Last week Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution under which all border crossings between Turkey and Syria would continue to let in aid for Syria’s Kurdish regions and areas under rebel control. Also, Russia and China opposed a compromise under which only two crossings would remain open for this purpose; they demanded only one, to be controlled by Syria.
This is apparently Moscow’s new means of pressure to break the Syrian Kurds’ close connection with the United States and Syria’s Idlib province, where some 50,000 militia fighters are. As in the other chapters of the Syrian civil war, now too, American forces in northeast Syria will have abased hard time with Russia’s economic blockade of the area unless Washington decides to clash directly with the regime forces.
Kurds, who are supposedly protected by the United States, know full well who controls the area. Last week the commander of the Kurdish forces, Mazloum Abdi, asked the head of the Russian forces in Syria, Alexander Chaiko, to stop Turkish drone attacks on Kurdish areas and help bring in civilian aid. Three days later, Abdi met with Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, to “coordinate with him the continuation of the war against the forces of the Islamic State,” as Abdi put it.
The war against that group, despite Donald Trump’s declaration a year ago, is still going on. The organization no longer holds contiguous territory in Syria or Iraq, but its units are still carrying out attacks, and this gives Washington a legitimate pretext to delay the withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria and Iraq. The Kurds are the ones doing the fighting against the Islamic State and pro-Iranian militias around Deir el-Zour near Iraq, as well as against the Syrian army.
Russia wants to break up the close relationship between Washington and the Kurdish forces and bend the Kurds to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s plan to complete the takeover of all Syria. Thus in April, Russia launched meetings with the heads of the Arab tribes in northern Syria and proposed that they establish their own military force that would be subordinate to the Syrian command.
The tribal leaders listened, nodded and then rejected the offer. They suspect that the Russians intend to establish a tribal military force that would be sent to fight in Libya against the recognized government.
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The Russians say Washington could decide at any moment to remove its forces from the region and leave the Kurds unprotected. Instead, they promise to make the Kurds an integral part of the diplomatic process and partners in the Syrian government when the war ends.
A few meetings have already taken place, brokered by the Russians, between the Kurds and the Syrian government, but with no results. The Kurds are in no hurry to accept Moscow’s proposals, and when the Russian forces tried to build a military base near Malikiyah in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, they were met with strong opposition from the local people and were forced to forgo their plan.
About a year ago, Abdi declared that the Kurds can’t trust the Russians, who are cooperating with Turkey, which invaded Kurdish areas. But they “would not oppose a diplomatic track, because this is the only road to the end of the war.”
Still, this road is blocked, and opening it depends not only on the Kurds. Assad himself is in no hurry. The adoption of a new constitution, as Moscow has demanded, the holding of elections and the establishment of a new representative government means curtailing his powers, the end of his monopoly control and utter subordination to Russia.
True, today too, Assad must follow Moscow’s orders, give Russia generous economic franchises in exchange for oil and military assistances, gnash his teeth when Israel attacks Iranian targets in Syria, and live in peace with Turkey’s control over parts of Syria. But all this ensures that he remains in government and preserves the legacy he received from his father.
From Assad’s point of view, Russia hasn’t yet completed its mission. It hasn’t forced Turkey to ditch the rebel militias in Idlib province and hasn't convinced the Kurdish leadership to surrender to Damascus.
Therefore, it’s not yet time for a new constitution or to force Assad to make political concessions. Russia must ensure that the opposition forces – like the militias in Idlib and the Kurds in the north – lay down their arms, and that Turkey and the United States withdraw their forces.
Assad supposedly has no military or political bargaining chips against Russia, but he does have civil control over most of Syria, and an army that’s in the main still loyal to him, while the Russians still have no alternative leader who could do the job for them.