Syrian Kurds remain vital to Russian and US interests alike

With the Islamic State group largely defeated, diminishing IS territory has been replaced by new complexities and conflict lines.

As key US partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, were instrumental in driving IS out of Raqqa and vast territories east of the Euphrates.

Washington’s close US alliance with the YPG, in spite of strong objections from Turkey – which accuses the YPG of been an extension of the outlawed PKK – drove a wedge into already fragile relations between the US and Turkey.

Turkey frantically lobbied for the US to abandon its support for the Kurds, but US President Donald Trump endorsed the tactical alliance nonetheless. However, with the battle against IS entering a new phase, future relations between US and Syrian Kurdish forces, including the provision of armaments, has again come into the spotlight.

Turkey’s painting of Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan late last year may have been more of a reflection of hope than of reality. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Trump pledged to Erdogan that the US would cease supplies of US armaments to the Syrian Kurds.

Turkish rejoicing ensued, but seeing this not only as a US abandonment of arms provision but also of all ties with YPG may have been premature.

The different interpretations of the US commitment with regards to the supply of arms to the YPG may disappoint Turkey, but also shows Trump’s promises may not override his defence officials, who are closer to the ground.

We’re in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn’t mean stopping all support…
– White House spokesperson

On the back of Trump’s call with Erdogan, a White House statement gave much looser wording by confirming “pending adjustments to military support”.

Meanwhile, echoing a similar statement from the Pentagon, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders later clarified: “Now that we’re continuing to crush the physical caliphate… we’re in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn’t mean stopping all support of those individual groups.”

If the statements around “adjustment” and “support” were already unclear, US Defense Secretary James Mattis did not clear the waters either: “We are going to go exactly along the lines of what the president announced.”

He also emphasised: “As the coalition stops offensive operations, then, obviously, you don’t need that, you need security… you need police forces. That’s local forces. That’s people who make certain that [IS] doesn’t come back.”

Local security forces cannot make certain that IS does not come back without weaponry and financial support.

This was echoed by a statement from Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon: “We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.”

Afrin, Kobane and Jazira are all regions held by Syrian Kurds. Turkey has moved to encircle Afrin canton by entering northern Idlib, as Assad’s Russian-backed troops advance from the south

There was always an expectation that once IS was largely defeated, the US would review its supply of arms, and this would not come as a surprise to the Kurds. However, any hasty moves to dilute YPG capability on the ground threatens repercussion in terms of security, local governance and the political and strategic picture in Syria.

In reality, any recovery of US arms would be a difficult predicament. US has been supplying arms to Arab fighters as well as Kurdish elements of the SDF. Tracking and returning heavy equipment is not a simple undertaking.

Moreover, the US is deeply mindful that the war on IS is far from over. It needs to maintain a dependable ally on the ground to prevent any IS resurgence but also maintain local peace. For this, Kurdish forces are likely to continue to receive some equipment, even under a different guise.

From a political perspective, the biggest influence that the US continues to enjoy in Syria as well as in its quest to stifle growing Iranian regional aspirations, is via the Kurdish-controlled areas. While the long-term relationship between the US and its Kurdish allies is unclear, the Kurdish card gives the US a key hand in any settlement of the Syrian conflict and preventing an Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Compared with Russia, US has little sway in Syria after it largely abandoned support for the Syrian Arab rebels. However, in the same vain as restricting Iran, the Kurdish card also gives Washington some leverage over Moscow in shaping the future Syrian landscape.

While [the Kurds] welcome any long-term alliance with US, they are conscious of not putting all their eggs in Washington’s basket

Continued partnership, even under a new name or brand, between the YPG and the US will hardly soothe Ankara’s expectations of a hard stop in Washington support for the Kurds. However, Washington may calculate that relations with Kurds may better serve its immediate interests, than appeasing an unpredictable Turkey with already cooler ties with EU and NATO.

The friction cause by the alliance with YPG only exasperated already tense relations.

As for the Kurds, while they welcome any long-term alliance with US, they are conscious of not putting all their eggs in Washington’s basket, while burning bridges with Damascus, Tehran or Moscow. Especially, with a Turkey that is willing to shape its flexibility in peace talks with these respective countries in return for a curtailment of Kurdish autonomy and influence.

As such, Kurdish relations with Russia remain as crucial as those with the US. Working closely with Moscow provides a platform for a Kurdish role at future peace talks, even if it angers Turkey. It also boosts the chance of cooperation with the Syrian government, which would favour Moscow and Tehran as it would strengthen the hands of Bashar al-Assad.

Recent Russian support for YPG forces east of the Euphrates, as well as previous shows of support, illustrates a willingness to cooperate for mutual advantage.

In spite of Turkey’s strong objections, the dominant Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is likely to win a seat at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in February, and ultimately, a seat at the eventual peace settlement.

While Erdogan is increasingly willing to engage with Assad if it means serving his top priority of reining in the Kurds, Damascus cannot ignore the realities on the ground.

Assad may have signalled his intention to recapture every inch of Syrian land, but any military confrontation with the Kurds would threaten Assad’s gains and provide Moscow and Tehran an unwanted angle that prolongs their already deep involvement in Syria.

First Published: New Arab

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