He Says, She Says
The US shot down a Syrian anti-terrorist jet near Raqqa yesterday, which prompted the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to send in a rescue mission to retrieve the downed pilot. Unfortunately, Al Masdar News (AMN) reported that they encountered intense resistance from the majority-Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which if true, would mark the most serious escalation between these two sides. There’s no reason to doubt AMN’s coverage of this event because they’ve proven time and again to have reliable information acquired from on-the-ground and government sources, so it should be taken as a fact that the SAA and SDF did indeed clash last night.
The events leading up to that battle are unclear, however.
The SAA claims that they were on an anti-terrorist bombing mission near Daesh’s “capital”, while the US says that Damascus was in fact attacking its SDF proxies near Tabqa. 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.
Before going any further, I want to reaffirm what I wrote last week and remind the reader that I am solely referring to Kurdish militant groups when I use the word “Kurds”, NOT the law-abiding and peaceful majority of this demographic. This is important to always bear in mind because there’s a major difference between a regular Kurdish civilian and a militant conspirator treacherously trying to carve out a separatist “Kurdistan” from the Syrian Arab Republic; the first poses no threat whatsoever to the state, while the latter is an imminent existential threat to the country and could be targeted for elimination by the armed forces.
Considering what just unfolded last night, it’s beginning to look like Syria has finally begun to act against the Kurds, having largely refrained from doing so over the past 6 years of the war both because of more urgent priorities and due to being geographically cut off from the separatists by Daesh. It can’t be known for certain what changed Damascus’ calculations and – if the US report is to be believed – prompted them to bomb the SDF-YPG Kurds, but it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some behind-the-scenes ultimatums being passed along to the group to withdraw from its trans-Euphrates beachhead in Tabqa and return to the other side of the river.
There’s a very high chance that Syria will be internally partitioned after the defeat of Daesh via the “internationally acceptable” mechanism of “federalization”, and there isn’t much that the SAA can do to stop it at this point because Russia has no political will to fight the Kurds. The opposite is true, in fact; Russia stands to reap what its leaders expect will be certain strategic benefits through the sub-state transnational formation of “Kurdistan”, first and foremost the pressure that this will indirectly put on Turkey to remain within the Great Power Tripartite between itself, Russia, and Iran, stymying any chance that Ankara will ever enter into any meaningfully significant rapprochement with Washington.
There are also energy considerations as well. Like I explained in my article about “Russia’s Mideast Energy Diplomacy: Boom Or Bust?”, Russia has been making several silent moves over the past year to position itself as an indispensable power in the Mideast energy market, and two of the most relevant pertain to Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Moscow just signed an enormous deal with Erbil to develop and export their oil, whereas it has an agreement in place with Damascus to rebuild its entire energy infrastructure after the war. Seeing as how a large portion of this lies in the YPG-occupied areas of northeastern Syria, it can’t be ruled out that Russia has some sort of unstated understanding in place with the Kurds to have them respect this arrangement.
Continuing with this track of thought, Russia has already shown deference to this demographic by making the volte face of formally supporting “decentralization” in Syria as evidenced by the terms contained in the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria. Moscow, unlike Washington, isn’t actively seeking the de-facto internal partitioning of the country, but has probably resigned itself to accepting that it’s all but inevitable so long as Russia doesn’t expand its anti-terrorist military mandate in Syria to include the Kurds, which it won’t ever do. Therefore, it proposed the “compromise” of “decentralization” in an attempt to peacefully bridge Damascus’ unitary position with the Kurds’ “federal” one.
The “draft constitution” has yet to be accepted and has been put on the backburner over the past half a year since its proposal, but it will probably receive a second wind of life at the upcoming Astana and Geneva talks given what’s transpired over the past day. Without Russian military backing, there is no way that the SAA will defeat the American-armed and –supported YPG Kurds, let alone forcibly remove the couple of US bases which have purportedly popped up in Kurdish-occupied territory. Therefore, what will probably happen is that the SAA and SDF-YPG will accept the ‘frontline’ between them as the de-facto internally partitioned border following the defeat of Daesh, with this tense state of affairs being nominally formalized through the transformation of a future Kurdish “de-escalation zone” into a “decentralization unit”.
