In analysing foreign policy, no doubt the first mistake is to assume that policymakers know what they are doing. The recent announcement by the Pentagon that a new 30,000-strong ‘border security’ force is being trained in north-eastern Syria was immediately contradicted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for whom ‘the entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people mis-spoke. We are not creating a border security force at all’.
The reason for the contradiction was the rage of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who threatened to drown this new formation at birth. Tillerson tried to pacify him with an explanation that was far from convincing. Far from being a border force, let alone the North Syrian army, as it has also been called, he said the United States is only setting up a training program for ‘local Arab and Kurdish border guards’. In other words, yes, a border force after all, summoned into existence to guard the 28,000-square-kilometre Kurdish enclave the United States is carving out of northern Syria. This will be a US protectorate, nominally advancing the interests of the Kurds but, of course, primarily serving the interests of America.
Tillerson says the US presence in Syria is ‘conditions-based’. Al Qaida and the Islamic State (IS) have to be defeated not just substantially but completely. A ‘post-Assad’ leadership will have to be elected. Iran’s ‘malicious influence’ will have to be reduced, the refugees will have to be returned, and all weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Refugees would be helped to return only to ‘liberated’ areas. Towards this end, ‘the US, the EU and regional partners will not provide reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime’. Furthermore, the United States would ‘discourage’ economic relations between the Syrian ‘regime’ and any other country. Free elections would end in the ‘permanent departure of Assad and his family from power’.*
Clearly, the United States is planning to stay in Syria for a long time to come. Never mind that its presence grossly violates not just international law but its own congressional War Powers Act; never mind that the government in Damascus represents Syria at the United Nations and remains the legitimate government of the country; never mind that the majority of the Syrian people have given their support to this government in presidential and general elections, held in very difficult conditions since 2011 and monitored by teams of outside observers to ensure their fairness; never mind that Syria does not have weapons of mass destruction, having never had nuclear weapons and having had its chemical-weapons stocks removed under international supervision in 2013–14. Never mind the best interests of the Syrian people, which are not served by US support for armed groups. All that matters in Washington is that the United States gets what it wants.
The Tillerson remarks were a tissue of distortions and demands that the United States has no right to make but are fully in conformity with the bullying ‘national security’ policy outlined by Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. According to that policy, the United States would not respect the sovereignty of any state it regarded as actually or potentially threatening to the United States in any way. While it has always done what it wants to, this was an open declaration of war on international law. The word was quickly followed by the deed: drone missile attacks on Yemen, Somalia and other countries; wars of aggression against Iraq, Libya and Syria; and, through the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the war on Yemen.
Current US policy on Syria is only the latest phase in a cycle of hostility that goes back to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Supporting the Iranian revolution and supporting both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian government is an enemy the United States and Israel remain determined to break. The partitioning of Syria through the creation of a Kurdish enclave would be fully in accord with Israel’s Yinon Plan of 1982, the arguments of which centre on breaking down the central lands of the Middle East into ethno-religious statelets. The establishment of an autonomous Kurdish governorate in northern Iraq certainly fits these prescriptions, and the collapse of the independence movement following the ill-timed referendum of September 2017 came as a severe blow to its principal outside supporters, the United States and Israel. A US ‘protectorate’ over the Kurds in Syria would go some way towards making up for this loss.
Through the Syria Accountability Act, passed in 2003 and repeatedly reinforced, the United States has tried to break Syria through economic means. The ‘Arab spring’ came as an opportunity to break it by military means. China and Russia blocked the US-led attempt at the UN Security Council to secure support for an air war: as a substitute, the United States and its allies, calling themselves ‘The Friends of the Syrian People’, resorted to war fought by armed proxies, presented as ‘moderates’ but mostly takfiri extremists adhering to the same ideology as IS. This brutal campaign has ensured the death of about half a million people but has failed to secure ‘regime change’.
