Who's Fighting and Why in What's Left of Syria's War: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- The original battles in Syria’s civil war are drawing to a bloody end, with government forces pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas, and with both sides plus their foreign backers subduing the jihadists of Islamic State. Yet new fronts have opened as local, regional and even global powers try to stake out positions in anticipation of a post-war Syria. Here’s a look at who’s fighting now and why.

Who's Fighting and Why in What's Left of Syria's War: QuickTake

Syria’s Regime versus Rebels

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have managed to retake most of the terrain once held by Syrian rebels. Over the years, those rebels have been supported by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, as well as the U.S. and Turkey. The last rebel redoubts are just outside Damascus and in the northern province of Idlib, where Islamist groups also exercise control. By continuing to hold territory, the rebels hope to secure themselves a meaningful seat at the table in future peace talks.

Islamic State versus Everyone

The jihadists of Islamic State have lost nearly all the terrain they once controlled, pushed to an ever-smaller area along the Iraq-Syria border by U.S.-assisted Kurdish forces and Russia-backed Syrian forces. (The Kurds, the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own, have long aspired to establish a sovereign Kurdistan in the area.) Since negotiations aren’t an option for Islamic State’s fighters, the battle will likely continue until they’ve lost all their territory.

Turkey versus Syrian Kurds

Over the course of the war, the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has established control over several majority-Kurdish areas in northern Syria and has pushed to connect them in one contiguous zone of “self-administration.” That alarms Turkey, which has battled autonomy-seeking Kurds for decades. So Turkey’s attacking the YPG, trying to oust its fighters from the city of Afrin, near the Turkish border. Turkish officials say their next target is Manbij, about 50 miles to the east, where U.S. troops are based alongside the Syrian militia, increasing the risk of a clash between the U.S. and Turkey.

Israel versus Iran

After reporting that it had intercepted an Iranian drone inside its airspace, Israel retaliated with air strikes on 12 targets in Syria, including four belonging to Iran, and an Israeli fighter plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Since the Syrian war began in 2011, Israel has frequently struck inside Syria. Its main goal has been to contain the threat from Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which it fears will gain access to advanced arms and chemical weapons. 

Americans versus Russians

As backers of opposing sides in the civil war, the U.S. and Russia have taken pains to avoid a direct clash. What happened in early February in the Deir Ezzor region came close, however. The U.S., using aircraft and artillery fire, killed scores of Russian mercenaries who’d launched an attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack. At the same time, the country’s defense ministry accused the U.S. of using its “illegal presence” in Syria as an excuse to “seize economic assets.” (Deir Ezzor is oil-rich.) Russian officials have expressed eagerness for Russian enterprises to win contracts to rebuild Syria, including in the energy industry.

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