Category Archives: Syria

How Obama’s red line fiasco breathed new life into the Syrian regime

the U.S., U.K. and France’s retaliatory airstrike on April 21, two weeks after alleged chemical attacks by Bashar Assad’s forces in Douma, was to deter the Syrian regime or force a change of mood, then it looks like a failure. Regime forces are relentlessly continuing their fierce quest to drive out opposition forces in remaining enclaves around Damascus.

As a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) finally arrived in Douma on April 17 to investigate the alleged chemical attacks, the U.S. and its allies had long made up their minds and attributed blame to the regime.

U.S. President Donald Trump promised to make Assad pay a “big price” for the chemical attacks that left over 40 people dead. However, the fierce rhetoric and threats on social media came well short of eventual military action.

While the missile strikes were greater in number than those ordered by Washington in April 2017, when Western powers were again adamant that only Assad could be responsible for the fatal chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun, the U.S.-led response this time around seemed more sensitive to avoid any action that would incense Russia, or worse still, hit Russian personnel.

This view seems to be confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated, “We told them where our red lines were, including the geographical red lines… The results have shown that they haven’t crossed those lines.”

Trump hailed the operation, predominantly aimed at destroying Assad’s chemical weapons development capability, as “mission accomplished,” however, this is where the ironies are hard to ignore. Five years after Assad brazenly crossed then U.S. President Barack Obama’s infamous red line on chemical attacks, the fact that U.S. is still reacting to such scenarios says much about the flawed deal in 2013 between Washington and Moscow that was supposed to see Syria dispose of all of its chemical weapon stockpiles in exchange for halting military action.

Obama clearly set a red line in August 2012 for military intervention in Syria when he stated, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Yet, just days after Assad’s deadly attack in Ghouta, Obama quickly backtracked and even stated in September 2013, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Fast forward to 2018, Assad is not only still in power, but also very much in the ascendency with significant support from his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump was critical of Obama’s failure to enforce redlines, and vowed that when he set a redline he meant it.

This pledge placed Trump in a difficult corner after the most recent chemical attack by Assad, but U.S has seemingly little appetite for regime change or any greater military campaign that sees it sucked in deeper into the Syrian war or thrust into a direct showdown with Moscow.

The real time for action that would have greatly swayed the Syrian war and resulted in a much more rapid settlement of the conflict was in 2013. Obama greatly misjudged his shifting red lines and the effects of the so-called deal that would remove Assad’s chemical weapon capability.

At the time, Obama was quick to hail the deal that averted the need for military intervention. Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was equally upbeat, stating in 2014, “With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

Now, any outcome from the OPCW, who cannot attribute blame but only confirm chemical weapons use, will not change the calculus on the ground. The United Nations Security Council is in a state of paralysis from reaching any meaningful diplomatic agreement, let alone agreeing on real action, due to Russia’s ardent support for Assad.

The OPCW investigation into the April 2017 attacks had little effect on dissuading Assad. Ahead of the OPCW team’s delayed arrival, there was fierce rhetoric between the U.S. and Russia over alleged cover-ups at the site of the attacks.

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, stated, “Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use.”

However, Russia and Syria remained resolute that the opposition staged the attacks with the support of the West. Either way, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in Syria and looks to prop up the regime and its strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean at any cost. On the other hand, U.S. policy in Syria seems disjointed and unpredictable.

Just weeks ago, Trump vowed that U.S. forces would be withdrawn soon; then subsequent statements from U.S. officials backtracked and indicated a more long-term stay in Syria.

As for Assad, with the firepower of his allies at hand, he will quickly mop up the remaining opposition strongholds around Damascus, Homs, and beyond. Unfortunately, for the long-suffering Syrian population, there seems to be no short-term end in sight to the brutal war that has devastated millions of lives.

First Published: Daily Sabah

International powers scramble to manipulate Afrin for geopolitical gains

As Turkish troops and their allies advance in Afrin, the besieged canton has become a theatre for regional and global powers to wield influence, extract concessions to boost their goals in Syria, and settle scores against old rivals.

With the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) surrounded by Turkey, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, regime forces and countless jihadist groups, all actors in the Syrian conflict are trying to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

The United States, whose partnership with the YPG was pivotal in driving out the Islamic State group from large swathes of Syrian territory, decided that Afrin was a completely different case to Manbij and other territories where it remains active with Kurdish forces – as the Pentagon did not have forces stationed there.

In practice, this was a convenient excuse for US to give concessions to their irate NATO allies in Ankara, after seeing relations with Turkey deteriorate dramatically in recent years. This may sway some sentiment in Ankara but is not without its own ramifications.

