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Like all conflicts that apparently have no end, the struggle in Syria has been divided into several mini-wars.
The original confrontation between the Syrian government and those trying to overthrow it is now practically irrelevant, with the position of President Bashar al-Assad radically diminished but basically uncontested, while the rebel term itself has become practically obsolete in the Syrian context.
But where this could once have left a vacuum, now there is a dizzying array of forces competing for the vast territory that is not yet under government control.
The foreign sponsors of these forces have moved through the years of conflict from diplomacy to open military intervention .
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Who are the powers involved
Russia and Iran are the major powers involved , financially, politically and militarily.
Therefore, they took the biggest gains in terms of power and influence, but they also lost the most in terms of combatants in the field and the massive economic cost of rescuing President Al Asad.
The United States has ventured much less . He has never been fully committed to genuinely supporting rebels, beyond rhetoric and financial aid.
The result has been a dizzying drop in his ability to carry the baton and a lack of clarity about his goals.
Turkey has been another key player , originally in its support for the rebels, but in recent days because of its determination to prevent the Syrian Kurds from forging a kind of mini-state on their border.
In January, Turkey launched a vast military incursion into northern Syria against the Kurdish militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG, for its acronym in Kurdish), whom it considers a “terrorist group”.
To the south, Israel has stayed out of most of the conflict , reluctant to be dragged, in the disastrous way it was during the 16-year civil war in neighboring Syria, Lebanon.
It has been largely limited to attacking targets in which it claims to be Iranian bases and arms supplies to Hezbollah .
During much of the conflict, the interests of these external actors often opposed each other, and the fact that their purposes were mutually exclusive has led to the failure of all attempts to end the war.
But even at times when their interests have been closer to collision, these outside powers have had the bumper to work through their power forces on the ground.
When dangerous sources of tension were present, all the parties took a step backwards to avoid an escalation, leaving the Syrians – as always – suffering the consequences.
The rise of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) could have introduced an even darker and savage dimension to the conflict, but it also brought the temporary relief of a shared purpose: the effort to defeat the only combatant that almost all the participants in the war saw as your enemy
Americans and Russians and Iranians, Turks and Kurds, even the regime, put their irreconcilable differences aside long enough to confront the jihadist group, but as allies, at least not as rivals on the battlefield.
The power of the forces gathered against the IS proved to be too much for the jihadists, who lost their territory and returned to the insurgency.
But while this monumental battle was taking place, new complications for the post-IS future were also actively being created .
The Kurds, backed by the United States, expelled the jihadists from much of the territory, raising Turkey’s concerns about its growing power.
The Russians and Iranians entrenched themselves deeply in Syria, while the regime continued to recover more territory.
After the defeat of the IS, the United States remained without clarity about its mission in Syria , and even with less influence.
Israel saw Hezbollah and Iranian fighters increasingly closer to its border, prompting a more active, if still cautious, engagement in the conflict.
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The de-escalation zones have grown in volume, but in many parts of Syria you can still hear the sound of aerial bombardment.
The risk of greater confrontation
It may seem strange to talk about instability in Syria as if it were a new element in the war.
But the growing international commitment in its various battlefields increases the risk of turning it into a conflict in which the powers directly confront each other. And that is a highly dangerous event.
Recent events show that the limit at which those involved will always take a step back to avoid a deeper confrontation may not be entirely reliable.
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An Israeli F-16 fighter plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel, after Israeli forces intercepted an Iranian drone in its airspace. The episode was part of an upsurge in tensions in southern Syria , which until now had been quieter.
And it happened in the midst of reports that Russian mercenaries died during American bombings as they were advancing towards a Kurdish-American base.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds places that country directly against the United States, even though both are allies in NATO .
If nothing else happens, all this will prolong the war in Syria.
But it raises fears of a total confrontation between the external powers, whose interests remain as deeply opposed as they have been at any moment of the conflict.