Turkish-backed rebels fire an anti-aircraft gun southeast of Idlib on February 24, 2020. Photo: AFP

On Wednesday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing on the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib, the current focus of a war that is now in its ninth year.

Again, there are the usual pleas for the US to step up military support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey-backed jihadists in Idlib governorate – an al-Qaeda stronghold – touting that Turkey is a NATO ally and the West should support its occupation of Idlib.

However, perhaps this time it may be prudent for the US Congress to bring in political scientists to testify at the hearing, rather than the usual Washington pundits, activists, and lobbyists with vested interests in prolonging the conflict, for a more realistic assessment of the consequences of increasing US military intervention.

Prolonging civil conflicts

According to political scientists, civil conflicts are prolonged when foreign powers intervene. A study conducted in 2008 by James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford University affirmed that civil wars tend to be significantly longer when foreign countries intervene decisively on one side. This applies to Syria: the Syrian government is supported by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, whereas the Syrian armed opposition is supported by the US, some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

Nicholas Sambanis (University of Pennsylvania), Stergios Skaperdas (University of California, Irvine) and William Wohlforth (Dartmouth College), the authors of a working paper published in 2017, further argue that if one side’s patrons increase material support for its proxy, there is a risk of escalation by the other side’s patrons.  

In other words, if actor A = the Syrian government and A* is its sponsor (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) while actor B = the rebel opposition and B* is its sponsor (the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), then any escalation by B* may risk escalation by A* to prolong the conflict. 

For example, with the April 2017 US air strikes and the April 2018 US/UK/French tripartite air strikes targeted directly on the Syrian government on behalf of the opposition, Washington may have been signaling an escalation of resource commitments to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. This was complemented with further Israeli air strikes on Syrian military assets.

US, British, French and Israeli military actions thus risked paving the way for other direct military attacks on the Syrian government by sponsors of the opposition (Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council and additional NATO members).

Now, the US and NATO are considering military escalation in support of Turkey’s campaign in Syria.

In this scenario, the balance shifts in favor of the rebel opposition so that A+A* < B+B*.  However, it would probably provoke A* to escalate and rebalance so that A+A*≥ B+B*. 

A* would now include Iran, Hezbollah and Russia plus China and other Eurasian states in CSTO/SCO (Collective Security Treaty Organization/Shanghai Cooperation Organization), whereas B* might now include the US/NATO, Israel and GCC states. 

As such, this scenario risks escalating the Syrian conflict into a regional and international war among the great nuclear powers (the US, Russia and China), with al-Qaeda, ISIS and their patrons benefiting from the additional chaos. Indeed, back in 2017 a report by IHS Markit warned, “The Syrian government is essentially the anvil to the US- led coalition’s hammer” against ISIS, and its downfall would empower ISIS to the detriment of the international community.

Escalation begets escalation

Such a conflict would inevitably spill over into Israel as Iran, Russia and China are provoked into increasing military support of the Syrian Arab Army, drawing in other states in the SCO with concerns about Salafi jihadists from their region setting up a safe haven in Syria. Thousands of Central Asian militants, based mainly in Idlib and East Aleppo (before being ejected by the Syrian army in 2017), have been training and fighting alongside US/Western-backed groups to try to overthrow the Syrian government.

As an Israeli intelligence report documented, there are thousands of Chinese Uighurs fighting in the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, such as in the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) based in Idlib. The August 30, 2016, bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, planned by TIP in Syria and financed by al-Nusra, signaled increasing threats to Chinese citizens and interests overseas if Syria became a terrorist safe haven.

Because of “intermingling” with so-called “moderate” jihadists, TIP and al-Qaeda in Syria enjoy US and its allies’ protection even though they are designated as terrorist organizations. They have procured advanced Western weapons such as US-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles and likely anti-aircraft MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems), and drones that they used to conduct suicide campaigns against the Syrian army.

These Western weapons enhance their capabilities to launch future attacks on China and Chinese interests, so Beijing will likely step up its military support to the Syrian army.

The abandoned Kurds in northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are equally concerned that US/NATO intelligence and weapons supplied to Turkey will be used to attack them, and may join forces in A* to counter Turkey-backed jihadi opposition in B and their sponsors in B*.

Based on the external-intervention model, and the prospect of a military escalation that would be bloodier and more violent, involve even more great powers, yet likely still end in stalemate, one wonders if an alternative path is needed. 

Dr Christina Lin is a California-based foreign and security policy analyst. She has extensive US government experience working on national security and economic issues and her current focus is on China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations.