After 12 years of war, Syria is a fractured country where humanitarian needs are still growing. The ongoing violence in Gaza is likely to make things even worse.
While armed conflict has declined across Syria in the past years, the war is not over. October saw renewed airstrikes and shelling in the rebel-held northwest, while the economy continues to sink to new lows.
About half of the pre-war population has either fled abroad or been displaced inside Syria, and the UN says that two thirds of the remaining population is in need of aid. But this aid has been decreasing due to a lack of funding, and the World Food Programme said this week that some of these cuts will be even more dramatic from January.
The outbreak of war in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas — the Palestinian group that controls the territory, which is home to more than two million people — has been highly destructive. Since a Hamas attack that killed around 1,200 people in Israel on October 7, most of them civilians, both the Ministry of Health in Gaza and the Israeli military say Israel has killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, again mostly civilians. But the war is also likely to compound the suffering of millions of Syrians. The conflict could spill across the border, and even if it doesn’t, the destruction in Gaza is likely to pull much-needed aid funding away from Syria.
Here’s a look at how the Gaza conflict has impacted Syria so far, and where the situation might be headed:
Who are the main groups in the Syria war, and how have they reacted to Gaza?
Most of Syria remains under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government, which is fiercely hostile to Israel and a close ally of Iran, the Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah, and Hamas. Al-Assad also enjoys the support of Russia, which has bases in Syria and controls much of the airspace. While al-Assad himself has kept a fairly low profile since the start of the war in Gaza, , his government accuses Israel of “fascism” and “genocide”.
In the north, much of the Turkish-Syrian border is controlled by Ankara-backed rebels. An Islamist group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham holds the northwestern Idlib region, while a motley bunch of Turkish proxy factions control border areas farther east. The rebels favour the Palestinians against Israel, as does their Turkish benefactor.
Syria’s northeast is mostly controlled by a Kurdish-run alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF is protected in some parts of the country by Russian forces, and elsewhere by the US military, but it is most closely aligned with the Americans. Syrian Kurdish leaders also show sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but their statements about the Gaza conflict are far more restrained than those of other Syrian groups, and more focused on deploring violence and extremism.
That may be because they are unwilling to jeopardise their US backing, but the Kurdish authorities in Syria also have other things on their mind – they are struggling to draw attention to Turkish attacks on the areas they control.
That said, the SDF is run by an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which fights the Turkish government; PKK leaders condemn Israeli actions as “genocide”.
What is happening in Syria?
Unlike Lebanon, where Hezbollah has exchanged fire with Israel since the conflict began, Syria is not at the forefront of the action. A few volleys of rockets from Syrian territory have been reported in recent weeks, prompting Israel to respond with additional airstrikes. Even so, the border between the two countries remains conspicuously calm compared to the Israel-Lebanon front.
That’s not to say things are stable overall.
Over the past few weeks, Israel has ramped up its campaign of airstrikes on targets in Syria that allegedly have links to Iran. In particular, it has repeatedly attacked both Damascus and Aleppo airports, without officially confirming these strikes.
Israel says the Syrian government helps funnel Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and to Iran-backed groups in Syria. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has warned that Israel “will not allow a new Hezbollah front there or permit an Iranian military presence in Syria”.
However, the most significant Gaza-related escalation in Syria involves neither Israel nor Hamas, but Iraq. Since 17 October, a new group that calls itself “the Islamic Resistance in Iraq” has fired at US bases in eastern Syria dozens of times. The group, which appears to be a front for several Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias, has been hitting US bases in both Syria and Iraq.
Washington has responded with relative restraint, launching a handful of punitive airstrikes, without apparent effect. The attacks stopped, however, with the beginning of the recent truce in Gaza, only to resume once it ended – making clear that the Iran-backed militants are trying to pressure the United States to rein in its Israeli ally.
Alongside all this, there’s the Syrian civil war itself. Although that conflict has been on a slow boil for years, it is far from over.
In fact, October saw the war’s worst escalation in four years, as al-Assad’s military and its Russian allies launched a major campaign of airstrikes in Idlib, ostensibly in retaliation for a 5 October drone strike that killed scores of people at the Homs Military Academy. Dozens of Syrian civilians have lost their lives to these attacks, schools and medical facilities were hit, and some 120,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
What does all this mean for humanitarian operations?
