Category Archives: Syria

IS borders diminish in Syria but new conflict lines open

With the Islamic State (IS) cornered in Raqqa, the US-led coalition is eagerly anticipating the fall of the self-proclaimed capital of the caliphate, but as IS land continues to shrink, it is replaced with new complexities in Syria.

The US has relied heavily on the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and with every weakening of IS comes a potential strengthening of the Kurdish hand, unsettling an already irate Turkey.

Turkey’s unease with the growing US-Kurdish alliance is not new, and increasing border skirmishes in recent weeks between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Turkish forces suggests Turkish threats to invade Afrin is not mere saber-rattling.

The gradual defeat of IS leaves a political void. Even if local Arab forces govern non-Kurdish areas such as Raqqa, the security threat is unlikely to dissipate once IS gone, leaving a strong reliance on Kurdish firepower.

Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of the US-led coalition, acknowledged the importance of Kurdish fighters in helping Arab forces “buttress” and “do the hard stuff” in Raqqa.

According to Townsend, “Mosul and Raqqa are intermediate objectives on a path to a final victory,” and, especially in the case of Raqqa, this path introduces new regional flashpoints and jostling for influence.

The void left by IS is eyed by the US, with views of protecting its hard-fought gains in a costly three-year campaign against the militant group, but also by the Syrian regime backed by Russia and Iran.

With IS on the retreat, new dividing lines emerge between the multiple local and foreign forces that dot the Syrian landscape.

With a weakening Syrian-Iraqi border, Iran has a unique opportunity to create a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, covering Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, reinforcing its role as a dominant regional power.

The recent US willingness to confront any regime and Iranian-militia-spurred-aggression in these borders areas, as well as around the newly liberated areas taken from IS, highlights US concerns.

A de-facto border is being drawn along the Euphrates, both on the ground and in the sky.

As the fallout from the recent downing of a Syrian SU-22 jet by US forces proved, after it had fired on SDF positions, this new line brings new prospects of conflicts with Russia and regime forces.

The US has consistently stressed their ambitions in Syria lie solely on the defeat of IS. But, in a highly complex Syrian civil war, missions are difficult to isolate.

Whether it likes it or not, the US cannot risk abandoning its new zone of influence in Syria.

Washington has previously stressed their relationship with the SDF and YPG forces were tactical and short-term, partly to appease Turkey, but it can ill-afford a swift exit from Syrian plains.

IS did not grow to such a mighty force overnight; it happened under the passive eyes of the global powers, who finally acted when the group was firmly entrenched in Iraq and Syria and had committed grave atrocities.

Only after a relentless air campaign and significant efforts to train, equip, and fund local forces has the US-led coalition managed to deal a significant blow to IS.

Can the US afford to be a bystander once again in Syria, and risk any IS resurgence or indeed the next install of IS?

At the same time, can the US afford to allow a significant regional power shift by allowing unfettered Iranian access and Russian domination of Syria?

Recent statements by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggest a US gearing for a long-term role in Syria and, indeed, a continued partnership with Kurdish forces that will hardly soothe anxieties in Ankara.

Mattis was much less decisive when asked about weapons recovery from the YPG forces than stated in the past.

“We’ll do what we can,” Mattis stated, who was keen to highlight that the fight against IS did not stop at Raqqa.

More importantly, Mattis expressed willingness to continue arms supplies to the Kurds as future missions dictated.

“When they don’t need certain things anymore, we’ll replace those with something they do need,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily insisted, “We will make the real owners of those weapons…pay for any bullet that will be fired to our country, for every drop of blood that will be shed.”

As the soft portioning of Syria becomes increasingly likely, each side is rushing to either protect or extend their de-facto borders.

Keen to counter Kurdish gains east of the Euphrates, Turkey is increasingly vociferous in its willingness to liberate Afrin, a Kurdish canton west of the Euphrates, already sandwiched by pro-Turkish Syrian rebels.

At the same time, the Kurds are seemingly undeterred, with threats of their own to clear the Jarablus corridor and realize their goal of connecting their cantons.

The post-IS battle lines threaten new rounds of violence, unless US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran can somehow strike a grand bargain.

In the case of Turkey, Ankara’s focus on curtailing Syrian Kurdish ambitions will inevitably result in trade-offs with Damascus and Moscow, solving one problem, but as always in Syria, adding much more.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US alliance with Syrian Kurds: long-term strategy or tactical ploy?

In Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have become central to the US-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State (IS).

However, it remains unclear if Washington is committed to a long-term strategic alliance, or if relations are merely a short-term measure to support current US objectives.

As Kurdish-led forces push closer to the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the growing alliance with YPG has stoked anger from another US ally, Turkey, who deems the Kurdish force an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkish anger grew with Washington’s recent decision to arm the Kurds directly, just days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet US President Donald Trump.

The US-YPG alliance blossomed under the administration of former US President Barrack Obama, who was close to endorsing direct armament of Kurdish forces.

But, close to the end of his tenure, and with the controversy that would unfold, he deferred the decision to Trump.

Turkey had high expectations Trump would change course and abandon the alliance with the YPG.

However, as much as the decision to arm Kurdish forces would have alarmed Ankara, it was nonetheless unsurprising.

Since Trump assumed power, there is little sign the US was ready to abandon the Kurds.

Reaffirming their viewpoint the Kurds were the only viable force capable of defeating IS, the alliance became closer as the fight against the insurgents has intensified.

This was on full display as US armored units patrolled Manbij as well as border areas to dissuade Turkey from further attacks or encroachment into YPG territory.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated the US would “work out any of the concerns,” as he remained confident of resolving tensions with Ankara over the decision to arm the Kurds.

However, it is anything but straight forward to resolve. The US focus on the battle against IS has masked the lack of a coherent and long-term policy on the Syrian Kurds.

A tactical alliance is one thing, but there are many questions unresolved. The US has stated countless times they do not see the YPG as terrorists or an extension of the PKK.

After the defeat of IS, what will be the US policy on the YPG? Are they willing to act as protectors of the YPG, with Turkey only likely to sharpen animosity to a strong autonomous Kurdish zone on their border?

As for the YPG, the common enemy is IS, but they have not entered into an alliance with the US blind-sighted.

They know the geopolitics at stake and will have sought guarantees from the US for their pivotal role in driving back IS, especially now that the battle is in largely Arab-dominated areas.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that every weapon given to the YPG was a “threat to Turkey.”

But US assurance that weapons will be carefully tracked and retrieved from the Kurds has flaws.

The burning question remains if the US can strike a balance that can truly protect the YPG as well as revive fractious relations with Turkey.

The US has expressed keenness to bolster the “intelligence fusion center” in Ankara in the fight against the PKK, which the US designates a “terrorist” group, but this is unlikely to satisfy Turkey.

Erdogan’s meeting with Trump will center heavily on the Kurds.

The Turkish president and his officials still believe they can dissuade Trump, who they think is feeling ramification from Obama’s policies.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated, “this plan is not the Trump administration’s plan. This plan was already conceived by the previous administration.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan pointed out that after Obama, the US “was still in a transition period.”

Erdogan expressed hope the Pentagon would “reverse” its decision to arm the Kurds, before his meeting with Trump.

It remains unlikely that Trump will change this decision, with reports of first US supplies already en-route to Kurdish fighters.

However, Turkey remains a key strategic ally of the US, and Trump may have to make concessions to avoid them slipping further away, and closer to Moscow.

At the same time, abandoning the Kurds now or after IS, as one of the few secular and pro-Western forces in the region, brings its set of risks.

If after IS Turkey attacks and the US steps aside, then the violence will multiply on both sides of the Turkish border.

The US can play a key role in the future of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) by encouraging reconciliation among the Kurdish groups and Kurdish armed forces, including those supported by the Kurdistan Region and tolerated by Turkey.

Moreover, Washington should play a crucial role in reviving peace talks between the PKK and Ankara, however distant the prospect of peace may seem.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

De-escalation zones may end Syrian war by hastening soft partitioning

The establishment of four “de-escalation zones,” agreed between Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan, as part of the latest peace efforts to end the Syrian civil war, is a crucial milestone on paper, but can this lead to elusive peace?

The deal would end Syrian air supremacy in the de-escalation zones.

The zones were a long-time demand of the Syrian opposition and the likes of Turkey, while earlier this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad labeled such initiatives as “not a realistic idea at all.”

This key concession was largely met with skepticism by the Syrian opposition, who lamented Iran’s role in the deal, and along with the regime, were not signatories to the agreement.

The main Syrian opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, criticized the plan as vague and lacking in legitimacy, deeming it a deal “concluded without the Syrian people.”

Owing to the highly complex landscape of the Syrian civil war, such deals leave more questions than answers.

In theory, there is already a cease-fire in place since the end of 2016. However, much like a host of previous truces, its implementation has been built on a lack of trust and shaky foundations, and prone to violations.

The deal is to be enforced by troops from Russia, Iran, and Turkey as guarantors, immediately opening potential flashpoints with neighboring countries.

