Amid military struggles in Ukraine, Russia’s presence in Syria is slowly receding, setting off a series of regional shifts from Turkey, Iran and Israel that could have major ripple effects on U.S. national security interests, says USIP’s Mona Yacoubian: “There are too many actors there for it be a simple math equation.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Joining me now, Mona Yacoubian is senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here to discuss her War on the Rocks commentary, “Ukraine's consequences are finally spreading to Syria.” Mona, good morning.

Mona Yacoubian: Good morning, Julie.

Julie Mason: Very sobering piece, particularly the part about how the U.S. is really not prepared for this.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, you know, Syria has really sort of fallen well down the list of foreign policy priorities for the U.S. I mean, a lot of this is understandable, of course, given the war in Ukraine, given a rising China, but my piece really seeks to sort of raise the alarm a little bit, that, you know, there are some knock-on effects of Russia's decision to invade Ukraine. And we're seeing some of that in Syria. A lot of it has to do with Russia losing its leverage in Syria, losing some of its influence, but that's setting off, potentially, a series of shifts in the conflict landscape that could have direct impact on U.S. national security interests there.

Julie Mason: So, number one, Turkey stepping up, seizing the upper hand, Iran, also a worry, and Israel, also in a tough spot.

Mona Yacoubian: Now, exactly. So, you know, Turkey has been threatening now for months to undertake another incursion into northeast Syria. And thus far, the Russians have been able to keep them in check. But as Russia loses some of its influence with Turkey, or frankly, loses, as the piece notes, the upper hand with Turkey, we are seeing that there's a potential for a Turkish invasion. And that would have real impact on U.S. national security interests because we maintain a small force in northeast Syria [and] we work with Kurdish partners there to counter ISIS. We can't forget about ISIS. And if there's an invasion, that could have a real destabilizing effect and really minimize our ability to keep ISIS in check in that part of Syria.

Julie Mason: I think it’s very interesting, this power dynamic between Moscow and Ankara.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, it's fascinating. I mean, you've seen how Turkish President Erdogan has really played the Ukraine conflict quite well to his advantage. He's really positioned Turkey to be in this sort of mediating position. He's providing drones to Ukraine, but he's also providing a safe haven for Russia, refuses to observe sanctions. So, Turkey's becoming sort of an economic hub for Russia. So, you can see that there's a real kind of, he has sort of put himself in a position of great importance. And of course, as a NATO member, he has the ability to veto the accession of Finland and Sweden, those are key priorities for the U.S. and indeed, Turkey is still holding out on allowing Sweden to join NATO. So, he's playing this quite astutely. And that is having real impacts around the globe, but certainly in Syria as well.

Julie Mason: Iran also taking an interest, what's their game?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, Iran is being very opportunistic, as always. And so, as Russia is forced to pull back a bit from different parts of Syria, the Iranians are seeking to exploit the advantage on the ground and fill some of those security vacuums where they can. They're also becoming a lot bolder in their use of Syrian airports, for example, to seek to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, the Shia militia that is their ally, that's also playing a role in Syria. Russia, in the past had been able to sort of play, what I call in the piece, a regulating role, and to keep Iran in check. But again, that relationship is also shifting. And now we're seeing that Iran, in fact, is growing more dependent – sorry Russia is growing more dependent on Iran. So, the Iranians are providing drones to Russia in Ukraine and that is shifting the dynamic, the power dynamic, of the relationship and it's having reverberations into Syria as well.

Julie Mason: That’s so interesting. I mean, so many voices have hoped for the diminishment of Russia through this Ukrainian conflict like this will knock them down a size, but that just creates a vacuum for other potentially bad operators to step in.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, that's exactly right. And I think that's why Syria is an interesting place to watch because it is perhaps one of the most complex conflict arenas in the world. And so, while seemingly it would be that, yeah, Russia is sort of on the losing end, or is doing badly in Ukraine, and that's got to be bad for it in Syria .That's true, but there are too many actors there for it to be a simple math equation. Yeah.

Julie Mason: So, what's the Israel piece of this Mona?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, the Israel piece is really fascinating. Israel has really played this, or had to sort of walk a very fine balance between its support for Ukraine and the West, and of course, it's a key U.S. ally, but it also has over the years maintained a strong relationship with Russia, because Russia has essentially allowed Israel to operate in Syrian airspace, to take strikes against Iranian targets when it wants to. That relationship has changed, as Israel has sort of undertaken to support Ukraine to the extent it can, this has angered Russia and the Russians have taken that out on Israel in various ways, including seeking to limit their ability to undertake strikes in Syria. Now that may change with now returned Prime Minister Netanyahu who has a warm relationship with Putin. So, it'll be interesting to see, you know, is Netanyahu able to sort of walk that fine line? Or do we see growing and continuing tensions between Israel and Russia being played out in Syria?

Julie Mason: Wow. And meanwhile, you know, Netanyahu seems to be having a really bad time of it at home.

Mona Yacoubian: Indeed, I mean, he's facing all kinds of challenges as he puts this fairly right-wing government into place and, of course, is seeking to undermine the independence of the judiciary in Israel. And that's causing, of course, lots of popular protests and blowback. So, a very complex situation there as well.

Julie Mason: Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. Mona, thank you so much.

Mona Yacoubian: Thank you, Julie.

Julie Mason: Have a great day.

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