The Syrian Cauldron Could Spill Over
In the closing stages of the Syrian civil war, five key powers — Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States and Israel — are competing for influence and control. Moscow and Tehran firmly back Syrian President Bashar al Assad but differ not only in the levels of support they provide but also in their overall objectives. Russia has used the Syrian conflict to expand its footprint in the Middle East and will be protective of its gains and materiel, though Moscow has little desire for open conflict with Turkey, the United States or Israel. Iran, on the other hand, will be more aggressive in its support for Damascus, especially in opposition to Ankara and Washington. Tehran will also continue to build up its forces inside Syria as a deterrent to Israel and as a means to supply Hezbollah, its powerful ally in nearby Lebanon. Israel will attempt to foil Iran’s plans but is intrinsically wary of sparking an unintended conflict with Russia.
Turkey and the United States remain opposed to Assad’s rule, but despite being NATO allies, they will pursue their own agendas in Syria. The United States is focused on eradicating remnants of the Islamic State in the country, though Washington more broadly seeks to remove Iranian influence from Syria as part of its anti-Iran strategy. Challenging Iran in Syria creates tension between the United States and Russia — Moscow cannot and will not force out Iran. Despite efforts to deconflict, the possibility of a military incident involving U.S. and Russian assets is not beyond the realm of possibility.
The possibility of a breakout conflict involving the major powers overseeing the Syrian conflict is conceivable in 2019.
Turkey, for its part, will maintain its focus on containing Kurdish forces in Syria. This is problematic for the United States, which uses the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara sees as a terrorist organization, as an ally against the Islamic State and as a proxy against Iran. In Syria’s northwest, Turkey’s pledge to protect Idlib province could stretch Ankara’s credibility as a local partner, especially given Damascus’ stated goal of total reconquest. Idlib could well become a flashpoint among Turkey, Iran, Syrian loyalist forces and, more remotely, Russia. Given the opposing interests in Syria, the potential for accidental escalation or even a state-to-state confrontation in 2019 is higher than ever, though every power will take steps to avoid this. Learn more about the possibilities for state-to-state confrontation and what 2019 will hold for the Syrian conflict.
Handling Turkey’s Fragile Economy
The biggest challenge facing Turkey in 2019 will be its distressed economy. As well as managing record inflation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have to contend with a privately held corporate debt bill roughly equal to a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product — all while avoiding another lira crisis. Erdogan will be politically compelled to broaden his support base ahead of local elections in the spring, courting financially concerned Turks from across the electoral spectrum, some of whom have been turned off by the president’s nationalist policies. Turkey’s brittle economy also weakens Ankara’s position when it comes to dealing with key partners in the West. The U.S. relationship with Turkey is increasingly fractious thanks in part to Ankara’s growing ties with Russia and Washington’s support for the YPG in Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have his work cut out in 2019 to stabilize the Turkish economy.
Because of its vulnerability to U.S. economic pressure, Turkey will attempt to shore up foreign investment and maintain stable economic relations with Europe. However, Turkey’s historically complex relationship with the European Union will complicate that effort. Beyond stabilizing its economic situation, Ankara will continue to pursue other core imperatives in 2019, including the containment of autonomous Kurdish movements in Turkey’s former Ottoman domains. Ankara will exert whatever influence it can in northern Syria and continue military strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party positions in northern Iraq. Learn more about Turkey’s precarious economic position going into 2019.