Trump Warms to Syria Kurds Again, Alarming Russia and Turkey

Washington will step up its forces and expand the war on ISIS with the Kurds, who hope to win a seat at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Russia’s efforts at ending the conflict have failed and Iran is watching closely

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. armored vehicles patrolling fields near the northeastern Syrian town of Qahtaniyah near the Turkish border, October 31, 2019.
U.S. armored vehicles patrolling fields near the northeastern Syrian town of Qahtaniyah near the Turkish border, October 31, 2019. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I don’t have an end date” for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a press conference Saturday. It seems, then, that Donald Trump’s controversial decision last month to withdraw all American forces from the combat zones in northern Syria has fizzled out.

On Wednesday, the American forces even got a boost from armored forces that included three tanks and three other armored vehicles in addition to a logistics unit that crossed into Syria from the Kurdish region. According to McKenzie, these forces, in cooperation with the Kurdish militias, will broaden their operations against the Islamic State in the Deir el-Zour province.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

The U.S. justification for the continued involvement of some 1,000 soldiers, to be joined by additional forces, can be found in the American intelligence reports saying that Islamic State forces are regrouping to carry out attacks, and that the Turkish and Russian forces operating east of the Euphrates don’t plan to counter this revamp.

This explanation contradicts Trump’s declaration that the Islamic State has been defeated and American troops have finished their mission in Syria. But it seems that despite the concerns about ISIS attacks, the group is an excuse for the U.S. president to backtrack on his decision to withdraw from Syria given the criticism in Congress, including from Republicans who were furious when America’s Kurdish allies were abandoned.

20 miles from the border

The decision to leave U.S. forces in Syria also affects the Kurdish militias’ willingness to comply with the agreement signed between them, Russia and the United States on October 22. It states that the Kurds must pull back 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the Turkish border.

Some of the Kurdish forces have already withdrawn from the frontier, but in recent days their withdrawal seems to have halted, leading Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to warn that they should uphold their commitment and not rely on U.S. aid. This happened after Russia declared last month that all Kurdish forces had already withdrawn.

The Bab al-Salam refugee camp in Syria near the Turkish border, November 26, 2019.Credit: AFP

Russia and Turkey are concerned that with the turnaround in U.S. policy and the renewed recruitment of Kurdish forces for a war against the Islamic State, the Kurdish withdrawal agreement could collapse. This might prompt Turkey to resume its military operations aimed at forcing the Kurds 32 kilometers from the border.

The agreement with the Kurds, which was signed around the time Turkey invaded west of the Euphrates in Syria, has brought Russian forces into some of the places where U.S. forces were operating. The Russians had already begun joint patrols with the Turks to secure the region designated as a security zone to which Ankara plans to relocate around 2 million Syrian refugees of the 4 million or so living in Turkey. Now the fate of the planned security zone is unclear, as is whether conditions will allow for the refugees to be transferred.

But the fate of the refugees is secondary to concerns about a possible confrontation between Turkish and U.S. forces if Turkey decides to resume its offensive in Syria. Russia, for its part, is concerned that Turkey might accuse it of failing to uphold their agreement by not evacuating the Kurdish forces, and that it will leverage Russian hesitancy to entrench itself deeply in Syria, undermining the plan to transfer the region to President Bashar Assad’s control.

Concerns about a constitution

At the same time, it seems that Russia isn’t managing to advance its diplomatic plan to end the war in Syria, after the second meeting of the constitution-drafting committee fell apart. During the conference, which took place this week in Geneva and was attended by representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition, the two sides couldn’t even agree on an agenda for future meetings.

It seems that the excitement over the agreement to establish a 150-member constitutional committee, from which 45 people were chosen to draft the constitution, was premature, perhaps very premature. The disagreements aren’t just between the opposition and the regime – whom Assad referred to as “representatives who support the government position,” not as official government representatives. He did this so he wouldn’t be directly blamed if the talks failed, but also among opposition members it’s not clear what Assad’s role should be in the new government to be formed.

The constitutional committee has almost no Syrian Kurdish representatives, even though the Kurds make up around 20 percent of the population. Nor did the Kurds attend the diplomatic conferences in Astana, Kazakhstan, that preceded the establishment of the constitutional committee. The people ostensibly representing the Kurds are from the Kurdish National Council, which is part of the coalition of opposition movements, but the council is controlled by the Kurdish administration in Iraq that’s under the patronage of Turkey, which strongly opposes any involvement of Syrian Kurds in the process.

Herein lies the importance of the American presence in Syria and the renewed military cooperation with the Kurdish militias. Their status as a fighting force in the war against the Islamic State with American support could also strengthen them on the diplomatic front and make clear to both Turkey and Russia that without them any diplomatic process is doomed.

Interesting is that in all the military moves in northern Syria and the diplomatic ones in Geneva, Iran isn’t involved, even though it was an integral part of the process before the forming of the constitutional committee. According to reports from Syria, Iran now seeks to entrench itself in the border area between Syria and Iraq by completing the construction of a large military base at Albukamal that will assure a clear land route between Tehran and Syria.

Iran is also striving to entrench itself economically in Syria. Now that it has been pushed out of the cellular-telephone market that it had been promised by Assad, it’s targeting the rights to develop the Syrian power grid. It has signed an agreement to build a power station at Latakia worth 400 million euros and has been awarded a contract to build an electricity network in the Homs region and in other cities.

Despite these achievements, Iran remains far behind Russia, which holds a full portfolio of future investments, notably the rights to develop the Syrian oil fields, most of which are now under the control of the Kurds and the Americans.

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