The curtain opens for the next vicious round over Syria
The recent announcement that the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to establish and train a new “Border Security Force,” with a final force size of approximately 30,000, did not come out of the blue. Washington recalibrated the wording around the intended new local force, amid Ankara’s threats for a military incursion into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region in northwest Syria. But it is unlikely that the whole project will be thrown away by President Donald Trump’s generals, who have been running the Syria show unchallenged.
It is not difficult to understand why the U.S. is continuing to partner with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Particularly important in this regard was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Syria speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute on Jan. 17.
As much as Tillerson spoke about the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not yet completely defeated in Syria and carries potential for a comeback just like al-Qaeda, Tillerson made it absolutely clear that now the principal reason for the U.S. to stay in Syria is to counter Tehran’s ambition to sustain a “Shia crescent” bridging Iran to Lebanon through to the Mediterranean. The U.S. considers this “Shia crescent” to be a tremendous threat to its interests in the Middle East, similar to Turkey’s fears of a “Kurdish corridor” eventually connecting the land-locked Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean.
As a result, even in the complete absence of ISIL or al-Qaeda, we should not expect the United States to be leaving Syria any time soon.
Washington’s goal to end the consolidation of the Shia crescent, which has de-facto emerged during the Syrian civil war, without tens of thousands of boots on the ground can only be achieved by relying on a continued partnership with the SDF, according to policy-makers in Washington.
In diplomatic exchanges, the Americans have been promising to the Turks that they would step up efforts to diversify representation inside the SDF, demoting the influence of fighters motivated by the ideology of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. But whenever I talk to players or observers on the ground in Syria they all say that no real transformation is taking place inside the SDF to suggest that the command will not belong to the YPG at some point.
What makes this status quo an existential threat for Ankara is the fact that Kurdish fighters motivated by Öcalan’s ideology are currently on a fast track to some sort of political recognition in Syria, right on Turkey’s southern border.
Last week, a delegation of high-level representatives of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) visited the U.S. capital. The Pentago-vetted Mutasim Brigade’s founder, Mustafa Sejari, explained to me that they were in Washington to ask the U.S. administration to re-start the CIA training programs to Syrian rebels, which have been cut off by Trump.
It was indeed fascinating to see the fighters who took part in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation coming to Washington to try to persuade the Trump administration that they can now take part in fighting Iranian militias. But they could neither schedule a meeting at the White House nor incite any general interest in their cause in the U.S. capital. But on a personal level it was quite illuminating to listen to their honest accounts of the situation on the ground.
“Our priority is the Iranian Hezbollah militias, not the YPG. We believe that if we still have al-Assad in power and the Iranian militias in the field, it doesn’t matter if the PYD or others are the main power in Haseke or Raqqa. But if we solve the problem with al-Assad and the Iranian militias then we can fix all other problems,” said Osama Abu Zeid, who was the spokesman of the Syrian opposition during the Astana process.
So while Ankara has been sending strong signals for an Afrin offensive, possibly together with FSA fighters, FSA legal advisor Abu Zeid presented a dramatically different approach regarding the group’s priorities. This is a neat reminder of the complicated nature of all these alliances in Syria.
Ankara this week set out on a tough mission to secure Russian support for a possible incursion into Afrin, almost in a quest to retaliate against the U.S. for sticking to the YPG as its main partner in Syria. As confirmed by Abu Zeid in our discussion, to the west of the Euphrates YPG fighters are supported by the Russians, while to the east of the Euphrates they are supported by the U.S.
According to Abu Zeid, Russian backing for the YPG was a game-changer on several occasions last year. I would like to believe that Turkish officials are now aware of the kind of swamp they may be pulled into through a deal with Moscow.