In the short term, things could be worse. In the long term, they will be.
Israel’s repeated bombings of the airports in Aleppo and Damascus are disruptive not just for civilian travel and trade, but also for UN and NGO logistics. These bombings have “severe humanitarian consequences”, as the UN warned last year.
Escalated conflict could also see the Syrian government cracking down on aid deliveries to people in rebel-controlled areas.
For years, the Security Council has debated UN aid shipments across the Turkish border into the rebel-held north, where millions of displaced and vulnerable Syrians live. Syrian authorities rejected what they termed aid to “terrorists” and demanded final say over any UN shipments into Syria. After much diplomatic back-and-forth, Russia finally vetoed a longstanding Security Council mandate for the cross-border deliveries last summer, forcing the UN to seek Syrian government approval.
So far, however, Damascus has kept the aid flowing. As recently as 11 November, the UN was handed another three-month permit to use two northern border crossings. Syrian authorities have insisted on keeping the permits short and time-limited, however, which means the issue will be back on al-Assad’s desk in early 2024.
Looking at the longer-term horizon, Syria’s already terrible humanitarian crisis seems certain to get worse, and the war in Gaza will only accelerate that decline.
Even without accounting for worst-case scenarios, such as a major Israel-Lebanon war that spills over the border, the regional tensions could destabilise Syria. Perhaps most importantly – given that Israeli bombs have damaged or destroyed up to 60% of the housing in the territory — Gaza is going to require significant humanitarian assistance.
This will cut into already overextended aid budgets. As 2023 draws to a close, the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Syria is only 33% funded, which has led to aid being withdrawn from millions of people.
Last June, the WFP cut aid to 2.5 million recipients, out of a 5.5 million total, citing “an unprecedented funding crisis”. On 4 December, the WFP said its main food aid programme will end altogether in Syria in January. The agency had been warning for months that drastic cuts would be inevitable if donors didn’t step up, and that was before the Gaza conflict meant millions more people in the region became desperate for help.
Will it get worse?
The situation on the Lebanon-Israel border is the most probable trigger for a major conflict engulfing Syria.
Except for during the 24-30 November Gaza truce, Israel and Hezbollah have fired at each other daily. Although both sides appear to have tried to avoid all-out conflict, attacks have gradually reached further into Israel and Lebanon. More than 100 people have reportedly been killed in Lebanon, including about 80 Hezbollah fighters, a Lebanese army soldier, and a number of civilians. In Israel, seven soldiers and three civilians have reportedly been killed in the border skirmishes.
If either side were to misread the other or make a mistake, the situation could easily spiral out of control. Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, has also reportedly said that Israel could use force to drive Hezbollah away from the Israeli border, once the fighting in Gaza is over.
Syria would almost certainly be drawn into an Israel-Lebanon conflict, since Hezbollah and Iran operate in and around Syrian military installations.
The Iran-backed attacks on US bases in eastern Syria seem less likely to spark a major conflagration on their own. But if allowed to escalate, the US-Iran friction in Iraq and Syria could have destabilising effects. Intensified tension could bar US military overland access to Syria, potentially even forcing an American troop withdrawal. A US retreat would dramatically upend the situation in northeastern Syria by collapsing the SDF, kindling violent turf wars, and raising the risk of a Turkish invasion.
Turkish forces have intervened in Syria several times since 2016. While its military has recently been held back by US and Russian opposition, Ankara has made no secret of its desire to smash the SDF. With both Washington and Moscow bogged down by other crises, Ankara may well decide it is time to ramp up pressure along the border once again.
With so many external powers operating inside Syria’s airspace and on its territory, an escalation could also come about by sheer accident.
For example, in the past Israel reportedly notified Russia when it planned to strike inside Syria. This policy may now have ended, raising the risk that these attacks kill Russian soldiers and spark a conflict between the two countries.
Similarly, US and Russian deconfliction systems intended to prevent accidental military deaths – which had already begun to fray before the Gaza conflict – could come under strain if US forces are drawn into a retaliatory spiral with Iranian proxy factions operating out of Russia-protected regime areas.
Edited by Annie Slemrod.