Opinion: After three weeks of intensive activity everybody in Syria appears to be better off - all that is except the Kurds
28 October 2019

In this op-ed for, Benyamin Poghosyan says that the elimination of the leader of ISIS came at a time of repositioning in the war-torn country

The last 20 days in Syria were probably the most hectic ones since the end of the Aleppo siege in late 2016. After the decision of President Trump to withdraw American forces from Northeastern Syria, Turkey launched its third incursion, triggering a cascade of criticism from the US and Europe. Kurdish forces very quickly made a deal with President Assad, letting Syrian government forces to enter their territories. The US put sanctions on Turkey and then removed them after the US Vice President negotiated a 120 hour cease fire with Turkey, which later was reinforced by Russia - Turkey arrangements. Immediately after the Turkey - Russia negotiations President Trump and Defense Secretary Esper stated that the US will keep some forces in the region to secure oil fields from ISIS fighters, hinting at the possibility of even deploying tanks there. On October 27 the US announced the successful operation against ISIS leader Al Baghdadi, who apparently committed suicide by blowing himself up once he realized he was about to be captured.

As a result of the last two weeks we have an interesting situation when all key actors involved in Syria have gained something, except the Kurds. Turkey is now controlling another 120 km long and 30 km wide territory in Syria, adding this area to 4000 km square land already under its control. Kurdish military units are being redeployed out from other parts of the Turkey - Syria border, thus effectively creating more than 400 km length safe zone without Kurdish forces, which has been Turkey's main demand since spring 2018.

Syrian government forces have entered the territories where they have had no presence since mid 2012 expanding areas under their control. Russian military police are patrolling parts of the Turkey - Syria border, thus transforming Russia into the key power broker in the Northeastern parts of the country. President Trump made another step to fulfill his campaign promise of "Ending endless wars" and bringing back American troops. The fact that some Americans will stay in Eastern Syria as well as near the Syria - Jordan and Syria - Iraq borders  at the  Al - Tanf base, may be explained as a temporary measure to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. Simultaneously, the assassination of Al Baghdadi will give President Trump another opportunity to bolster his national security policy. The decision to keep US forces in both Eastern Syria and in Al Tanf will alleviate Israel concerns regarding the growing Iranian influence.

As for the Kurds, most probably they have to accept the tough reality that the chances of having an Iraqi Kurdistan like autonomy in Syria as a result of a future political settlement of the conflict have reached to zero. Parts of their territory are controlled by Government forces, and part is de facto occupied by Turkey. And now Kurds have to be more careful in their dealings with the Syrian government and with Russia, as now it is they and not the American, that are the guarantors of keeping Turkey out.

The recent developments have added yet another layer in the complicated relations between Russia, Turkey and the US. The US defense secretary Esper publicly stated that the US withdrawal was a result of an imminent Turkish incursion, and that he had zero intention to start a fight against another NATO member state. He also complained that Turkey is moving closer into Russia's orbit and away from Western powers. The October 22 negotiations between the Russian and Turkish Presidents have proved that their bilateral relations have a solid basis, and two sides are able to solve complicated problems. The information disseminated by some Turkish sources that Turkey is close to reaching a deal with Moscow over the purchase of Su-35 fighter jets, as well as on co-manufacturing some components of the Russian-made jets, is another proof of their growing military - technical cooperation. The deal on SU - 35, if reached, will be a second major blow for the US and NATO after Turkey's purchase of the S - 400 anti missile systems. Thus, we may assess that there is a growing trend of the deepening the partnership between Russia and Turkey, something which should cause concern to the US. Not surprisingly, key US strategic thinkers, including Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass argues that the United States should withdraw all nuclear weapons from Turkey, reduce reliance on Turkey's bases, relocate the US aircraft from Incirlik airbase to Jordan and other Persian Gulf countries, and restrict intelligence sharing and arms sale.

However, Turkey manages to keep its diplomatic channels open with the US. The US Vice President's visit to Turkey, and hours of closed-door negotiations, are signs of the US leadership wish to keep Turkey on its side. Turkey is too important for the US, and not only in the Middle East, but also in the US efforts to deter Russia in the Black Sea basin. Simply cutting the ties is not an option. In this context, it will be interesting to watch the upcoming vote in the US House of Representatives on the resolution calling for official US recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The resolution was introduced by several pro-Armenian U.S. lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, in April this year and has had 117 co-sponsors since then. It is due to debated right after a House vote on a bipartisan bill that would sanction Turkey for its military offensive in northern Syria. The Armenian Genocide recognition was used as a leverage to press Turkey by several US administrations; however the threat was never fulfilled.  

Given the sensitivity for Turkey of this issue, the adoption of such resolution could be viewed as a real step to symbolically punish Turkey and show that there could be no "business as usual" with Turkey if Ankara does not change its course.   

source: This op-ed was prepared for by Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, the Chairman and Founder, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.

Photo: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi preaching at a mosque in Mosul in 2014 (archive picture)

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