Over the plains of northern Syria, an approaching warplane usually makes a distinctive roar, allowing those on the ground to determine who it belongs to and whether there’s a need to hide.
But the past few days have been more onerous than ever for plane-spotters as the air forces of three countries have crisscrossed Syrian skies, bombing targets from the Mediterranean coast to the deserts of the east in the most comprehensive airstrikes in the past three years.
Turkey, Israel and Russia have all launched raids in recent days, reaffirming that a decade-long war remains a rumbling conflict with the potential to escalate on at least three fronts. But even as attention focuses on the escalating conflict in Ukraine, the unfinished business of the Syrian war casts a growing pall across the rest of an incendiary region.
The barrage started early on Saturday when Israeli airstrikes targeted multiple sites along Syria’s coast and heartland. Loud explosions were heard in Latakia as well as the cities of Hama and Homs, where regime forces have re-established strongholds with Russian and Iranian backing after a gruelling 11 years of war. Syrian officials reported at least four soldiers had been killed, in what was the latest of a spate of Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked targets widely believed to have included components for advanced weaponry destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Islamist group is viewed by Israel as the apex of Iran’s regional military interests and to pose an existential threat to the country’s existence.
Turkish airstrikes followed on Sunday, targeting Kurdish positions in Syria’s north-east, before bellicose warnings by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of another ground push into Kurdish centres that his government has earmarked as new homes for up to 1 million Arab refugees who NGOs fear face imminent exile. Hours after his comments, Kurdish militants fired rockets across the border, killing at least two people and wounding 10 others in a Turkish border town.
The few remaining Russian jets in Syria took to the skies later on Sunday and early on Monday morning, bombing rural areas of Idlib near the Turkish border and civilian sites near two refugee camps. The Syrian military is believed to have acted in support. Russian jets have repeatedly attacked communities and militant groups in areas outside the control of Damascus, claiming they support hardliners. Attacks, however, have mostly hit civilian targets.
“We know the Russian and Syrian planes from the sounds they make,” said Mustafa Shabanda, an internally displaced Syrian in Idlib province. “They’re old and you can hear them from a long way off. The Turkish ones are different. They appear from nowhere and are gone just as fast. But they don’t bother us. They’re after the Kurds.
“As for the Israelis, I’ve only heard them near Hama when they attacked Bashar [al-Assad]’s army last year. They all control our skies. It’s like falcons picking off rabbits.”
In north-east Syria, Turkish airstrikes have been widespread. Ankara has linked the attacks to revenge for a bombing in Istanbul that killed six people last week and blamed on the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a militant group. The airstrikes are being seen inside the Syrian province as a precursor to a ground invasion, which could try to link Turkish-controlled Jrabalus on the border to the town of Tel Abiad.
Incursions over the past three years have already consolidated a Turkish foothold in the area, partly fulfilling Ankara’s goal of forcing Kurds away from the border. Turkish officials have long seen the PKK presence in north-east Syria as an incubator for an insurgency it has fought over four decades with Kurdish rebels in Turkey’s south-east who want to form an independent state.
Before a mooted ground operation, some Syrians in Turkey have been returned to border zones. Many more report a growing climate of fear inside Turkey as anti-Syrian rhetoric grows.
“We are mopping it up now,” said a regional Turkish official in the south of the country. “It’s time for this war to end.”
However, what marks an end for many who had witnessed the early days of the anti-Assad uprising in 2011 is seen as a new era for the conflict’s main stakeholders: Turkey, which actively supported opposition groups; Russia, which backed Assad from a hopeless battlefield position into a pyrrhic victory; and Israel, which has played whack-a-mole with Iran inside Syria ever since.
“The war in Syria risks becoming a forgotten conflict,” said Dr Lina Khatib, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the thinktank Chatham House. “But ongoing airstrikes by Turkey, Russia and Israel show that regional interests remain at stake, with each of the three countries targeting its opponents to prevent them from consolidating their influence in Syria.
“This serves as a reminder that the Syrian conflict is neither an isolated conflict nor a civil war whose stakeholders are solely Syrian. Regional and international interests have always played a role and the recurrent Turkish, Russian and Israeli bombings aim to protect those interests.”
In north-easte Syria, known locally as Rojava, Merva Syamend, the spokesperson of the mainly Kurdish YPG militia, said: “The Turks have bombed a lot of places in north-east Syria by drones and by aircraft. Their excuse is the bombing in Istanbul. They accused the YPG for that attack but that’s not how we conduct ourselves. We believe that the attack was staged by Turkish intelligence to kill two birds at once: one as a pretext to attack us and secondly to accelerate the process of sending back Syrian to the areas the Turks occupy in Syria.”
Additional reporting by Nechirvan Mando