How would Israel react to Iranian or Hezbollah forces stationed in Quneitra, adjacent to Golan Heights, or Jordan with an Iranian force on its doorstep in Dara’a?

A much larger multi-national force is needed to give the plan any sense of neutrality.

Also, it remains to be seen how many troops will be stationed and where across these large zones.

Syria has stated they will abide by the safe zones but simultaneously vowed to continue to hit “terrorists,” a term they loosely apply to all armed opposition.

How will guarantors enforce Syrian air force compliance? For example, will attacks on hard-line groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, commonly submerged with other rebel ranks, continue by Russian and Syrian warplanes?

Furthermore, there is no clear mechanism to resolve violations, a fact that has quickly soured previous ceasefires.

Each of the guarantor nations has their deeply-entrenched strategic priorities in Syria.

Iran and Russia have been key backers of Assad to boost their regional goals, and a long-term peace settlement in Syria will hinge on both countries.

Meanwhile, for Turkey, a long-time backer of the opposition, their focus has shifted from removing Assad to a focus on curtailing Kurdish aspirations.

As a guarantor in Idlib, their eyes will remain firmly on this priority.

The fact the latest round of peace talks has centered in Kazakhstan is a testimony to the influence each of the guarantors holds versus Western powers.

Turkey, in particular, has aligned more closely with Russia in recent months, as Ankara’s relations with the EU and US have soured.

The US was not completely unware of the proposal for de-escalation zones. After all, US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke before the Astana talks, with the symbolic presence of a top US diplomat in Astana.

However, with the details of the safe-zone agreement unclear, and suggestions US-led coalition airplanes would be barred from flying in such zones, it is clear Russia remains in the driving seat in Syria.

Adriane Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told Kurdistan24 the US was “not a direct participant in the negotiations,” thus, it was “not a party to the agreement.”

The US State Department gave a cautious welcome to the deal, but expressed reservations, especially over Iran’s involvement, who they deem as fuelling the violence.

The statement added, “We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”

The four safe-zones highlight just how fractured the Syrian war has become. Syria is far from opposition forces versus Assad.

Any long-term peace plan must adequately cover all of Syria, including the issues of growing Kurdish autonomy, which is a ticking time bomb to any eventual agreement.

For the US, the fight against the Islamic State (IS) remains their ultimate priority. As safe-zones were agreed, the offensive against IS was in full flight.

The battle against IS centers heavily on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who Trump has stuck with to spearhead the attack on Raqqa, at the expense of relations with Turkey.

As the Kurds have become more empowered and their influence has grown, their autonomy has solidified, adding another flashpoint between major powers in their approach to incorporating Kurdish demands.

Opposition groups fear the safe-zone deal may push towards the disintegration of Syria.

However, with so many stakeholders and varying interests, a loose federal system appears the only solution to elusive peace.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

As Erdogan prepares to meet Trump, can US keep allies from bloodshed?

The timing of the Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the US President Donald Trump, is not a coincidence.

The attacks serve as a warning for the US, but it also aims to ensure Turkey retains an influence over proceedings in Syria, while simultaneously appeasing hawkish circles in Turkey crucial to Erdogan’s recent referendum win.

The attacks on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) bases near the Syrian town of Derik, which also included Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Shingal area in Iraq, led to diplomatic protests from the US.

The US is in a difficult conundrum. It relies heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces, whom they have stated many times as one of the most effective troops battling the Islamic State (IS).

However, keeping their once dependable allies in Ankara onside at the same time is proving an impossible balance.

Underlining this difficult predicament, Turkish airstrikes came as YPG led forces were in the middle of an intense battle to capture Tabqa from IS that would pave the way for the final assault on Raqqa.

The strong Turkish opposition to the growing ties between the Kurdish forces, whom they accuse of being an extension of the PKK, and the US is not new.

Turkey has attempted to pressure Washington on multiple occasions to sideline the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG forms as its largest and strongest contingent, and to propel Turkey, and its Syrian opposition allies, to lead the fight to drive IS from their stronghold of Raqqa.

This week, Erdogan stated the US-led coalition, working hand in hand with Turkish forces, “can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for IS.”

This suggestion of anti-IS alliance has been proposed countless times and has been evidently rejected by the US, which has increased their support of SDF forces in recent months.

Erdogan warned continued US support needs to stop “right now,” or risk bringing persistent strife in the region and Turkey while urging that without cooperation on the global fight against terrorism, “then tomorrow it will strike at another ally.”

The US has rejected the notion that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. This places the US in an increasingly difficult standoff with Turkey.

According to Mark Toner, the former US State Department spokesperson, Washington had already communicated that “Turkey must stop attacking the YPG.”

