Throughout the conflict in Syria, the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian/Iranian and Hezbollah allies have tended to operate in different regions vis-a-vis the Kurdish led US proxy army known as the SDF.
Over the last year however, this has increasingly changed. As Syrian forces along with their allies continue to liberate Deir ez-Zor city which has been under ISIS occupation for the last three years, reports have surfaced indicating that a faction of the SDF is only a few short kilometres away from Syrian forces as the SDF approaches the city from the north.
With the SDF and the Syrian Arab Army now effectively competing for territory which will be inevitably re-gained from ISIS by either force, the previous unspoken agreement that the SDF would more or less have free reign east of the Euphrates, might no longer apply. In many respects this is now a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.
As Deir ez-Zor lies just west of the Euphrates and with Syria intent on exercising its right to liberate “ever inch of Syria”, the question now is, what will the major foreign powers do to either prevent or encourage conflict between Kurdish militants and the Syrian Arab Army?
Before exploring the answers to such questions, it is necessary to understand that according to international law, only the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have any right to operate in Syria. The United States remains in Syria in contravention to international law, but because the US shows little respect for international law, it is necessary to explore the various scenarios bearing this unfortunate situation in mind.
The first major test of how the SAA and SDF would interact with one another when coming face to face on the battlefield, took place in June of 2017.
At that time, the United States illegally shot down a Syrian fighter jet which the US alleges fired on SDF positions. Syria however claims that it was firing on ISIS/Daesh positions.
As geo-political expert Andrew Korybko pointed out at the time,
“These narratives aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s very possible that the SAA rightly conflates the SDF with Daesh due to the Kurds’ documented connection with this terrorist organization. Moreover, the Kurds are ethnically cleansing Arabs from Raqqa en mass in order to pave the way for the city’s annexation to their unilaterally declared “federation” after its forthcoming capture, so it makes sense why Damascus could implicitly recognize them as terrorists without publicly declaring them as such for reasons of sensitive political optics”.
Russia responded furiously to America’s downing of the Syrian jet and issued a statement saying that any US aircraft flying west of the Euphrates were now legitimate targets. Since then, confrontations between Russia’s Syrian partners and the US have generally de-escalated. The establishment of a joint Russian-Jordanian-US de-escalation zone in south western Syria is a further proof that part of America’s policy on Syria amounts to little more than ‘where you can’t beat them, quietly join them’.
The Russian statement regarding US aircraft being targeted seemed to enshrine the idea that areas west of the Euphrates were the Syria/Russian/Iranian sphere on influence while those to the east were the US/Kurdish sphere of influences.
Now however, that those spheres are set to literally collide in Deir ez-Zor, the questions is ‘what now’?
The answer to this lies in examining what each side wants or is perceived as wanting from the aftermath of the assured defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria.
Syria wants something that is simple, legal and obvious: the full liberation of its territory and the expulsion of all terrorists as well as unwelcome state actors, primarily the United States but also Turkey.
Any further discussions between Kurds and Damascus about regional autonomy can only be a post-war political discussion so far as Syria is concerned. Syria has grave concerns about the anti-Arab racism among many Kurds as Damascus ought to have. It is ultimately the duty of the Syrian government to protect its citizens from discrimination or anti-Arab propaganda. Even so, Damascus sees this as a civil issue rather than an issue of international conflict.
While Turkey’s continued presence in Syria, particularly in Idlib is still deeply unwelcome by Damascus, the nature of Turkey’s goals in Syria have changed dramatically over the last several months.
Most crucially, in August of this year, Turkey quietly withdrew support for terrorist factions (the so-called opposition) in Syria. While some expected this to pave the way for rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara, who prior to the conflict had no serious disagreements, both the Syrian and Turkish Presidents have recently rejected such claims.
For Syria, this is a matter of dignity. Turkey had, for most of the conflict been an effective state actor illegally occupying Syrian land and training terrorist groups who operated in some of the most strategically important parts of western, northern and north-central Syria.
For Turkey, it is a matter of pride also, as Turkey’s ruling elite have spent years positioning themselves in opposition to the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath party in Syria and all it stood for.
That being said, Turkey’s mission in Syria is now to prevent the consolidation of Kurdish militias. This itself is done in the service of Turkey’s geo-strategic goal of preventing any Kurdish state from rising on its borders.
This has led Ankara to grow closer to Iran which also rejects the idea of a Kurdish state in the Arab world as it would set a precedent for Kurds in Iran to threaten the territorial integrity of Iran itself.
At the same time, Turkey’s President Erodgan who previously had serious disagreements with Russia over Syria, has now said that Turkey and Russia’s position on Syria is now more or less the same.
Erdogan stated this morning,
“Currently, the process in Idlib is being run as we agreed with Russia. There are no disputes with Russia on it. No controversy was brought to the agenda during our meeting with Iran”.
While Turkey and Syria will likely not directly cooperate against the Kurds any time soon, depending on US aims for its Kurdish proxies, one can certainly not rule out such a thing happening in the future.
Turkey and Syria will perhaps never be friends any time soon, but they may likely have a common enemy and in this sense, it will be in the interests of both Damascus and Ankara to work to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.
