On Wednesday, forces fighting for the Syria-Russia-Iran alliance deliberately opened fire with tanks and artillery on U.S.-backed forces, crossing the “deconfliction” line established to separate the two parties. The U.S. responded forcefully, killing some 100 of Bashar al-Assad’s troops. On Saturday, Israel shot down an Iranian drone in its airspace and subsequently lost an F-16 during a retaliatory raid. In turn, Jerusalem responded with intensive airstrikes that reportedly destroyed nearly half of Syria’s air defenses. All of these events represent serious escalations of Syria-related turmoil, which, far from winding down with the collapse of Islamic State (IS) and the major territorial losses suffered by anti-Assad opposition, may be expanding. Christopher Kozak writes:
Israel and the Russo-Iranian coalition are poised for future conflict over the Golan Heights. Iran and Lebanese Hizballah have entrenched a network of foreign and domestic proxies across Syria under the umbrella of Russian armed forces. Iran and Hizballah have also exploited the terms of the de-escalation zone brokered by Russia, Jordan, and the U.S. in southern Syria to develop further their military infrastructure along the Golan. Israel and the U.S. have failed meaningfully to constrain or reverse this trend. . . .
The Syrian civil war is not over. The wars after IS have begun. Syria remains a dangerous nexus for overlapping regional conflicts and great-power struggle despite the claimed defeat of Islamic State in eastern Syria. The confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is only one of the fissures that will fuel the next stage of the Syrian civil war. Turkey opened its direct conflict against the Syrian-Kurdish YPG with its military intervention into the majority-Kurdish Afrin canton in northern Syria on January 20. Turkey, Iran, and Russia are also engaged in a three-way struggle over the long-term future of the opposition-held Idlib province that resulted in the downing of a Russian Su-25 [plane] on February 3. . . .
The increasing tempo of these incidents is not a coincidence but rather the predictable outcome [of everything that has happened until now]. The U.S. has long attempted to distance the anti-IS campaign from the wider context of the Syrian civil war. This artificial division is not—and was not—sustainable. The U.S. must craft a coherent strategy to meet this new reality lest it find itself reactively mired in the next phase of the Syrian civil war.