The Syrian crisis and the shifts in the role of the external actor after the Ukrainian crisis

Just as Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, changed the map of control and influence between local actors and the roles of external actors, nothing prevents it from changing again with Moscow’s preoccupation with the Ukrainian war, which is still open to many scenarios. This paper aims to study the reality of the Syrian crisis in the current policies of the main external actors after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.

While Russia’s presence in Syria constituted a “source of calm” and stability for some regional and international powers, it was a factor restricting the access and influence of others, militarily, politically, economically, and in terms of security. With the signs of a decline in Russia’s presence in Syria after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the fears and ambitions of these forces began to appear, in terms of strengthening or regressing their roles, after the freezing of the conflict since 2020 contributed to the consolidation of the roles of some of them at the expense of the other, especially the allies of the Syrian regime, which was busy restoring Sovereignty and authority within its areas of control and reducing the impact of the economic crisis that has worsened during the past years. The regional context that is open to international crises and affected by the balance of local power in Syria will have a major role in determining the course of the conflict and its upcoming transformations.

This paper aims to study the reality of the Syrian crisis in the current policies of the main actors after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, and the impact of the emergency changes on their positions and the future of the Syrian crisis.

First: The Syrian crisis in the current policies of the actors

The Syrian geography, in addition to the local forces, is divided into areas of influence for several international regional powers, most notably Turkey, which embraces and supports opposition forces, and Iran and Russia are on the side of the Syrian regime. There is Israel, concerned with its security on the borders and the outcome of the situation in Syria, in addition to the pivotal Russian role, offset by a limited – but effective – US military presence to fight terrorism and ISIS and provide some support to the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). These areas of influence are the subject of military and political contact between the regional powers, especially the main ones, and they influence and indicate the nature and direction of the political roles of the latter in the Syrian crisis.

  1. the military crisis

When the conflict erupted in Ukraine, at the end of February 2022, two years had passed since the de-escalation in Syria, the longest period of calm the country had experienced since the start of the crisis in 2011; Previously, all international understandings stumbled in reaching an agreement – to end or reduce hostilities – that leads to a medium or long-term calm. Since March 2020, the Syrian opposition controls approximately 11% of the country’s geography, of which the regime’s control has reached more than 63%, and the Syrian Democratic Forces is less than 26% (1) .

Maintaining the calm for that long was the result of several factors, most notably: Russia’s keenness to continue coordination and cooperation with the rest of the international actors, which leads to turning the military achievement into political and economic gains; That is, the normalization of relations with the Syrian regime and the gradual lifting of economic sanctions against it, or at least reducing their impact. In addition to the desire of the United States and Turkey not to undermine stability and security, even Washington’s keenness on the continued flow of humanitarian aid across the border into Syria prompted it to accept Russia’s demands to expand funding operations to include early recovery and not only emergency response (2) .

The stalemate of the conflict contributed to a relative reduction in the intensity of competition between international and local actors in Syria. However, the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine showed signs of a decline in the commitment of Turkey, Iran and Israel to de-escalation in the northern and southern regions of Syria. This appears to be related to Russia’s announcement to change the tasks of its forces; Its focus has become on ensuring stability and security at the expense of combat operations (3) .

In the northwest of Syria: Turkey fears that Russia’s preoccupation in Ukraine will lead to a retreat from its commitments to implement the joint memoranda of understanding, which stipulate that the Russian forces will expel the PKK members from Tal Rifaat and Manbij, north and east of Aleppo, and from a depth of 30 km along the border Syrian-Turkish East Euphrates (4) . This may explain the return of Turkey’s serious talk since late May 2022, of its intention to launch a new military operation to complete the steps related to the remaining part of the establishment of the safe zone with a depth of 30 km along its southern border with Syria. The Turkish forces and the Syrian opposition factions have raised the level of readiness and distributed the fighting axes on the lines of contact in areas such as Manbij and Tal Rifaat, east and north of Aleppo (5)In addition to the intensification of aerial bombardment of targets belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Syrian Democratic Forces along the border strip. As for Russia, it faced Turkey’s demands to launch a new military operation in Syria with refusal and reservation. as a step that threatens stability. Likewise, Iran has met Turkey’s fears that push it to launch a possible operation with rejection at one time and understanding at another, but it has actually completed its preparation for any collapse of the ceasefire; Where, at the end of May 2022, it established a joint operations room with the Syrian regime forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Tal Rifaat area, which bore the name “Thunderbolt of the North.”

In Idlib: Iranian forces have increased their activity and presence in most of the military sectors since February 2022, although this may be the result of prior coordination with Russian forces in the context of replacing military tasks, but it later raised the concern of the opposition factions and Turkish forces in Idlib about the resumption of operations The fighting in the region, in the event of an attack on the areas of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Tal Rifaat or Manbij, especially since Iran seems less committed than Russia to maintaining the de-escalation in Idlib (6) .