The Birth Pangs Of A “New Détente’”?
A “gentleman’s agreement” between Russia and the US would freeze this state of affairs, and given how Moscow’s actions (or lack thereof) arguably indicate that it’s already acceded to this, it’s plausible that the formation of a sub-state transnational “Kurdistan” might be the first outcome of a “New Détente” between the two Great Powers, each going along with it for different reasons. As was explained, Russia believes that this would provide the necessary leverage for indirectly pressuring unreliable and wily Turkey to remain in the Great Power Tripartite with itself and Iran, as well as protect the energy investments in northern Syria that Damascus promised it last year. The US, however, has vastly different intentions because it wants to create a “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” in the heart of the Mideast which it can then use as a springboard for exerting divide-and-rule unipolar influence in this tri-continental geostrategic pivot space.
Paradoxically, Russia and the US’ long-term interests converge – for polar opposite reasons – in the sub-state creation of “Kurdistan”. Moscow wagers that “Kurdistan” is an irreversible eventuality which isn’t worth sacrificing Russian lives to postpone, hence why it proposed Kurdish “decentralization” in the Russian-written “draft constitution”. Washington, while not stating it publicly, is probably elated by Moscow’s suggestion because it would peacefully formalize its proxy’s geopolitical claims in the region. For this reason, Russia and the US will probably use their influence on the SAA and SDF-YPG, respectively, to get both of them to recognize the ‘frontlines’ between them as the post-Daesh starting point for a “political (‘decentralized’) solution” to the overall war.
I actually forecast this in June 2016 in my article about “The ‘Democratic’ Partitioning Of Syria”, where I analyzed the following:
“Of course, the Kurds will fight to prevent the SAA from liberating any of their occupied territory in the run-up to the new constitution and related elections, but they wouldn’t have any ‘plausible’ reason for further expanding their conquests after Daesh’s defeat and will predictably sit still and try to formalize their gains instead.
The reason that the SAA wouldn’t move forward with liberating the rest of the country during this time is because the US and Russia might enter into an agreement to strictly enforce the SAA-YPG “line of control” immediately after the Race for Raqqa is finished.
Chances are that Washington would move first by declaring that it would unilaterally strike the SAA if it encroaches on the Kurds’ conquered territories, with Moscow replying that it would do the same against the YPG if they attack the SAA.
Through this manner, a very cold and fragile ‘peace’ will settle over Syria, with the threat of decisive military intervention by each of the two most important Great Powers being the only thing that keeps the SAA and YPG from attacking one another and transforming the War on Syria into an actual civil war for the first time since it started.”
Nevertheless, the “gentleman’s agreement” only works so long as both Great Powers’ on-the-ground partners agree to respect it, and thus far, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not when it comes to the SAA. To be clear, the Syrian Arab Republic is a sovereign and independent state, and it isn’t Russia’s place to possibly strike agreements with the US on Damascus’ behalf, let alone about its internal political-administrative post-war composition regardless of Moscow’s “good intentions” in terms of the “bigger picture”. If Syria agreed with what Russia was doing, then it clearly wouldn’t have ordered the SAA to attack the SDF-YPG.
Last night’s strike indicates that Syria and Russia aren’t coordinating with one another on the level that observers might have initially thought, no matter how much either side publicly denies this. There is no way that Russia would have advised Syria to bomb the SDF-YPG; similarly, there apparently wasn’t anything that Russia could do in convincing the SAA to stand down after the order from Damascus was given. The SDF-YPG Kurds issued a statement shortly thereafter vowing to “retaliate” against the SAA if such an occurrence ever happens again, thereby strongly signaling that an Arab-Kurdish War might soon be on the horizon, provided of course that Damascus doesn’t back down first.