As Washington has acknowledged, Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates have already diverted forces from the fight against IS to join the fight against Turkish-led forces. US calls have centred on restraint, labelling the operation a “distraction”, but have stopped short of calling for a halt in attacks.

More ominously, US indifference over Afrin may not be sufficient to appease an increasingly ambitious Turkey.

Turkey already has its eye on Manbij as the next target where a sizable contingent of US forces are also present. On his recent visit to Turkey to defuse tensions mutually deemed at “crisis point”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly promised a YPG withdrawal east of the Euphrates and joint Turkish-US patrols in Manbij.

While details remain unclear, the new US-Turkey commitment to “work together” in northern Syria could drive a deeper wedge between the US and the Kurds that has opened up over Afrin.

Turkey has grave concerns over Afrin, Kobane and Jazira cantons all being controlled by the Kurdish YPG, which it sees as an offshoot of the PKK Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought a bloody 34-year insurgency against Ankara

The undermining of US-Kurdish relations is music to ears of Moscow and Tehran. It firstly dilutes the US influence on the ground as well as dampening their long-term plans in Syria aimed at the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hindering the Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Secondly, it forces the Kurds into a difficult corner where they have little choice but turn to Damascus and thus further the Assad and Russian goal of reclaiming sovereignty over all parts of Syria.

Strengthening its geopolitical goals, Moscow essentially gave Ankara the green light with access to Syrian airspace and removing its forces stationed in Afrin.

As much as the Afrin operation gave Washington a degree of Turkish appeasement, Russia also benefits from concessions to Turkey. Turkey, whose ties with Russia have warmed considerably from the lows of 2015, remains important in any lasting peace deal in Syria but Russia and the regime will have “red lines” on Turkish moves.

After all, the Turkish offensive is spearheaded by thousands of FSA fighters that Assad and Russian have been battling at great costs for several years. Facilitating a rebel foothold in Afrin is a prelude to trouble for the regime, as reinvigorated Syrian rebels are hardly likely to stop at Afrin.

Without a set of arrangements and Turkish assurances that aid FSA goals, Syrian rebels would become nothing more than a proxy force of Turkey.

Either way, the Turkish aim in Afrin is ultimately a long-term foothold in the country, in much the same way that Iran has guaranteed its own long-term role in Syria. Afrin allows Turkey to link Azaz and Idlib while putting further pressure on Assad – both militarily as well as at any peace table.

It’s little surprise that, after waiting for the Kurds to have little choice but to turn to Assad, that pro-regime militias entered the canton to ally with the Kurds.

While these forces may not be Syrian Arab Army (SAA) components, it changes the calculus of the Turkish operation. It undermines Ankara rhetoric of fighting terrorists if they are in direct conflict with the regime-allied forces of a neighbouring country.

Damascus support for the Kurds will naturally come at a price and the regime’s presence in Afrin and other Kurdish-controlled areas is a starting point. It remains to be seen if the SAA or a larger continent of fighters will enter Afrin, or what Russia’s next move will be as Turkey closes in on the canton.

With the US seemingly unwillingly to intervene and Kurds against the odds, Russia can woo Syrian Kurds using Ankara.

As for Turkey, with border areas secure and contiguous access ensured between Azaz and Idlib, the presence of regime forces could also give Ankara a way out of a deep and bloody war with Kurds – while still declaring victory to pacify nationalist circles in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Turkish-US joint patrols in Manbij is hardly a tonic for the Kurds. It places further clouds on future relations with the US east of the Euphrates where the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured large swathes of territory.

Unless Washington makes guarantees to Kurds east of the Euphrates, the growingly sceptical Kurds may question their partnership with the US and pre-empt any greater US shift to appease Turkey, especially with the bulk of the fight against IS over.

In this scenario, Kurds may view a broader alignment towards Damascus and Moscow as a safer route than facing isolation or dependency on US tactical shifts. The Kurds could agree to hand Assad territories such as Manbij rather than allow US to work with Ankara in controlling Manbij.

In return, Assad and his allies may enshrine some Kurdish autonomy demands as long as the regime retains some official presence in those autonomous areas. This leaves Washington in a weaker spot to orchestrate the long-term influence it desires on Syria, including on any final political settlement, removing Assad from power or thwarting growing Iranian authority in the region.

The latest manoeuvres in Afrin and Syria further complicate the possibility of stability or peace in Syria. With a war of attrition unlikely to see one side triumph, the latest moves hasten a soft division of Syria among the regime, Turkish-backed rebels and the Kurds.

