As of 2018 just as the Syrian conflict enters its final military phase centred on the jihadist enclaves in Idlib as well as the trouble concerning US proxy Kurdish militias near the Turkish border, two powerful but equally misleading narratives exist regarding the relationship between the major players in Syria.
The first false narrative is that, with United States antagonising both Syria and Turkey via its Kurdish terrorist proxies, a military alliance of convenience will immediately form with Turkey and Syria joining forces to combat the Kurdish militants. But an even more outlandish narrative is that Turkey’s increasingly bold statements and adjoining moves against Kurdish forces will lead to a kind of agreement between Syria, Russia and the United States to grant substantial political “autonomy” to Syrian Kurds as a way of “getting back at Erdogan”.
The reality is far more subtle than those two scenarios and likewise, the truth of the matter is that increasingly, every major state player in Syria is growing increasingly sick and tired of a counter-productive US presence that doesn’t serve the immediate or long-term desires of any party to the conflict.
Official statements from both Syria and Russia have condemned pro-US Kurdish proxies over the last 3 months for openly colluding with ISIS and allowing Takfiri fighters safe access to areas from which they can more easily target Syrian and Russian troops. Furthermore, the primarily Kurdish so-called SDF brazenly fired on Syrian troops during the Battle for Deir ez-Zor, resulting in Russia issuing a warning that Russian forces would not hesitate to strike back against the SDF.
Since the destruction of Raqqa by the US Air Force and the Syrian victory over ISIS in Deir ex-Zor, reports from the ground appear to suggest that “rehabilitated” Takfiri fighters, including former ISIS fighters will now join the SDF alongside Kurdish fighters from the terrorist group YPG. All of this has an aggregate effect of making the SDF all the more hated by Syria, Iran and Russia. The fact that any YPG presence in the Syrian conflict is hated by Turkey goes without saying.
At the same time, Syria, Russia and even Turkey have stated that they are willing to sit with Kurdish groups who renounce the YPG and its PKK ally at future peace talks, including the much anticipated Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Iran, while far more silent on the Kurdish question than Syria and the other Astana partners Russia and Turkey, tacitly approves the broader status quo which rejects the YPG and any other Kurdish terrorist group working with the US, while not being adverse to holding discussions with other Kurdish factions.This all bodes well for the formation of a grand partnership of Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iran and anti-YPG Kurdish groups, against the US and their SDF/YPG Kurdish proxies.
In reality however, something somewhat different is transpiring. As Turkey threatens further action against the so-called Kurdish led “Border Force” in Syria, which in reality is made up for SDF/YPG fighters, Syria has found the confidence to condemn both pro-US Kurdish militants as well as the presence of Turkish forces in the Arab Republic.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has been quoted by Sputnik as saying,
“The presence of Turkish forces in Syria is aggression and cannot be justified by any name or pretext”.
Mekdad further stated that Syria considers any force, including Kurdish forces that ally with the US to be enemies of Syria, but that the majority of Kurds in Syria are patriotic citizens.
While the claim about the majority of Syrian Kurds being patriotic is questionable at best, the point that Medkdad is making is clear. Syria is telling Turkey that ‘Our Kurdish problem is ours and in spite of this, we do not welcome Turkey to fight this battle illegally on Syrian soil’.
While Turkey’s erstwhile unambiguously illegal presence in Syria has been somewhat normalised due to Turkey’s participation in the Astana peace process which Syria has signed off on, Syria nevertheless views the presence of Turkish armed forces in the country as an illegal occupying power. While the Turkish opposition CHP have long argued for making peace with the Syrian government in exchange for security cooperation against PKK aligned terrorist groups like the YPG, the last few months have seen the position of the Turkish government vacillate between statements alluding towards a near-future rapprochement with Damascus, to offensive statements including President Erdogan’s remark from December 2017 that President al-Assad is a “terrorist”.
The rhetoric from Turkey may sound confusing to observers who may take remarks such as those from Erdogan at face value, but in reality, Turkey is employing a calculated brinkmanship style strategy designed to keep as many doors open as possible.
While no one in Ankara realistically believes that the Syrian President will be removed from power in any future peace settlement, Turkey is desirous to maintain its heavy occupational presence in Idlib. Over the last several years, Turkey has injected substantial sums of money into turning parts of Idlib into a Turkic enclave of Syria. Turkey hopes to remain in Idlib long after the so-called “constitutional settlement” is agreed upon for Syria in the hope of simultaneously getting value for money and save face. A full withdrawal from Idlib would be both a geo-political and domestic embarrassment for Erdogan and as such, he is keen to avoid this. As such, Erdogan continues to taunt Syria directly and by extrapolation Russia and Iran through occasionally revisiting the hard-line anti-Ba’athist rhetoric of 2015. In doing so, Erdogan hopes to intimidate Russia and Iran into conceding parts Idlib to Turkey for the foreseeable future, in exchange for the implied promise that after such an agreement is solidified, Erdogan will once and for all drop his crude rhetoric against the Syrian government.
