Who’s fooling who in Syria?
On Feb. 7, militia forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria carried out an attack with tanks against a military base run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, near a point where the Euphrates meets the Iraqi border. The SDF is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The response to the Syrian militia’s assault, trained by support from Hezbollah and Iran, came from the U.S. The U.S. retaliated against the attack very aggressively, using F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters. U.S. sources say that 100 militia members were killed in this counter-attack.
Deir ez-Zor is a residential area in the immediate vicinity of one of Syria’s largest oil fields. Condemning the air strike, Russia accused the U.S. of intervening in Syria in order to seize the oil resources of Syrians, not to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It is understood that the al-Assad regime’s intention in the attack was to expel the U.S.-backed SDF from the area and to once again dominate the area east of the Euphrates.
Although it has abstained from helping the YPG in Afrin, the U.S. sided with the Syrian Kurds against the regime when Deir ez-Zor was targeted, displaying robust support. It therefore showed strongly that it will not allow anyone to cross the assumed borderline toward the east of the Euphrates.
How could these developments affect Turkey? With the war in Syria, Ankara’s relations with the al-Assad regime are at their lowest ebb. Turkey has also been reacting strongly against the U.S.’s support to the YPG, seeing its plans to create an autonomous region for the Kurds east of the Euphrates as a threat to its own national interests.
Let’s think about where Turkey’s interests actually lie with regard to the clashes in Deir ez-Zor. Many people may immediately assume that Ankara’s interests are in line with the Syrian regime over the issue. But we should not miss the other side of the coin: Despite attacking the YPG in Deir al-Zor, the al-Assad regime sees no harm in collaborating with the YPG against Turkey in other areas.
The al-Assad regime has deliberately turned a blind eye to reinforcements for YPG units in Afrin resisting Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch.” The equilibrium of alliances is shifting constantly. Despite fighting each other in Deir al-Zor, the regime and the YPG are collaborating when the Afrin region and Turkey are at stake.
Now let’s analyze the situation from the angle of the U.S. Washington has repeatedly stressed that its cooperation with the YPG is limited to fighting against ISIL under the umbrella of the SDF east of the Euphrates. It is not in cooperation with the YPG in Afrin.
However, news from the field indicates that scores of YPG militants have left the SDF forces east of the Euphrates to head to Afrin to fight as reinforcements. Will there be no consequences for the U.S., as the YPG militants - who were allied with the U.S. under the SDF command against ISIL until recently - left the coalition forces to take positions against the Turkish Armed Forces in Afrin?
What does it mean when YPG militants - who were in the ranks alongside U.S. soldiers until yesterday, trained by the U.S. and most probably carrying weapons and ammunition provided by the U.S. - are now in the trenches against the Turkish Armed Forces?
So far I have only referred to some of the paradoxes in relations between Turkey, the Syrian regime, the U.S. and the YPG. But many other contradictory equations can be raised on the evolving equilibrium of alliances, including Russia, Iran, Israel, ISIL, and other jihadist groups.
Consider this paradoxical but entirely plausible situation: Syria, with which Turkey has broken every tie, shoots down an Israeli airplane flying over its airspace and Israel, which is at odds with Turkey, retaliates by heavily bombing regime targets, indirectly bringing big advantages to Syria’s Islamist opposition.
How should such a situation be interpreted in the thickening fog of war? Or would it be better to simply not interpret it at all?