First Published: New Arab

Regional alliance punishing Iraq’s Kurds for referendum cannot last

A determination to derail Kurdish statehood aspirations led to the emergence of a newfound Ankara-Baghdad-Tehran alliance – but can neighbours who have often been at odds and with conflicting strategic and regional objectives, sustain ties based on common ground against the Kurds?

The past few months have witnessed each country host neighbouring leaders with the impact of the Kurdish referendum topping the agenda. However, as history has shown, while current regional geopolitical interests converge, relations between countries with greatly diverse agendas often eventually unravel.

The Kurds in their respective areas have been exploited all too often by the same neighbouring powers as a counter-weight in regional standoffs, or to muster strategic advantage. Now, in rallying against the Iraqi Kurds, long-term policies that weaken the Kurdistan Region or rile the sentiment of the Kurdish population could backfire.

In such a scenario, Turkey could feel the repercussions greater than any other side. Kurdistan Region not only borders Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but also borders Kurdish regions in each country.

With its age-old Kurdish dilemma continuing to fester and threatening deeper polarisation in Turkey, and Ankara sending its military in to Syria to wrest control of Afrin canton from Kurds, the strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) helped to serve mutual goals.

Ironically, Turkey fuelled and expanded the autonomy of the KRG through a new oil pipeline and lucrative energy contracts while openly rejecting the outcry from Baghdad, defending the agreements as in compliance with the Iraqi constitution.

The KRG served as a vital counterweight to Baghdad’s often sectarian policies, and growing Iranian influence that often came at a disadvantage to Turkey’s own regional goals.
Strong ties with the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’s frosty ties with Baghdad.

Only a year ago, a standoff over Turkish troops stationed in Bashiqa, close to Mosul, led to an angry war of words. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding, “you are not my equal”.

Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism

Neither was Erdogan a stranger to wars of words with Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. In April 2012, Erdogan criticised Maliki’s “self-centred ways” while accusing him of fomenting sectarian unrest. Meanwhile, Maliki accused Turkey of becoming a “hostile state”.

Now, Erdogan and Abadi stand side-by-side as equals in a show of solidarity. Nevertheless, for all the words in public, Ankara is mindful of not pushing the levers against the Iraqi Kurds to breaking point.

Not only would it harm Turkey’s economic and security interests, but Tehran would also be quick to fill any void. The equilibrium in Turkey’s regional Kurdish policy would also be broken. Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism.

A Shia domination of Iraq not only affects the Kurds but also the long- disenchanted Sunni Arabs that Turkey has sought to support. In fact, Turkey has been keen on training Sunni militias and empowering Sunni tribes to dilute the Iran-backed Shia hegemony over the military and political scene.

Many Shia militia groups openly reject any Turkish presence in Iraq, and that may yet open new lines of conflict. In parallel, any hostility from the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) towards Turkmen in disputed territories will place Turkey into another difficult predicament.

Reeling from weaker ties with the EU and especially the US, Turkey has looked eastwards and shifted away from NATO allies. While growing ties between Russia and Iran may preserve Turkish interests in Syria, namely the curtailment of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, the fluid regional dynamic is far from clear-cut.

Turkey finds itself aligned with Iran over Kurdistan and to a lesser extent Syria – but the regional order after the Arab Spring saw both powers often pitted on opposing teams.

The Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence

Now with the focus on the post-Islamic State regional order, their strategic and religious standpoints are far from aligned.

These differing geopolitical goals often resulted in a climate of enmity and suspicion. Even today, the powerful neighbours enjoy “working ties” rather than any real strategic alliance.

The growing divide over Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Qatar is causing a new sectarian axis to emerge, led by Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran on the other – but the picture can quickly transform.

As such, the Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence.

While Turkey’s focus in Syria has quickly shifted from the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to containing Kurdish ambitions, Iran has not been as antagonistic to the dominant Kurdish party in Syria.

Warm ties between Turkey and Iran may change this, especially if Ankara can utilise its influence with the Syrian opposition to push for a grand bargain in Syria – but it can quickly go in the opposite direction if relations between Turkey and Iran become strained.

A renewed understanding between Ankara and Washington over Syria at the expense of the Syrian Kurds, for example, could quickly undermine Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the other hand, Iran could leverage the Syrian Kurds if Turkey chooses to bolster the Syrian opposition against Assad.

Iranian and Turkish leaders recently agreed to join forces to counter “foreign meddling” in the region, yet the same meddling has been rampant from both sides as they promoted their goals in the various regional fires.

As the unraveling of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy has shown, in the congested sociopolitical Middle Eastern landscape, win-win situations are difficult to sustain.

First Published: New Arab

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

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