Toner added the US supports “Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism,” but this stance fuels ambiguity in an already tense regional landscape.

The US policy towards the YPG forces, both now and in the future, remains incoherent and unclear.

Erdogan warned that “we may suddenly come at any night,” referring to further attacks on YPG positions. This would certainly undermine Kurdish support in the battle against IS.

For Erdogan to back down on his unwavering stance on the YPG now would risk a nationalist backlash.

It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend their Kurdish allies, who had even requested a no-fly zone.

The US had already expressed their disappointment over a lack of notice and coordination before Turkish strikes. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), described the time provided by Turkey as “inadequate.”

According to Dorrian, the US “had forces within six miles of the strikes,” while the operations box given by Turkey was too big to ensure the safety of US troops.

As a deterrence to further Turkish attacks, US armored convoys were seen patrolling some areas alongside Kurdish forces.

This came as US officers visited the site of the airstrikes, with reports of US forces attending funerals of YPG members killed by the air raid.

Deployments of US troops along the border areas was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, who urged focus from all parties in the fight against IS as the common enemy.

An angry Erdogan remarked that “we are seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it.”

Erdogan is likely to protest strongly with Trump when they meet.

Ankara hoped Trump would abandon former US President Barack Obama’s policy in allying with the Kurds.

But, with the Kurds driving deeper in their assault on Raqqa, Trump has seemingly taken advice from his military leaders and stuck with the Kurds.

Any change now would spell bloodshed either way. Turkish forces would have to wedge through Kurdish territory, leading to certain conflict.

Conversely, Turkey’s resistance against the YPG would only embolden, especially as Kurds solidify their autonomous rule.

This regional powder-keg goes well beyond the question of who will take Raqqa. IS will be defeated, but the complex Syrian web from years of bloodshed will be much more difficult to untangle.

After IS, is the US willing to protect YPG forces at the continued expense of Turkey, or will it leave both allies to open a new chapter of bloodshed?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Do US air strikes change the picture in Syria?

Where former US President Barack Obama hesitated when the Syrian regime crossed his “red lines,” current President Donald Trump took swift military action in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical bombing of the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun which for Trump “crossed a lot of lines,” leaving 80 dead and hundreds more injured.

The 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat airbase near Homs, which the US believes was used to orchestrate the nerve agent attacks, was defended by Trump as a “vital national security interest” of the US, as Washington vowed they could yet do more.

The US’ new willingness to take action adds an unprecedented dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. However, will the US action hasten diplomatic initiatives to end the war or will it drive Syria into a deeper conflict?

Trump, whose campaign was on a US-first and anti-interventionist basis, showed the unpredictable style of his presidency as he took action without seeking permission from Congress or his allies, with knowledge it would damage the warmer ties he hoped to foster with Russia.

The primary purpose of this proportionate response was to deter Damascus from further chemical attacks, something Obama believed he achieved with the last-minute deal brokered by Russia in 2013 to dispose of Syria’s chemical stockpiles after the regime launched a deadly chemical attack in Gouta.

It also served as a warning Trump was willing to change his position quickly based on unfolding events, and, at the same time, remind the likes of Iran and North Korea the US remained a major global player who was not afraid to intervene if required.

Western powers backed the US’ military response, but they also received broad support from the Democrat-Republican line.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement highlighting that after repeating the chemical attack of 2013, “President [Bashar al-Assad] alone bears the responsibility for this development.”

Meanwhile, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, echoing the similar sentiment from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, blamed Russia as the key backer of Assad responsible “by proxy” for “every civilian death” that resulted from the chemical attack.

The dramatic turnaround in fortunes in recent months for the Assad regime is directly owed to Russian military intervention in 2015 which led to the recapture of swaths of territory, including Aleppo.

The US military response may give the fading opposition renewed hope, but US policy on Syria remains incoherent.

Whether the US strikes change Assad’s calculus or willingness to negotiate a political settlement depends if US action proves a one-off. It also depends on if the Americans are willing to take steps to significantly bolster the fragmented opposition or take radical steps such as the creation of US enforced safe-zones.

However, Assad’s stance will be largely dependent on Russia, who remains the key component of how the six-year Syrian civil war will play out.

It came as no response Russia strongly condemned the US strikes on the Syrian airbase. Russia accused the US of encouraging “terrorists” with actions they deemed as “unilateral” and an “act of aggression,” as they vowed to bolster Syrian air defenses and mobilized a warship to confront US naval positions in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Denouncing the strikes as illegal, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as warning the strikes were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”

Moreover, a statement from a joint command center, comprised of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, threatened to “respond with force” if their red-lines were crossed.

