BEIRUT (AP) – In northern Syria, heavy exchanges between Syrian and Turkish troops are erupting more frequently, threatening to turn into total conflict. Russian and American trains intersect on remote dirt roads, the tension between them in full view. US troops even had a deadly confrontation with Syrian gunmen at a checkpoint.
Syria's civil war has long provided a battleground for all prosecutors. But in its ninth year, it is attracting major foreign actors into direct conflict, with the threat of widespread clashes becoming a real possibility.
In the northwest, the Syrian government-backed military offensive in Russia to recapture Idlib, the country's last opposition-controlled region, infuriated Ankara, which evicted thousands of soldiers in response. In the northeast, US troops on a bleak mission to protect oil fields find themselves a growing target, as government troops display more confidence.
The result is a battlefield so full of tensions that every day has the potential for an incident or a miscalculation that can trigger wider violence.
On Thursday, Turkish and Turkish-backed rebel forces attacked government troops in Idlib, and Russian warplanes responded. Two Turkish soldiers were killed in the incident, bringing the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib this month to 15. Later, Turkey said it asked the United States to deploy Patriot missile defense systems on Turkey's border with Syria to protect itself against possible attacks from Syria. territory.
A look at foreign actors and how they are involved in northern Syria:
Syria's northern neighbor was one of the first to support the Syrian opposition, providing crucial logistical support, as well as weapons and funding for the rebels who took up arms against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Nine years later, Turkey essentially lost that war. The province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey, is the last region still held by the rebels. So, for Ankara, it has become an existential problem.
The Syrian government's rapid military advances in Idlib threaten areas of the northernmost border that were captured in Turkey's incursions. Ankara, home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is also concerned that an attack on the provincial capital and its surroundings has pushed another 2 million people towards its border, placing it under enormous pressure to allow the entry of some of them.
In the past two weeks, it has sent thousands of additional troops to Syria to try to contain the government's progress, triggering clashes with Syrian government troops. So far, negotiations between Russia and Turkey to reduce tensions have failed to deliver results.
Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening a major operation to stop Syria's current offensive, but to do so would be to risk a direct confrontation with Moscow that Ankara cannot afford to have.
If there was a constant in the Syrian war, it is Russia's unwavering support for Assad.
Russia has been carrying out a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, allowing Assad's government to regain control over most of the country. The cost was enormous: entire cities were destroyed, mainly by indiscriminate Russian bombings.
But Syria and its naval base in Tartus give Moscow a strategic position in the Mediterranean, and Russia is determined to do everything to protect it.
Moscow blamed Turkey for the collapse of a ceasefire in Idlib, accusing Ankara of "provoking a new escalation" by continuing to offer military support to militants in breach of the 2018 agreement.
Russia moved to fill the vacuum left by the United States last year after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American forces in northeastern Syria, sending his troops to separate Syrian and Turkish forces.
This made Moscow the best middleman, mediator and winner of the war – maintaining cooperation with all players, including the Kurds, Turkey and even the United States, with whom it operates the so-called line of distrust to defuse tensions.
While Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria last year, his commanders and military advisers later persuaded him to maintain a reduced force to protect Kurdish-controlled oil fields and facilities, falling into the hands of state group militants. Islamic.
According to authorities, there are about 750 US troops in eastern Syria, spread over a strip of land that extends more than 150 kilometers from Deir el-Zour to the border region to the east of al-Hassakeh.
They patrol a region full of other troops, including Russians, Syrian government troops and even Iranian proxy forces not far away.
But it is clear who has the advantage.
Earlier this month, American troops killed a man after his convoy was attacked near a checkpoint manned by pro-Assad forces on a remote road east of the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. The convoy was attacked by rocks and fire bombs, and a man was seen firing at the convoy with a rifle. An American vehicle was stuck in the ground, apparently having swerved into a ditch, while another had a flat tire.
At one point in the confusion, a Russian army convoy arrived on the scene, apparently to mediate. The images showed vehicles with Russian, American and Syrian flags in a single frame.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the arrival of Russian troops prevented "a further escalation of the conflict".