And that’s the determining factor, whether or not President Assad will recognize that the internal partition of his country might already be a fait accompli, with Syria’s fate possibly sealed at the highest levels due to an implied “gentleman’s agreement” between Russia and the US. If the combined (but not necessarily coordinated) pressure of Moscow and Washington succeeds in getting Damascus to acquiesce to this unfortunate reality, no matter how contradictory it is to the right of the Syrian people to democratically decide their country’s destiny themselves, then a cold peace will eventually prevail, at least for the short term. However, if Syria doesn’t give up and continues fighting to liberate its occupied northeastern territories from the Kurdish separatists, then it’s foreseeable that Turkey and Iran could provide crucial support in this campaign, each in their own way.
Turkey is existentially threatened by the emergence of a de-facto Kurdish statelet abutting its southern borderlands, especially one that isn’t under the proxy control of the pro-Ankara “Kurdish Democratic Party” (KDP) like Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, which is why it might launch a second iteration of “Operation Euphrates Shield” alongside a possible SAA liberation offensive in order to counter this threat. I forecast in my March 2017 analysis about “Palmyra’s Reliberation And The ‘Rojava Civil War’” that Turkey would naturally plan to unseat the YPG separatists by using pro-Ankara KDP-linked Kurds possibly supported through a conventional intervention. A report just a couple days ago from “Voice Of America” confirms that Turkey’s patronage of the recently formed “Syrian National Army” (SNA) is designed to achieve the proxy war component of this scenario. If Turkey directly involves itself in fighting against the SDF-YPG Kurds, then it can safely be assumed that this would have Damascus’ secret blessing, no matter how vehemently it may deny it in public, and that a fast-moving rapprochement between the two rivals might be in the cards as well.
As for Iran, I already documented in an article last week how Kurdish militant groups in Syria and Iran are linked to Daesh, and it’s for this reason why Tehran will likely provide sustained support to any operation that the SAA undertakes in countering this menace. Iran, just like Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, stands to lose part of its territory if the US-“Israeli”-Saudi (“Cerberus”) plan of carving out a “Kurdistan” succeeds, but given that it already has an undetermined number of soldiers and allied militiamen on the ground in Syria per Damascus’ request, it’s in a prime position to assist the SAA if need be. However, this is a lot easier said than done, because the US will almost certainly use its recently deployed HIMARS missiles near al-Tanf to stop any joint Syrian-Iranian liberation offensive against the Pentagon-backed SDF-YPG Kurdish occupiers. For both political and military reasons, it’s in no such position to do the same against its nominal Turkish ally if Ankara intervenes from the north, but there’s only so much that Turkey can do to help from that direction without a coordinated Syrian-Iranian thrust from the south.
Taken together, while the prospects of a grand Syrian-Iranian-Turkish liberation campaign against the SDF-YPG Kurdish occupied areas of northern Syria is theoretically possible, for all intents and purposes, it’s unlikely to actually happen. The US has already proven its military resolve in deterring any SAA attacks against the Kurds, and the same can safely be assumed if Iran gets involved as well. As for Turkey, there are other instruments of pressure that the US can leverage against it to keep Ankara out of the fray, though if Erdogan does decide to jump in head-first, then he will have to prepare for dealing with a prolonged guerrilla campaign in which the US-armed Kurds will use state-of-the-art weaponry against the Turkish military. This is why Ankara prefers to handle this scenario through its SNA proxy for as long as feasibly possible, though without a risky conventional intervention which could very well turn into a quagmire, Turkey will probably have to stand by and reluctantly watch what its leadership considers to be a terrorist state take shape along its southern frontier.
Shifting Lines In The Sand
There is a major “unforeseen” variable which has only just now come to the surface but threatens to offset the entire state of affairs which was just discussed, and it’s that Russia and the US have evidently disagreed on precisely where in the sand the post-conflict administrative-political lines should be drawn in Syria. This explains why the Russian Ministry of Defense declared the day after the Syrian jet was shot down that:
“In areas where Russian aviation is conducting combat missions in the Syrian skies, any flying objects, including jets and unmanned aerial vehicles of the international coalition discovered west of the Euphrates River will be followed by Russian air and ground defenses as air targets.”
Russia all but admitted that Syria is already divided into two unofficial “spheres of influence” with the US, with Moscow – and by implicit understanding, Damascus as well – having been “promised” control over everything west of the Euphrates, while Washington and its Kurdish proxies are “given” everything to the east of it. The US and its SDF-YPG Kurdish underlings apparently went back on their word, however, seeing as how they already stormed across the river in capturing Manbij last summer (which prompted Turkey’s conventional military involvement) and received American backing in conquering Tabqa earlier this year. The “Dash For Deir ez-Zor” will determine whether or not the Euphrates does in fact become the dividing line for the rest of eastern Syria, though it remains to be seen exactly how Russia and the SAA could conceivably dislodge US and Kurdish forces from Manbij and Tabqa given the obvious limitations derived from Moscow’s lack of political will in doing so. These two territories might become “exceptions”, or they could be “traded off” by the US and Kurds in exchange for Damascus agreeing to “federalize” the country.
Nevertheless, the Russian Defense Ministry’s dramatic pronouncement points to the fact that Moscow is willing to take actionable measures to ‘stabilize’ the ‘frontlines’ between the SAA and SDF-YPG Kurds, and that it likely feels betrayed by Washington for operating beyond its previously agreed-upon region of Syria. Russia has visibly upped the ante by strongly implying that it will shoot down American jets west of the Euphrates, and while this might just be another bluff, it’s still significant because it suggests that Moscow does in fact feel deceived (a feeling which President Putin recently told Oliver Stone that he never forgets), and it’s making a lot of noise to signal to Washington that it had better abide by its prior secret agreements. Having said that, the US could still exploit certain ‘loopholes’ such as launching long-range aerial missiles against the SAA from safely behind the eastern bank of the Euphrates or above Jordanian airspace, to say nothing of ordering yet another cruise missile assault which First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs Vladimir Jabarov said in April wouldn’t be intercepted because “it could lead to a large-scale war”.
At this point, the crisis will probably escalate as both Great Powers puff out their chests and issue heated polemics against the other, but it’s unlikely that any serious provocation will take place such as Russia and the US downing each other’s jets over Syria and risking World War III. The shifting lines in the sand will soon stabilize, though questions will remain about the future status of the Kurds’ conquests in Manbij and Tabqa, as well as the territory that the US’ Arab allies are occupying around al-Tanf, Idlib, and the Golan Heights. Moreover, the Dash for Deir ez Zor is ongoing, and its outcome will determine whether or not the “Euphrates Federalization Line” holds in eastern Syria or is breached by the SDF-YPG Kurds. If the latter happens, then the US might outfit its proxies with modern anti-air weaponry so that they could take out any SAA jets themselves without triggering Russia’s threatened apocalyptical response of shooting down American aircraft. Given the on-the-ground dynamics and Moscow’s prevailing strategic calculations surrounding the Syrian Kurds, there’s no foreseeable scenario where Russia will move beyond its military mandate and bomb these US proxies so long as they don’t target its Aerospace Forces first.
A Turkish and/or Iranian supportive intervention in backing up the SAA’s campaign against the SDF-YPG Kurdish separatists would potentially be a game-changing variable, but the odds of it playing out on a grandiose scale are dim, though they shouldn’t be outright dismissed. There’s little that Russia or the US can do to deter either of these two actors from getting more directly involved in the Syrian-Kurdish clashes, but they can instead concentrate on reinforcing the implied “gentleman’s agreement” between them in order to send an undeniable signal to their partners. Even so, however, there’s no guarantee that the Kurds will listen to the US, or that Syria, Turkey, and Iran will abide by whatever Russia advises. What may have at one point seemed like the birth pangs of a “New Détente” through a speculative secret Russian-American agreement over “Rojava” is dangerously on the brink of ushering in a new conflict after the defeat of Daesh, though there’s still plenty of hope that peace will prevail so long as both Great Powers can exert “moderating” influence on their relevant allies, though this can’t by any means be taken for granted.
The SAA seems determined to carry through with President Assad’s promise to liberate “every inch of Syria”, which is why they allegedly attacked the SDF-YPG Kurds near Tabqa in spite of this clearly contradicting Russia’s grand strategic interests, so with such a “wildcard” in play, it’s anyone’s guess whether the coming months will see a “New Détente” or a new Arab-Kurdish conflict.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.