The greatest challenge of the G7 nations remains to change Russia’s stance on Syria, whether through sanctions or diplomacy.

But, with every Western rhetoric denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or any threat of further US military action in Syria, Moscow’s position becomes more entrenched.

The contradictory claims emanating from US officials on their priority in Syria or stance on Assad does not help matters.

A week before the chemical attacks, Washington had publicly stated the removal of Assad was no longer a priority, but this seemingly changed after the chemical bombing.

However, in recent days, Trump stressed the priority remained to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and Washington was “not going into” Syria’s civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “very ambiguous” and “contradictory ideas.”

With an unclear US policy, a seeming lack of hunger to be drawn military into Syria, and growing friction with Russia, the past week’s events make a political solution in Syria all the more difficult.

Either way, for Trump, military action now sets a precedence. If Assad launches another chemical attack, will he be willing to escalate military action and a potential stand-off with Russia or risk appearing weak?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who will spearhead the Raqqa offensive?

With focus largely on the Iraqi liberation of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) Syrian stronghold of Raqqa remains the ultimate prize for defeating the group. However, owed to a complicated regional dynamic, the battle for Raqqa is marred by a lack of consensus on the strategy to take the city.

As US President Donald Trump waits for an official review of options from US Defense Secretary James Mattis, due by the end of this month, the military picture against IS in Syria is far from idle.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised largely of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continues to make inroads in isolating Raqqa, while coalition warplanes relentlessly pound IS targets. The SDF has been vital in pushing back IS in recent months, but this was only possible with significant US support, much to the dismay of Ankara who remains uneasy at increasing Kurdish territory and military power.

Turkey has presented its own plan to the Trump administration to take Raqqa, while at the same time Russia has offered to coordinate directly in liberating the IS stronghold. Another option on the table to accelerate the offensive is increasing the number of US troops on the ground.

With time of the essence, it remains unclear if the US-led coalition can afford to sideline the Kurdish forces in any Raqqa offensive.

Turkish Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, recently expressed optimism that the “new US administration has a different approach to the issue” of support to the YPG and the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who Turkey accuses of been an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, there are mixed signals on the ground.

US support for the SDF has continued in recent weeks, including arms shipments. While the official line remains the US does not provide arms to the Kurds, only to Arab elements of the group, the lines remain murky.

Former US president, Barack Obama, left the controversial decision to arm the Kurds, an idea many in his administration supported, to Trump.

It remains unlikely that the Kurds will be put to one side, not because Washington is insensitive to concerns from its Turkish allies, but because the Kurds are the most effective local force and Washington cannot afford to waste time to build a strong local Arab force.

The US is mindful of the ethnic makeup of the force entering the predominantly Arabic city and has tried to calm Turkish fears of Kurds entering Raqqa, by empowering Arab elements of the SDF.

However, this conundrum cannot satisfy all sides.

It is difficult for the coalition to split their policy, such as providing arms to only Arab components of the SDF, as it creates an imbalance that hinders any assault on the city.

Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, who visited a newly established logistical hub near the Turkish border to support US and SDF forces alongside head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel underlined this dilemma, “we can’t just equip parts of this force, we have to equip the entire force.”

Townsend has concluded that a combined Arab-Kurdish force will be needed “because the Kurdish component is the most effective.”

Any gap in local Arab forces can be filled with the US, Turkish or Russian boots on the ground, but none of these will be without drawbacks and risks.

The details around the Turkish-led proposal to enter Raqqa are unclear, but ultimately, even if a sizable force could be mustered, it risks a confrontation with the Kurds and a further complication of the Syrian dynamic.

Turkish entry into Syria was as much to check the growing Kurdish aspirations as to contain the IS threat on its border. Isk has openly stated that once al-Bab is liberated, they would turn their attention towards Manbij.

Any eastern advance into the Kurdish-held territory by Turkey will almost certainly see the Kurds divert their forces from the IS battle.

Underscoring the importance of keeping momentum, Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, recently stated, “we’re now seeing signs that ISIS fighters, its leaders in Raqqa, are beginning to feel the pressure.” Meanwhile, Votel expressed his concern of “maintaining momentum.”

Ahead of the recommendations to Trump, both Dorrian and Votel stressed they would continue to work with local forces, with Dorrian emphasizing “that fundamental principle isn’t going to change.”

Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, believes “the force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF.” While adding, he expects the Arabs and Kurds to work in tandem to liberate the city.