At the same time, in casting the Turkish presence in Idlib as a broader anti-Kurdish rather than an anti-Syrian operation, Erdogan hopes to wave a carrot of détente in front of Syria in order to convince Damascus that if they look the other way while Turkey maintains a presence in Idlib, it will be possible to de-facto form a more united front against the United States, a country that Turkey would like to see vacate Syria almost as much as Syria, Russia and Iran would like it to do.
By sowing rhetorical confusion and military chaos in Idlib, Erdogan is conducting a more “refined” style psychological warfare in Syria that the Trump regime has done in respect of the Korean peninsula.
In threatening to “destroy” North Korea while gravely insulting its leader at the UN, Donald Trump was aiming at achieving certain concessions through brinksmanship. In the case of Trump, he would certainly like to destroy North Korea, but few even in Washington believe this to be a realistic let alone sane option. Likewise, while Erdogan would certainly like to destroy Syria and turn it into a backwards Muslim Brotherhood controlled Takfiri dictatorship, he too realises that this is unrealistic, not least because it would destroy Ankara’s healthy and valued relationships with both Moscow and Tehran. Therefore, Erdogan is using the stick of occupation in Idlib and the carrot of a broader anti-Kurd/anti-US alliance to try and force Syria, Russia and Iran to all but concede some medium term role for Turkey in Idlib as something of a ‘permanent peace keeper’. At the same time, while Turkey seeks such an agreement for itself, it is hell-bent on preventing Russia from conceding such a role for the US in Syria.
In other words, while Damascus continues to loathe both Ankara and Washington, Ankara wants for itself what no one wants for the US and what Syria certainly does not want for Turkey: a semi-permanent presence in the country. Syria is absolutely correct in wanting both Turkey and the US out of its territory, but strategically it would benefit Syria to play Turkey’s game intelligently for its own strategic benefit.
As Russia’s relationship with the US continues to plummet and with only naive Russians still believing that détente with the US is realistic, Syria and Iran ought to persuade Russia that there will be no benefit in ‘going soft’ on the US occupation of Syria. If the Soviet Union could help Vietnam to rid itself of a US presence in 1975 without even committing large numbers of troops or aircraft, than surely Russia can help to facilitate such a move in Syria.
If Syria can achieve this, the biggest obstacle against reunifying the country will be removed, at which point the YPG will become a small and ineffective band of terrorists as the Kurdish insurgents in Syria cannot function without their US masters on site. This will then automatically take away the most attractive rationale for a Turkish presence in Syria. Syria can then turn to Iran and Russia and say ‘The Kurdish problem has resolved itself, there is no need for Turkey to remain in Syria’, at such a point, the Astana Group might be able to negotiate a gradual Turkish withdrawal from Idlib that both preserves Syrian sovereignty and Erdogan’s ego. This itself could help pave a path towards a much needed, gradual rapprochement between Turkey and Syria.
One must examine one of the reasons that the US is so keen on arming Kurdish insurgents in Syria. While conventional wisdom points to the fact that the US wants to weaken Syria and prevent it from uniting for both material and geo-political gains (including those of “Israel”), what thus far has not been mentioned is that the US presence in Syria is one of the things preventing the neighbouring states of Syria and Turkey from even contemplating a normalisation of relations. So long as the US can upset Syria through an illegal occupation and upset Turkey by funding and arming Kurdish terrorist groups, Turkey will refuse to leave Syria and consequently, Syria will refuse to normalise relations with Turkey. Therefore, beyond simply wanting to partition Syria, the US seeks to divide the region and thus preventing Turkey, an important ally of Russia, Iran, Pakistan and increasingly Iraq, from normalising relations with Syria. If Damascus and Ankara could restore relations, there would be an unbroken chain of partners along China’s One Belt—One Road stretching from Punjab to the Mediterranean.
In reality, the US knows it has lost in Syria, but the US is keen to permanently disrupt good relations between Turkey and Syria’s long term allies including Russia and Iran.
Syrian Kurdish proxies are the pawns in a wider American game to foment constant friction between Syria and Turkey, and by extrapolation between Iran, Russia and Turkey. If anyone thinks that the US hasn’t thought this through, one must remember that the US is risking the existence of NATO as we know it, in order to achieve this. This is understandable, after all, the US is far keener on disrupting a prominent corridor of One Belt—One Road than it is on preserving a NATO alliance that Donald Trump himself is clearly ambiguous about.