In the northeast of Syria: Since the beginning of June 2022, Russia has raised the level of bilateral coordination with Turkey by increasing the rate of joint patrols in all tracks (7) ; To reaffirm confidence in its ability to implement the commitments related to the establishment of the safe zone in accordance with the Sochi Memorandum (2019), despite the preoccupation with the conflict in Ukraine. Although Turkey has shown willingness to cooperate with Russia east of the Euphrates, it has adhered to the implementation of the military operation west of the Euphrates, which shows that it does not prefer to dispel its security concerns by simply relying on the tools of joint action with Russia. but also by ensuring this on their own, often trying to pressure Russia to allow it; Through various tools such as restricting the supply and regular renewal of Russian forces in Syria from the air and at sea; It is a decision that Turkey would not have taken had it not been for the current international circumstances that help it to do so.

Turkey’s preference to return to the tools of joint action with Russia east of the Euphrates may be related to the position of the United States, which also rejects any military activities that threaten the stability of the region, especially since the American forces have worked, since May 2022, to show the importance of maintaining military stability in areas such as Ayn al-Arab. (8) ; Reactivating the activity within the Kharab Eshq base near Ayn al-Arab in order to carry out operations against the leaders of the “Islamic State” organization (ISIS) in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, northwest Syria.

In the areas of Al-Hasakah, unlike in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, there is a clear continuation of competition between the Russian and Iranian forces; As the Iranian forces tried to take advantage of the decline in Moscow’s role as a mediator between the regime and the Autonomous Administration by pressuring the latter to make concessions; Through the siege of the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood in Aleppo, in April 2022, which in turn led to the Asayish forces – the Internal Security Forces of the Autonomous Administration established by the Democratic Union Party in the SDF areas – besieging Qamishli, north of Hasaka; Before Moscow intervenes and reduces the escalation again between the two parties (9) .

And Iran often wants to restore and expand its presence in Al-Hasakah Governorate, which has declined since April 2021 after its National Defense Forces were expelled from the Tay neighborhood in Qamishli in favor of the Syrian Democratic Forces under an agreement sponsored by Russia (10) . Indeed, Tehran has increased its activity in the region after Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine.

In the south of Syria: There is also a clear decline in the level of de-escalation since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, as the Iranian forces increased their military and security activity in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates by spreading more military bases and points and raising the volume and level of arms and drug smuggling across the Jordanian-Syrian border. This resulted in the Jordanian forces carrying out several security operations along the thorny strip between the two countries, in addition to conducting a military simulation of a scenario of prosecution against militias and smugglers in the border area (11) .

It appears that Iran’s increased activity in southern Syria has led to Israel expanding the number and scope of its air and missile strikes on Syria; Including – for the first time since its intervention in Syria in 2013 – targeting Damascus International Airport on June 10, 2022. It is clear that Tel Aviv is afraid of increasing security coordination between the Syrian regime and Iran; After the decline of Russia’s role, especially that Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran, early May 2022, often discussed the issue of finding alternatives to the difficulty of transporting weapons via land routes (12) . This may give an explanation for targeting Damascus airport; That is, to cut off the way for Tehran not to expand or intensify the use of air transport for arms shipments through civilian airports. Israel may also fear that a decline in coordination with Russia (13) ; Due to the conflict in Ukraine, the activity of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime forces increased in the area of ​​disengagement (1974).

  1. the political crisis

The political process in Syria has been in a state of stagnation since the start of the constitutional reform process at the end of 2019, and due to the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the “constructive diplomacy” that the UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, relies on to support his efforts by the active countries in Syria has become more difficult (14) .

Since the end of 2021, the United Nations has adopted a “step-for-step, step-by-step” approach to developing the political process in Syria (15) , and has come to rely on concerted international diplomatic efforts to support this approach, which consists of a set of reciprocal measures from the Syrian regime and the opposition. On a number of issues, such as: “detainees, abductees and missing persons, humanitarian aid and early recovery, conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees, improving social and economic conditions, consolidating calm and achieving stability, cooperation in combating terrorism, and diplomatic issues” (16) .

Despite the UN envoy’s concerns about the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on international support for a step-by-step approach, in March 2022 it received support from the Small Group for Syria, which includes 11 countries, including the United States, European and Arab countries (17) .

Western support may be related to an attempt to move the conflict areas in Syria to a more advanced stage in which the population and refugees can be self-reliant, thus reducing the burden on donors in the coming years; The Brussels Conference in Support of Syria and the Region, the sixth edition of which was held between 9 and 10 May 2022, emphasized for the first time the need to pay attention to issues of early recovery and not only humanitarian relief. However, it seems that the United States is still not confident that the Syrian regime will continue to grant exceptions to the economic sanctions imposed by the Caesar Act; The regulation issued in mid-May 2022(18), regarding issues of early recovery, clearly excluded the regime, unlike what it did in 2020 and 2021 when it granted some exceptions.