Whatever Trump decides, the socio-political picture is guaranteed to remain as complex as the battle for Raqqa itself.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US sidelined in Syria, as Turkey and Russia set stall for Trump

The notable absence of the United States (US) in the latest Syrian ceasefire coordinated by Turkey and Russia coincided with escalating rhetoric and growing animosity from Turkey, blaming Washington for the failed military coup, recent security attacks, and the growing Syrian Kurdish power.

The intensification of criticism from Turkey is designed as parting shots at the outgoing US President and as pressure on the incoming US President-elect Donald Trump.

With the thawing of ties with Russia, Turkey is increasingly looking to build bridges away from the West; this is evident not only with general animosity towards Washington but also the European Union in recent months.

The shift in Ankara can be seen with the armed intervention in northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) and by accepting that Russia and Iran would not allow the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Michael A. Reynolds, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24, “Under Obama’s leadership the US either by intention or default put itself on the sidelines. This, I think, exasperated Ankara and led it to reach out to Moscow, repair relations, and to accept Assad’s continued tenure as president of Syria.” 

Now, in playing a prominent role in the latest ceasefire and the prospective talks in Kazakhstan, Turkey is seemingly open to striking a deal, without the US to act as a roadblock, to preserve its interests in Syria while Russia and Iran would also maintain strategic interests.

Ankara’s key goal, however, is to curtail the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy, in contrast to the continued US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.

As for Russia, it will continue to enjoy unhindered access to the Mediterranean via its naval bases, a pro-Russian regime in the Middle East and growing influence in the region last seen in the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence is also growing through a pro-Iranian access zone along the Shiite axis between Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

By pressing ahead with a ceasefire, peace talks and a possible grand bargain over Assad, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are setting the stall for the future Trump administration.

While Trump will exert some influence, the expectation is that a more Russia-friendly Washington will provide little resistance to any initiative. Trump has already highlighted that his focus is on working with Russia to defeat IS and is unlikely to continue support for Syrian rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled his hope that Trump “will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation.” One of Trump’s dilemmas will be how to handle the existing military alliance with the Syrian Kurds that has been vital to pushing back IS.

Turkey has a strong expectation that Trump will change course over support of the Kurds, but a complete u-turn by Washington is risky and not inevitable.

Overlooking the Kurds and allowing Turkey to take center stage in battling IS on the ground, as it has long insisted, may weaken IS but will risk inevitable conflict with the Kurds that Obama has tried to avoid.

Trump has previously stated “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”. However, balancing between the Kurds and an increasingly hawkish Turkey is difficult.

Ultimately, the indecisive approach of the Obama administration towards Syria lead to its waning influence and credibility in the region.

Various red lines such as the use of chemical weapons by Assad were crossed without action and Obama hesitated to empower Syrian rebels, especially as the distinction between moderates and Islamists amongst fragmented rebels became murky.

According to Reynolds, “Trump was quite critical of Obama’s half-hearted attempt to intervene in Syria, and particularly of Obama’s muddled and incompetent efforts to aid the armed opposition in Syria.

Whereas Clinton wished to double-down on intervention, Trump did not see how such recklessness would serve American interests.”

While the US dithered, Russia took center stage diplomatically and shaped the military picture on the ground. After all, it was both a combatant and an arbiter and had to be taken seriously.

As for Trump–Turkey and Russia expect him to come on board with their plans, but Trump has already proved unpredictable, and Syria remains too complex for straight forward relations between sides with their differing agendas.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who represents Kurds at Syria peace talks?

Swiftly after the last rebels were evacuated in Aleppo as Syrian forces took full control, a new ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey intending to a fresh round of peace talks in Kazakhstan. Though, the dominant Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, have been excluded from the talks at the insistence of Turkey.

The capture of Aleppo by the Syrian regime and their allies provides a pivotal moment in the Syrian war and a platform for a peace deal. However, vast areas of the country remain not in the hands of Assad or even the opposition but the powerful Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s Syria policy has long been shaped by its fear of an increasingly assertive Kurdish zone on its southern border. In fact, in some ways, this defined its approach to dealing with the Islamic State (IS).

In contrast, the United States has relied heavily on these Kurdish forces as one of the most effective forces against IS. Ongoing US support for what Ankara deems as terrorists has placed Turkey at loggerheads with the US.

With the thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey is enjoying new leverage in Syria, culminating in their intervention last year to curtail Syrian Kurdish aspirations to join their cantons. With the realization that Russia and Iran would not forgo Assad, Turkey’s focus has fast shifted from the removal of Assad to keeping Kurdish aspirations in check and creating a northern zone of influence.

