do so. Hezbollah has a history of success against Israel, a major adversary of Iran, with the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon after years of occupation in 2000 a most notable instance. Often described as a state within a state due to their political, military, and cultural power, Hezbollah of Lebanon is a powerful affiliate of Tehran with financial backing and extensive training from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian government military wing tasked with protecting the country’s Islamic Republic system. As a military wing so ideologically involved with the Islamic Republic of Iran, their involvement in Lebanon and Syria should not be underestimated. Hezbollah has successfully worked alongside Syrian government forces to clear rebel-held areas as well as pockets of resistance from ISIL. The Lebanese based group and Syrian armed forces work in close conjunction on military campaigns, not only on the frontlines but in the consolidation of power once the frontlines have moved.
Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, has, for the most part, steered clear of direct involvement in the Syrian civil war. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF), has mostly concerned itself with national security on a level involving protection of its own borders. That being said, as Hezbollah is backed by Iran and both groups are simultaneously involved in Syria as well as committed to the destruction of Israel, the IDF has fired over 100 airstrikes against them into Syria since the beginning of the war. Official military spokesmen have given their reasons as the destruction of Iran-backed Hezbollah-bound weapons caches, which they describe as a direct threat to Israeli national security. In more recent times, however, this situation has changed. With the ever-evolving and changing conflict inside Syria’s borders, so tactics too have changed. The war has dragged on for so long, constantly bringing more and more parties into the conflict, that it was inevitable for national foreign policies to have changed along the way. It is no secret that Iran and Israel are sworn enemies, and as Iran has lent more and more overt assistance to the Assad regime, in order to defeat its enemies, so has Israel responded with greater force. Not without reason, Israel sees greater Iranian influence in Syria, a neighbouring country, as a greater and greater threat to their own national security. At the time of writing, Israel has ordered and carried out three air strikes directly on Iranian targets, the latest being on April 9. Israeli fighter jets targeted the same T-4 military base they did back in February, in retaliation for an Iranian drone penetrating Israeli airspace, and on this occasion, they succeeded in killing 7 Iranian militants, including a colonel. Neither sides have officially recognised the incidents; experts claim this is because the potential for all-out warfare between the two states that would most likely follow is too great and neither state neither wants nor is ready for this eventually just yet. With this in mind, if Israel were to come under direct attack from anyone it would undoubtedly fight back with an immediate and forceful response. Israel’s complicated and contentious history since its UN recognition in 1949 is littered with examples of how seriously the Jewish state takes its national security, with an uncompromising stance on its borders. The United States of America has a more complicated role in the region. Initially directly brought into the conflict in 2014 due to the ISIL threat, US forces have stayed and become entrenched for a number of reasons. American forces have openly supported the rebels in the Syrian civil war, seeking a toppling of the Assad regime. As the US enjoys a considerable amount of influence in the area; there is a long-standing tradition of extremely close ties with Israel, former CIA director and current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo having gone on record as saying “We do believe that the Israelis have the right to defend themselves and we’re fully supportive of that”, and a newfound close association with Saudi Arabia, strengthened significantly after the May 2017 multi-billion dollar arms deal between the two countries, it is understandably unwilling to relinquish what control it has in the area. With the increase of Iranian influence on the Assad regime, the United States sees this as the potential for a decrease of their own power in the region. This view is shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia, a Jewish and a Muslim state, who have formed an unlikely truce with common goals in mind. The rift of power in the Middle East at this point has Syria, Iran, and Russia on one hand; the USA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia on the other, with plenty of proxy groups doing the dirty work in between. With this in mind, the United States has backed the rebel group FSA and provided much assistance to other, smaller and more moderate militant groups such as the YPG, the largest Kurdish military force and ally of the FSA. These rebel groups are not only fighting against Syrian republic forces but are also in conflict with ISIL. It suits the United States to back these moderate rebel groups, as they serve similar goals but do not necessarily require the commitment of more US boots on the ground, a domestically unpopular move. So far the United States has been very careful in not using direct and deliberate force against the Russians or Iranians, as this would be tantamount to an open declaration of war. Again, it suits major powers not to go directly to war with one another, as this would be very costly and astronomically destructive. Far better, in their view, to use proxies to fight one another for control of the region.
It is difficult to pinpoint the US goals for the area, which is not surprising considering the volatile nature of their commander-in-chief. In January 2018, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave five main aims for the region: preventing ISIL and al-Qaeda from re-emerging in the area, supporting the UN peacekeeping mission, providing a counter-balance to Iranian regional power, creating a space for Syrian refugees to return to, and ridding the areas of weapons of mass destruction. Lofty goals, to be sure. In all likeliness, according to many experts both inside and out of the United States, unobtainable. Just a few months after outlining these foreign policy goals, Tillerson was unceremoniously fired by the Don and replaced with Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is still finding his feet in his new position and so we are not 100% sure of his new American foreign policy in the area. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly said that the US is “knocking the hell outta ISIS” and now “it is time to come home”, but these fiery statements display a lack of a realistic grasp of the situation on the ground. It seems that perhaps Trump has yet to read a history book or look at a map of the area, as Iraq still has not recovered from the 2003 invasion. General Votel, the military commander in the region, evidently has; declaring that “the hardest part is yet to come” and outlined that they, the US military, need to consolidate their positions, stabilise the area, and begin on the reconstruction of the areas that they do control. A sort of unofficial Marshall Plan for Syria, a plan that worked out rather well for the Americans in Europe after WWII and theoretically may work again here. These plans cannot be implemented without the US military, the largest and most well funded armed force on the planet. Not only are there moral implications of pulling out, but it would not serve their geopolitical aims either. In the event of America reducing their forces in Syria, a power vacuum would be created and this would be playing directly into the hands Russia and Iran, two nations fully committed to Assad and his regime. Russia’s reasons for involvement in the conflict are a little more clear-cut, or as clear-cut as international politics can be. Long-standing allies, the political history between the two nations harkens back to the Cold War when Syria was a key ally of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. The Russian Naval base in Tartus, opened during the time of Bashar al-Assad’s father’s rule, remains the only naval facility in the Mediterranean and in fact the only remaining military base outside former Soviet lines. If Russia were to lose Syria as an ally in the region, its power in the Middle East would diminish drastically. As such, since the beginning of the war in 2011, they have stood by the regime politically, using their veto in the United Nations Security Council to block many draft resolutions led by the West against Assad. They became directly involved militarily in 2015, with the stated aim of fighting ISIL. To this end, they have helped arm rebel forces in their struggle against the terrorist group, but these are the same groups that are in direct opposition in a fight against the Assad regime. The saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but in this case, all that this maxim has lead to is a confusion of who is an enemy and who is a friend. The Russian military has since stayed in the region, providing military assistance and supplying arms to the Assad regime. Reportedly working with clear lines of communication between Moscow and Tehran, the Russians, however, are wary of coming into conflict with Israel.
There is a healthy respect between the two military forces and they are staying out of each others’ business. There is also the threat of coming into direct conflict with the USA, Israel’s closest and most committed ally. Because if Russia would like to keep its presence in Syria it needs Iran, who is fully committed to supporting Assad on multiple fronts, and this has the potential to bring Russia directly into the Iran-Israel rivalry; a move which undoubtedly has serious consequences in dealing with the West, and especially the United States.