Noah Feldman: Syria is the new Afghanistan, where war won't end

Ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Hobbes is in the house.

FILE - This Jan. 28, 2018 file photo, a pro-Turkey Syrian fighter waves on Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria. As Syrian troops and their allies push toward final victory and the battle against Islamic State militants draws to an end, new fronts are opening up, threatening an even broader confrontation. The U.S., Israel and Turkey all have deepened their involvement, seeking to protect their interests in the new Syria order. (AP Photo, File)

It’s official: Syria has become a war of all against all. The latest proof is the report that U.S. planes killed somewhere between four and 200 Russian “mercenaries” last week.

A few days before that news broke, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that came from Syria and then attacked Iranian targets, losing an F-16 in the process. And just a few days before that, Turkey mounted an extensive war against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds — probably the same people who called in the airstrikes against the Russians.

Ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Hobbes is in the house.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of Syria’s gradual descent into this stage of chaos. Resolving the Syrian civil war was never going to be easy. But once a country becomes the venue for broader international conflict, resolution can become downright impossible.

Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the present poses a perfect example. As the scholar Barnett Rubin argued even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion, what made the Afghan conflict unresolvable was the involvement of so many outside actors. That war, seen in its truest terms, has been going on for almost 40 years, with no end in sight. The same fate may await Syria, which is only seven years into its conflict.

From the start, the Syrian conflict had the hallmarks of a proxy war. Sunnis seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad had the encouragement and support from the Sunni Arab Gulf states, the U.S. and Turkey. Bashar had help from his ally Iran and its proxy militia, Lebanese Hezbollah.

But it is a big step from a civil war encouraged and supported by outsiders to a situation where Turkey, Iran and Israel have aircraft over Syrian airspace. And it is a bigger step still to the direct military involvement of global actors like the U.S. and Russia from air and ground.

Each step along the way has made local sense. The U.S. wanted to fight Islamic State, which demanded air support for whoever would do the work on the ground. That turned out to be the Syrian Kurds, who became, in essence, allies for hire.

Russia cared less about fighting Islamic State than about taking the opportunity to save the Assad regime and re-establish itself as a significant Middle Eastern actor, which it had not been since the fall of the Soviet Union. Helping Assad prevail took a lot of air power. As it turned out, it also required some boots on the ground.

Wanting to avoid the use of regular Russian soldiers, President Vladimir Putin took advantage of a tactic he had used effectively in Crimea and Ukraine. He deployed what have been called “little green men”: non-uniformed Russians who might be regular army without insignias or else private contractors.

This trick shouldn’t altogether be unfamiliar to the Americans, who pioneered the use of private military contractors in Iraq. The aim then wasn’t to deny a U.S. ground presence, but to minimize the number of official troops on the ground without sacrificing leverage.

We don’t know how many contractor-mercenaries Putin has in Syria. But if the high-end estimates of the losses from the U.S. airstrike turn out to be accurate — as many as 200 in one strike — the number may be very high indeed.

Turkey’s intervention is driven by the desire to stop Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomous zone analogous to the one that Iraq’s Kurds have sustained for decades.

Iran is flying drones over Syria to consolidate its military gains from Assad’s survival. Israel is next door, and it has been signaling that it cannot tolerate the very presence that Iran wants to establish.

The key fact about all these actors is that their interests are mostly orthogonal to each other. Almost no one is trying to affect the primary outcome of the civil war any more. The Syrian Sunnis have essentially lost. Islamic State no longer holds meaningful territory. Assad has essentially won by surviving and gradually retaking territory. The rest, including the status of the Kurds, is secondary to what the war was about until now.

Yet these crosscutting international interests won’t go away anytime soon.

Putin needs to show that he got something concrete out of victory. That means staying present to make sure Assad doesn’t totter if the Russians withdraw.

The Syrian Kurds aren’t going anywhere, because they have nowhere else to go. That assures Turkey’s involvement so long as the Kurds haven’t been defeated.

Iran has a long-term interest in Syria. Israel has a long-term interest in resisting Iran so long as Iran continues to deny its right to exist.

As for the U.S., it’s more likely to stop fighting than anyone else. But that won’t be easy if massacres multiply as the U.S. tries to step down its air support for the Kurds.

In theory, final status talks could follow this chaotic period, and regional actors could agree to back down and find some new status quo to accept. But as the Afghanistan example shows, there is always the risk that outside actors will rearm locals and restart the fighting.

That risk makes de-escalation extremely difficult. The agony of the Syrian people isn’t close to being over.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His seven books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” and “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”