The exclusion of the PYD and YPG in any talks and perhaps even the dismantling of their autonomy was likely a key Turkish condition on any deal with Russia and Iran.

Although the PYD has been excluded from the talks, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) will be taking part. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar of ENKS told Kurdistan24, “the claims that Syrian Kurds are not represented in the peace talks are false.”

The ENKS has played down PYD’s exclusion from the peace negotiations from being linked to Kurdish rights. But, ultimately, PYD has greater political leverage in the region as well as the influence of YPG forces.

This underscores the division among Kurds that undermine their solidarity, unity, and negotiating position in future talks.

Various agreements to unite the ENKS and the rival People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), an affiliate of PYD, have eroded.

Turkish intervention and takeover of a strip of IS controlled land in the north of Syria, primarily aimed at curbing Kurdish aspirations, is likely to have been launched with Moscow’s tacit approval.

Russia had previously insisted that participation of the main Syrian Kurdish party was vital in any peace talks.

In March 2016, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, critical of Turkish ultimatums at the time, even said leaving the Kurds out of the Geneva talks could endanger Syria’s territorial integrity.

Turkish intervention in Syria was not received warmly by Washington as it feared conflict between Kurds and Turks and a focus away from defeating IS.

In recent weeks, tense relations between the NATO allies were visible over a lack of US air support in Turkey’s bid to take al-Bab. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık said the ongoing US support for the PYD was leading the government to “question” the use of the strategic Incirlik base by the US-led coalition forces.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was equally damning of the US stance on the Kurds, accusing the US of been engaged in a “fake struggle.” He urged President-elect Donald Trump to “put an end to this vileness, as it is now time for friends and foes to clearly separate themselves from each other.”

As much as Trump will be eager for a deal with the Turks and Russians to end the war, pulling the plug on the Kurdish forces is a significant risk at a crucial time against IS. Moreover, any military moves to curtail the Kurds would merely prolong and intensify the Syrian war.

Autonomy is a red-line for the Kurds, and regardless of which political party represents them in any peace talks, they remain a vital component of the Syrian landscape, and their rights should be ensured if Syria is to find any semblance of peace and stability.

As for Syrian Kurds, without a unified political scene and armed forces, any autonomous region cannot flourish amid hostile neighbors.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US depends on Kurds once more in Raqqa offensive

As the battle to liberate Mosul gathers steam, the US-led coalition facilitated plans for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) with the launch of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. However, Syria is no Iraq, and the Raqqa offensive adds to the already complex Syrian landscape.

As the operation began, the US-led coalition was seemingly forced to rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its best chance of success.

Highlighting this point, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated, “…the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion.”

The coalition had to act quickly for many reasons: To capitalise on IS losses in Iraq, to prevent retreated IS forces from remobilising and to prevent IS attacks on European soil.

Kyle Orton, Syria and Middle Eastern analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, told Kurdistan 24 that “the US has prioritised timing in the Raqqa operation – it wants it done as quickly as possible – and the tactical reality there is that the YPG is the only force positioned to do it.”

On a phone call to the US President Barack Obama, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted, “we do not need terrorist organisations like the PYD and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh from Raqqa.”

But in defiance of frequently harsh rhetoric from Ankara owed to the US reliance and support of YPG forces, the US has decided to go with the Kurds again.

The US finds itself in an awkward corner; it has acknowledged the sensitives of Ankara but at the same time does not have a plethora of choices at a critical juncture. Further, it has tried to appease Turkey into playing a role in the Raqqa offensive alongside the Kurds, but Turkey rejected the idea.

Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for Middle East At, told Kurdistan 24 that YPG and Ankara could be convinced to work together against a common enemy in IS “with good diplomacy and inducements”. According to Khoury, “the two friends of the U.S. will have to work together, albeit in limited and prescribed roles for this campaign to succeed.”

However, Orton believes “it is highly doubtful that the Turks and the YPG can be convinced to work together. The announcement of the Raqqa operation is itself a means of the YPG gaining a political advantage over Turkey. The interests of Turkey and the YPG simply vary too widely to imagine a convergence that would allow cooperation.”

This begs the question, could the US forgo the Kurds and rely on the Turkish-backed forces?

Any Turkish troops leading a charge into Raqqa would inevitably cut through Kurdish-held territory sparking the possibility of conflict with the Kurds, which would jeopardise Kurdish cooperation with the coalition.

Syrian rebels are too weak without Turkish backing, and in reality, their priority remains the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding their fellow rebels under siege in Aleppo.

At the same time, Raqqa is not a top priority for the YPG. Had they had a choice, Kurds would have preferred to focus on expanding their territory westwards towards Afrin, instead of an Arab-dominated city that they cannot hold.