In general, the Western position, which is relatively supportive of the United Nations approach, contributed to holding two rounds of Round No. (7) and (8) of the constitutional committee discussions between March and June 2022, but without achieving any progress or breakthrough in drafting constitutional reform. Like the Western and Arab countries, Turkey and Russia support the continuation of the political process within the framework of constitutional reform despite the stalemate in the talks. Resolving the conflict and maintaining the continuity of the joint action mechanism in Syria; Considering the track as one of the outputs of the tripartite Astana platform, which Ankara, Moscow and Tehran were keen to hold a new round of which bore the number (18) , in mid-June 2022.

Second: Regional and international changes and the policies of the actors

Regional and international changes – such as the conflict in Ukraine and the negotiations on the nuclear agreement – may put the Syrian crisis in front of one of two options; Either maintain the status quo based on fragile stability or escalate again.

1. Strengthen fragile stability

The continuation of the current situation based on fragile stability in Syria means that no change has occurred on the lines of contact in the de-escalation zones, whether between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the opposition factions or between the latter and the Syrian regime forces. Consequently, Turkey retracted its intention to launch a new military operation in northern Syria, and the Israeli escalation in the south of the country did not turn into a threat that would lead to a change in the rules of engagement and the end of the settlement between the regime and the Syrian opposition under the 2018 agreement, which was signed under Russian auspices.

In the north of Syria: Turkey’s abandonment of the military operation is linked to the insistence of the United States, Russia and Iran to reject any move that threatens the existing stability, in exchange for obtaining new guarantees to remove the PKK and the People’s Protection Units from the areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij within a new road map, or any other tools It contributes to obtaining reassurances, such as establishing joint military points with Russia, carrying out joint security operations with it, or even accepting the entry of Syrian regime forces into those areas or dealing with them as areas demilitarized from weapons and fighters. As long as Ankara’s motives for launching a military operation are also linked to providing a safe environment for the return of refugees, this may lead it to demand the reactivation of the buffer zone in Idlib stipulated in the Sochi Memorandum (2018), which was seized by the Syrian regime forces in 2020.

Often, Turkey will not be satisfied with the military and security measures that may be offered by international actors to discourage it from the military operation in northern Syria, but may also demand a package of economic measures to enhance the stability of the region and support the project announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in early May 2022, which aims to provide An environment for the voluntary return of one million refugees from Turkey to northern Syria after the establishment of 13 areas containing 200,000 housing units (19) .

This requires granting exceptions from the US economic sanctions imposed under the Caesar Act, provided that this includes all areas of northern Syria located within the safe zone claimed by Turkey, including Idlib and Afrin, without extending to the areas of control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This position can be expected from Turkey compared to the conservative reaction it showed after the United States announced granting exceptions to the regions of northeastern and northwestern Syria, mid-May 2022 [1] (20) .

In any case, the insistence of international actors to maintain the situation in northern Syria may be the result of the United States’ desire not to expand the confrontation with Russia to include Syria and Ukraine, and its continued “aspiration” to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, which in turn is making diplomatic efforts to prevent any operation. Turkish military through mediation and the establishment of a dialogue between the Syrian regime and Turkey to reduce security concerns (21) .

In southern Syria: Restoring confidence in the de-escalation agreement and continuing or developing its work requires Israel to obtain many assurances, whether from Russia or the United States, specifically related to Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon. Thus, ensuring the removal of Iranian forces 80 km from the border strip with the occupied Golan, including that the Syrian regime forces do not enter the disengagement zone, in addition to ensuring that Iranian weapons do not continue to flow into Syria and Lebanon, whether through land or air routes. Tel Aviv’s obtaining these guarantees or reassurances does not necessarily mean that it will stop carrying out air strikes against Iran’s interests in Syria, whether by restoring military channels of communication with Russia or increasing coordination with the United States and Jordan to use the airspace of the northern Kingdom and the airspace of the Al-Tanf base in Syria. The number of Israeli strikes has reached During the first half of 2022, about 15 raids.

Israel’s continued implementation of air strikes in Syria is linked to its failure to abandon its “battle between wars” strategy, which aims to weaken Iran and its allies and prevent them from stability and the accumulation of power (22) . Also, maintaining stability in the southern region of Syria does not mean that there will be no limited confrontation between Israel and Iranian forces, but without affecting the current situation.

Practically, stability in southern Syria is linked to two main factors: the continued decline in Russian-Israeli coordination in Syria due to the Ukrainian conflict, and the results of the talks between Iran and the United States on the nuclear agreement, and despite the continued stumbling in negotiations – the last of which were held indirectly in Doha – but Continuing the principle of negotiation helps the US sanctions to exercise their influence to reduce the activity of Iranian forces in southern Syria and to lay out a road map for their exit.