The United States:
Ever since Donald Trump took office, the modus operandi of the US in Syria has shifted from using jihadists to foment regime change against the legitimate government in Damascus, to one of using Kurdish forces as proxies to create a would-be sphere of influence in parts of eastern and northern Syria.
It is still less than clear what the US intends to do with this sphere of influence, if it even attains it. The fact that the SDF is having a much harder time fighting ISIS in Raqqa vis-a-vis the SAA in the more fortified Deir ez-Zor, is testament to the fact that ultimately while the SDF are better fighters than the jihdaists, they still are far less effective a fighting force than the legitimate Syrian Arab Army.
Should the SDF conquer significant amounts of territory in Syria, the US would be in a position to argue for either hyper-Kurdish autonomy, beyond that which has already been established or otherwise, argue for the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Here though, matters get more difficult for the US. While Washington and Ankara are increasingly at odds over foreign policy, Turkey is still a member of NATO. Furthermore, Turkey’s army is second largest in NATO, only America’s standing army is larger.
If the US pushed for a Kurdish state in Syria, what remains of the US alliance with Turkey would essentially be over. It is still not clear if this is something which concerns the Trump administration. This might be due to the foreign policy chaos which dominates Washington or because the US has designs on Turkey and Erdogan which may represent something resembling a soft regime change ambition in Ankara.
Turkey is all too aware of America’s odd behaviour vis-a-vis Turkey and no country in the region wants to see civil war in Turkey, much though the alt-media in parts of the secular and Shi’a Arab world and even among some genuine Russians might indicate something contrary to this.
The other problem the US has is the Kurds in Iraq. Ironically, the US is now less inclined to support Kurdish separatism in Iraq than Washington was during the Presidency of Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam, the US was happy to weaken Iraq in any way possible and Kurdish separatism was a clear option.
Now, the US is playing something of a ridiculous balancing act in Iraq where it is trying to placate historically decent (though often inconsistent) relations with Iraqi Kurds while trying to maintain America’s substantial (however totally immoral) investment in Iraq which aims to see Iraq’s borders preserved. If the Kurds in Iraq do declare unilateral independence, the pro-Iran sentiment which is already strong in Baghdad will only grow stronger as Ian’s position vis-a-vis Iraqi Kurds is consistent as are Iran’s increasingly political fraternal bonds to the majority Shi’a population of Iraq.
America could still exploit political tensions between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in order to say ‘yes’ to a Kurdish state in Syria but ‘no’ to one in Iraq, however, even by the standards of American hypocrisy, a great deal of geo-political tightrope walking would have to be embarked upon in order to achieve this. Wider regional blow-back against the US, from all directions, would nevertheless, be inevitable.
Russia is unique among all of the aforementioned powers as Russia has acceptable to good and historically very good relations with the Kurds of the Middle East. Russia of course also has good relations with Iran, Turkey, Syria, Israel (the only entity in the region which covertly and sometimes overtly supports a Kurdish state), Palestine and to a degree the United States. In other words, Russia can talk to all parties in the Middle East, including and especially those who do not speak to each other.
Russia is already known to be a go-between in respect of the SDF/US and Syria. The fact that there haven’t been more conflicts between the Kurds and Syrian Arab Army as well as between Turkey and the Kurds, is a testament to just how effective Russian diplomacy is.
The other side of this coin is that because Russia refuses to act as a puppet master of any one faction in the Middle East, both out of respect for international law and because Russia does not seek to appear as favouring any one faction, the aforementioned interests of each groups will inevitably collide and short of Russia acting as brazenly in Syria as America did and to an extent still does in Iraq, there is little Russia can do or will do.
Ultimately, the Kurds are only as powerful as America and to some degree Israel allows them to be. Every other state in the region is opposed to Kurdish separatism and therefore, should the Kurds seek to unilaterally declare independence in Syria, American aid both militarily and politically, is ultimately the only thing that could even come close to nullifying the position of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
While Russia officially adopts an agnostic position on a Kurdish state, Russia’s increasingly good relations with Turkey and Iran mean that Russia may quietly shift to one of respectful opposition to a Kurdish state, perhaps arguing instead for a process of dialogue between Damascus and Kurdish rebel leaders. This would not take a great deal of effort to shift form Russia’s existing agnostic position which de-facto applies support for the status quo of regional territorial integrity.
The old reality of Russia using the Kurds as leverage against Turkey and Iran, something which dates back to the 18th century, is increasingly not valid. Turkey’s economic reliance on Russia for example has made it so that Russia has enough leverage against Turkey and also Iran, without resorting to any supine ‘Kurdish threats’. That being said, Russia requires less leverage against either country than it once did and what leverage it does need can be achieved through Russia’s good relations with secular Syria and its often discarded but relevant good relations with hysterically anti-Iran, Tel Aviv.
In this respect, the fate of many countries depends on the fact that a country as powerful as the United States is being run by people who are exploiting the Kurds, but to ends which are as unknown amongst many Americans as they are to everyone else.
Welcome to the Devil’s Triangle.