The Kurds have sought assurances that they are not stabbed in the back by Turkey in sacrificing forces for the Raqqa assault.

The US-led coalition has openly acknowledged that they would prefer an Arab force, as does Turkey, to lead the charge into Raqqa with the Kurdish forces mainly working to seal off the city. However, such a force does not exist and training one will take time.

The US general, Joseph Dunford, acknowledged “we always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation”. But it is proving almost impossible, especially since Turkey remains reluctant.

European Ministers such as Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have warned that the liberation of the Raqqa would have to be done by an “essentially Arab” force to avoid a local backlash.

In essence, the coalition has little choice but to continue to rely on Kurdish forces. However, as YPG seemingly gathers more strategic strength and perhaps more territory, this opens the door to further violence and instability once IS are gone.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Can Turkish intervention curtail growing standing of Syrian Kurds?

The already complicated Syrian landscape was given another dose of fuel as Turkish tanks rolled into Syria overrunning the town of Jarablus under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State (IS).

Western powers have long accused Turkey of not doing enough in the fight against IS and in tightening control of its porous border that has served them as a vital gateway. So why did Turkey suddenly intervene?

If the threat was solely IS, Turkey could have invaded years ago. However, Turkey’s real eyes were on curtailing the rapidly expanding territory under the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who simultaneously became United States’ (US) key ally in the battle against IS.

Hossam Abouzahr, the editor of the Atlantic Council’s Syria Source blog, told Kurdistan24, “Turkey has been planning this move for at least a year.  The fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces shows just how serious Turkey is about stopping the Kurds from seizing control of northern Syria.”

Turkey was content as long as IS and YPG forces were locked fighting, the former was a natural way to keep Kurdish aspirations in check.

But with growing US-led coalition support and international recognition, YPG forces have quickly taken a large swathe of territory from IS, including Manbij, west of the Turkish Euphrates red line, and had their eyes set on creating a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region.

The Russian and US support to the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’ frosty relations with these powers leaving Turkey isolated.

In addition to the loss of territory by its Syrian proxies, and the failed coup, Turkey embarked on a policy of rapprochement with Russia, Iran, Israel and the US.

John Cookson, Chief Correspondent of Arise News, told Kurdistan24 “Turkey has now turned to look East instead of West…An incursion into Syria to crush the Kurds plays well among his base in Istanbul.”

However, Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre told Kurdistan24 that although there is evidence of a Turkish compromise with Moscow in light of the recent rapprochement, “the Russians were clearly not expecting the scope of Turkey’s current offensive.”

Either way as history has shown, the West could betray the Kurds again.

The thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow was a stark warning to NATO and the Americans. Now in the quest to entice Ankara, US had to appease Turkey especially with regards to the Kurds.

According to Cookson, “If America has to choose between the Kurds and Turkey, the US will ultimately back Turkey” before adding that like the uprising in Iraqi in 1991, “the Americans will sell the Kurds out.”

For Paul, “Biden’s recent visit was aimed at building bridges.  At the end of the day Turkey is a vital US strategic partner and long-time NATO ally.   While the PYD has been an important partner for the US in Syria it is not comparable to the relationship with Turkey.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made clear that “Turkish forces will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to cleanse the border of Islamic State and other militants”.

 

However, Kurdish control west of Euphrates is one thing, and their large and well-entrenched control of the region east of the Euphrates is another.

According to Paul, not only could Turkey become bogged down in Syria but “the current operation is not going to help Turkey’s own Kurdish issue and it is likely to spread furthers enmity toward the Kurdish people in the region.”

However, for the US and its primary focus on defeating IS, the armed confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces is a major headache. It can tolerate a limited incursion to appease Ankara, but the boundaries are becoming ever murky. Pentagon warned Turkey to focus on IS and not the Kurdish forces. According to Washington, the YPG had retreated east of the Euphrates as promised but an unconvinced Yildrim vowed, “operations will continue until all threats to Turkish citizens have been eliminated.”

More importantly, there is now a sense of unease between the Kurds and US that would hamper operations against IS further south.

The US spent millions on training moderate forces who quickly failed against IS; hence, it has relied heavily on the Kurds. However, will the new development change the game again?

There are already signs that Turkey will accept a grand bargain to curtail Kurdish advances.

Regardless of any deal between these powers, the Kurds of Syria remain a key component of the Syrian calculus. Their new found autonomy and military might cannot be ignored. Not without wide-scale military intervention, which is a step far for the likes of Turkey and certainly for Syria.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc