The security situation in north eastern Syria is becoming increasingly complicated with clashes between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army in the town of Al-Hasakah, a US warning that it will respond to Syrian air strikes against its troops in the area, and a Turkish incursion into Syria to capture the border town of Jarablus.
All this comes shortly after the capture by Kurdish militia (calling themselves the “Syrian Democratic Forces”) of the previously ISIS controlled town of Manbij.
That town was captured following heavy US air strikes, which caused severe losses to the local population, and are of a sort which when allegedly carried out by the Syrian air force in Aleppo can be relied upon to provoke a media storm in the West and the harsh condemnation of the US and the UN.
What lies behind this sudden deterioration of the situation in north east Syria?
Though there were doubtless various factors behind the outbreak of clashes between the Syrian army and the Kurdish militia in Al-Hasakah, the underlying cause appears to be the desire of the Kurdish militia to carve out an autonomous region for itself in north east Syria.
It seems that following the capture of Manbij the Kurdish militia has felt emboldened to try to take control of the whole of this territory, and has moved to oust the Syrian government troops who were still present in the area. This has led directly to the clashes in Al-Hasakah, which in turn provoked the Syrian air strikes, which led in turn to the warning from the US.
The major complicating factor is the role of the US. The US warning which has attracted so much attention is not in fact a departure from standard US policy, which is to protect its troops wherever they are. However it does show how complicated and dangerous because of US involvement the situation in north east Syria has become.
Having committed itself simultaneously to the overthrow of the Syrian government and the defeat of ISIS, and having also branded the other major player in the Syrian war – Al-Qaeda’s local franchise Jabhat Al-Nusra – a terrorist organisation, the US is short of effective allies on the ground in Syria.
Accordingly it has embraced the Kurds, who do possess an effective militia, but whose interests are ultimately focused on securing autonomy for their own region rather than gaining power in Damascus.
This is very much in the style of US “third force” strategies, pursued by the US in various conflicts during and since the Cold War, which the US still from time to time ventures into despite their almost invariable record of failure.
The result is that though the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army were sometime uneasy allies in the Syrian war, they are now in conflict with each other, with the Russians however trying to broker a ceasefire between them.
US policy meanwhile has alarmed Turkey, for whom Kurdish separatism is an existential issue. Coming on top of the Kurdish advances in Manbij and Al-Hasakah, and following the recent ISIS terror attack in Gaziantep, this has provoked the Turkish incursion into Syria to capture Jarablus from ISIS, presumably before the Kurds do.
The main focus of the war in Syria is not in the north east. It is further west in Aleppo.
What is happening in the north east of Syria is in military terms a sideshow, though one which has had an impact on the fighting in Aleppo with reports of clashes between Syrian troops and Kurdish militia who were previously cooperating with each in the city.
The very latest reports however suggest that Russian mediation has managed to end these clashes.
Whilst it is in Aleppo and further west in Idlib (held by Jabhat Al-Nusra) that the outcome of the war in Syria will be decided, that does not mean that the fighting in north east Syria is without consequences.
It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the US has been deliberately building up the Kurdish militia and encouraging it to seize territory, not just or even principally in order to fight ISIS, but in order to use the Kurds to gain influence in Syria.
The strategy seems to be similar to the one the US eventually followed in the 1990s in Iraq, where the US helped the Kurds carve out an autonomous zone in the north of the country, allowing the US to maintain a presence on the ground in Iraq even after the 1991 war had ended.
The effect of this policy is however to escalate the violence, feed the alarm of the US’s erstwhile Turkish ally – provoking the Turkish advance on Jarablus which is now underway – and paradoxically giving the Turkish and Syrian governments a shared interest with each other.
This follows the pattern of other conflicts where the US has followed “third force” strategies. US sponsorship of “third forces” has never decided the outcome of any conflict in the US’s favour. What it invariably does is complicate and exacerbate the conflict, escalating the violence and making a lasting solution more difficult.
If the Syrian government is able to recapture eastern Aleppo and ultimately Idlib, and if it also manages to relieve the desert city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria (currently besieged by ISIS) then it will have won the war.
ISIS will be confined to a pocket of north east Syria around Raqqa, fighting the Kurds in the same area, and with both the Kurds and ISIS in conflict with neighbouring Turkey, which will have a vested interest in achieving the defeat of both.
It is not difficult to see how at that point the Turkish and Syrian governments might finally come together, with Turkey supporting the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority in north east Syria. From Turkey’s point of view that would be a far preferable outcome to having either ISIS or the Kurds in continued control of areas of north east Syria adjoining Turkey.
The recent signals of possible Turkish plans for a rapprochement with the government of Syria that have attracted so much attention do not seem to signal any weakening of Turkish support for the Syrian rebels fighting the Syrian government in Aleppo and Idlib.
Rather they look to be a case of Turkey positioning itself for a scenario of a Syrian army victory in Aleppo and Idlib, paving the way for Turkey in that case to support the Syrian government as it seeks to regain control in north east Syria from ISIS and the Kurds.
In the meantime the Iranian news agency Fars reports that the deputy head of Turkish military intelligence – the same organisation that saved Erdogan’s government during the recent coup attempt, and which was tipped off by the Russians about the coup – is visiting Damascus for apparently not so secret talks with the Syrian government.
If these reports are true then it is likely that it was the situation in north east Syria that was discussed, with the Turks possibly informing the Syrians of their intended advance on Jarablus, and with the Syrians conceivably even giving the green light for it.