Syria reverts to its status as the Middle East’s proxy battleground

For many, Syria had appeared to turn over a new leaf in 2023, after Iran-Saudi normalization brokered by China helped rehabilitate and normalize the Syrian government after a decade-plus as a pariah. Developments including a long-awaited return to the Arab League by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and a meeting with China’s Xi Jinping suggested Syria would end its long tenure as the Middle East’s hottest battleground.

A year later, with the Israel-Palestine crisis once again at the fore of the region’s politics, and increasing tensions between the US and Iran and its so-called Axis of Resistance proxy network, Syria is once again looking like a battleground for great-power conflict. Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike in Aleppo killed multiple Iranian advisors, including a Revolutionary Guard commander—the latest such strike in a larger air campaign by Israel against Iranian assets in Syria, which has gone as far as bombing IRGC generals meeting in the Iranian consulate building in downtown Damascus.

Largely, the increased spate of conflict in Syria is attributable to the broader regional conflict between Israel and its US-ally’s coalition on the one hand, and Iran and its Axis of Resistance network—which includes proxies not only in Syria but in Iraq and Yemen as well—on the other. This week, following the strike in Aleppo, Iran’s proxy “The Islamic Resistance in Iraq” claimed a successful drone attack on a “vital” target in Israel, according to Iranian state media. Yemen’s Houthis claimed involvement in the strike, and said they would now be coordinating with their Axis partners to “intensify” operations against Israel, signaling a coordinated, cross-regional expansion of the conflict.

The Houthis seem to be upping the ante, this week launching more missile strikes against ships in the Red Sea and detaining at least 11 UN workers in an apparent crackdown on foreigners in Yemen. They have also unveiled a new missile that bears a strong resemblance to an Iranian hypersonic missile dubbed the “Fatah,” signaling new capabilities that could further threaten shipping and the US naval presence in the Red Sea.

Deepening violence 

Syria’s a key position in Iran’s Axis of Resistance is already threatening its rehabilitation and normalization. But the expansion of proxy conflicts beyond the current iteration of the Israel-Palestine crisis appears to be intensifying the violence within the country. 

Ukrainian media this week reported that Ukrainian special forces, working with anti-regime Syrian rebels, successfully attacked Russian forces in Syria. Russia has long sponsored Assad’s regime, and was crucial in its survival during the direst period of the civil war. Attacks on Russian forces directly threaten the security arrangement underpinning the survival of Assad’s regime. 

Further, regionally, Syria continues to irk its neighbors by its inability or, read less generously, refusal, to crack down on the manufacture and smuggling of the drug captagon, that has since Syria’s re-entry to the Arab League been one of the key sticking points in the normalization process for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This week, Jordan reported a major captagon bust, intercepting a shipment of “millions of pills” originating in Syria and transported by Iran-linked smugglers to the border with Saudi Arabia. 

Taken together, the string of domestic crises and regional escalations present an increasingly bleak picture for Syria—and for its beleaguered population. Proxy conflict, anti-regime activity and intensifying militancy are exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation, which a UN official recently described as steadily “grinding on” despite recent pledges of aid by the UK and EU.

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