Iran has no interest in turning any clash with Israel in southern Syria into an open or broad confrontation, because its interests practically require the continuation of fragile stability throughout the country, especially in the event of a nuclear agreement acceptable to it. This kind of stability helps Iran achieve some of its efforts to compensate for the cost of its expenditures in Syria, which seem to range between 20 and 30 billion dollars (23) , by ensuring effective engagement in reconstruction or early recovery processes. Thus, expanding the acquisition of the Syrian economy, in which Iran’s share does not exceed 3% (24) .

Based on the foregoing, maintaining the de-escalation in Syria will provide an opportunity for the continuation of the political process sponsored by the United Nations and the guarantors of the Astana process, but this does not necessarily mean the success of the “step-by-step” approach, especially if the United States and the European Union refuse to take the step of lifting sanctions on The Syrian regime, whether due to the failure of the nuclear agreement with Iran or a precondition for implementing a package of confidence-building measures, such as stopping the targeting of infrastructure, unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need throughout the country, stopping arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture, and establishing a neutral mechanism to investigate violations (25) .

Assuming that the “step-by-step” approach falters, the United States and the European Union, in coordination with Turkey, may resort to taking further measures in order to strengthen the fragile stability in areas outside the control of the Syrian regime, i.e. northeastern and northwestern Syria, similar to the list of exemptions issued by the US Treasury, mid- May 2022, and the regime’s areas were excluded from it. This may be more urgent if Russia decides to stop the humanitarian aid mechanism across the border into Syria, and the consequent closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing and depriving the northwestern regions of the country of emergency response, and thus the need to provide alternatives to help in the region.

Strengthening the fragile stability in the regions of northeastern and northwest Syria, which is very similar to the research initiative titled “Freeze and Build” (26) , could become an effective tool for the United States and the European Union to put pressure on Russia and Iran, by maintaining The sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, or even their tightening, refrain from granting it any exceptions, and the commitment to continue accountability efforts, in return for working to impose military and security stability in areas outside its control and to promote economic development in them.

2. Re-escalation of the dispute

The re-escalation of the conflict in Syria means a change in the rules of engagement and lines of contact in the north and south of the country, whether between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the opposition factions, or between the latter and the Syrian regime forces. It also means Turkey’s insistence on launching a new military operation in Syria, the possibility of ending the existing settlement in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates since 2018, and perhaps the US-led international coalition abandoning its commitment to the de-escalation agreement in Area 55 at the Al-Tanf base.

The reasons for the re-escalation are numerous, ranging from international and regional ones, such as Turkey’s lack of conviction of all the assurances it was given to abandon the military operation in northern Syria, and the existence of a diplomatic opportunity to ensure that it does not collide with the American, Russian and Iranian forces or any of them. Likewise, Israel’s desire not to return to the nuclear agreement and the continuation of tension on the maritime borders with Lebanon, Israel’s lack of any guarantees to reduce Iran’s influence and activity in southern Syria, and the United States’ desire to transfer the confrontation with Russia to Syria and not be limited to Ukraine.

In fact, the re-escalation in Syria will not only lead to a change in the rules of engagement in Syria, but also the possibility of redefining the roles and policies of the actors and even the Syrian crisis.


Just as Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 changed the map of control and influence among local actors, it seems that its intervention in Ukraine may be reflected in the rules of engagement that it imposed in Syria seven years ago. The collapse of the cease-fire regime in northern or southern Syria, or both, and a return to an escalation of the conflict is linked to the context of changing positions and policies of the United States, Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey. It is a context governed by bilateral or multiple negotiations between international and regional actors.

Although the reasons for the re-escalation in Syria are strong, the chances of preserving the status quo and strengthening the fragile stability seem more, especially if the United States decided not to transfer the confrontation with Russia from Ukraine to Syria, but this is not enough to prevent Turkey from carrying out a new military operation. in the north of the country. Even if Turkey insists on carrying out an operation in Aleppo governorate within the regions of Tel Rifaat and Manbij or one of them, this does not deny the chances of maintaining the status quo in the rest of the contact lines east of the Euphrates, and thus the possibility of cooperation between Ankara and Washington to enhance fragile stability after the limited change that may occur On the map of control and influence in Syria.

About the author

Abdul Wahab Assi

Principal researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, specializing in Syrian affairs. His research interests cover the politics and interactions of local and international forces in Syria. He has several contributions and research, including: “ISIS in Syria: Re-emergence and the Expected Future,” “Transformations of Arab and Regional Attitudes toward the Conflict in Syria,” “The Future of Foreign Forces in Syria,” and “Models of Integrating Armed Opposition Factions with Official Forces.” in Syria”.REFERENCES

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  6. A previous source, an interview with a military commander in the Syrian National Army.
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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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