Turning the war around
In the autumn of 2015 Russia, at the request of Syria, intervened in support of Syrian army operations. Its intensive aerial campaign in coming months turned the war around. With talks in Geneva repeatedly blocked by the United States and its ‘rebel’ proxies, Russia then set up the tripartite talks (with Iran and Turkey) in Astana that have achieved real progress. Humiliated by Russia and kept out of the talks in Astana, the United States responded by building up its military presence. Apart from its Kurdish enclave it has several thousand troops and special forces positioned at more than ten bases, including one at Al Tanf, to the southwest on the Iraq–Syria border, where US special forces are training new brigades of ‘rebels’, ostensibly to fight IS.
Russia has beefed up its own military presence, if not to the same degree. It is expanding its Khmeimim air base, in Latakia province, in the west, and is also expanding its naval base at Tartus to accommodate up to eleven warships, including nuclear-armed warships, rather than one at present. Russia recently signed a 49-year lease on the bases: according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, ‘we have begun forming a permanent presence there’.
The Kurds have a long history of being used and then betrayed. While they may feel they have no choice but to make hard choices, when squeezed between the interests of rival powers, they are running the same risk again in Syria, where the United States has created a largely Kurdish proxy militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and, in addition, is backing the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). If the United States’ new ‘border force’ comes into existence, most probably as a replacement for the SDF, it will also be largely Kurdish.
The Kurds are now the focal point of military operations inside Syria by Turkey, which regards the YPG and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) as one terrorist group with branches on different sides of the Turkey–Syria border. The United States accepts the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation but can hardly apply the same label to the Kurds it is working with in Syria. Its refusal to put them in the same category has greatly angered its erstwhile NATO ally, which, it has to be said, would not have this problem had it not jumped into the campaign to destroy the government in Damascus. Without Turkey’s full participation it is doubtful whether this war could even have been launched in the first place.
Up to 2011 there was no Kurdish problem as such in Syria. There were Kurdish grievances but nothing that the Syrian government could not handle. All this changed after the launching of the proxy war in 2011. While it failed to dislodge the government in Damascus, the war broke its authority across the country, creating a vacuum that others quickly filled. By early 2014, Raqqa had fallen to IS, with its ideological clone, Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaida in Syria), sharing the lead in the fight against the ‘regime’. With the Syrian army too hard-pressed on other fronts to protect the north, the Kurds seized their own opportunity. They declared autonomy in predominantly Kurdish areas along the Turkish border and proceeded to set up their own civil administration.
In August 2016, Turkey launched ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ inside Syria, with the declared aim of clearing IS from its positions along the border with Syria and preventing Kurdish YPG units from moving to the west bank of the Euphrates River. Eventually extended to Al Bab, 40 kilometres northeast of Aleppo, the operation came to an end in March 2017, leaving Turkey in occupation of a large chunk of Syrian territory. Turkey has now launched another large-scale operation, ‘Olive Branch’, this time directed against the YPG in the predominantly Kurdish Afrin region of the Aleppo governorate. The operation quickly took in Azaz, close to the border, with Turkey warning that it intended to advance on Manbij, run by a SDF military council supported by the YPG and US troops, raising the possibility of a direct United States–Turkey military standoff. Manbij lies on the west bank of the Euphrates, and Turkey says the presence of the Kurdish fighting groups there breaches a commitment the United States made not to allow them to cross the river from the east. Erdogan turned up the heat even further by saying Turkey intended to advance all the way to the Iraqi border. Infuriated by US support for the YPG, Turkey says it will not back off; as the Kurds are the mainstay of the US position in northern Syria the United States cannot back off either.
The Islamic State card
Behind its expressed horror at the vileness of IS, the evidence suggests that the United States has been playing ducks and drakes with the late caliphate. The curiosities begin with the IS seizure of Mosul in June 2014. In a region saturated with surveillance from land and air, is it even remotely possible that US satellites and drones did not see hundreds of IS fighters racing across the Syrian desert from Raqqa in pickup trucks to seize Mosul and help themselves to an enormous quantity of US arms and military equipment? In May 2015, IS fighters seized Ramadi, 400 kilometres south of Mosul, before seizing in the same month the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, 200 kilometres from Raqqa and 700 kilometres from Ramadi. The United States must have seen these convoys as they crossed the Iraqi and Syrian deserts. It was spring, the weather was fine, the pickup trucks would have been kicking up plumes of sand—they were out in the open, fully exposed, and could have been completely obliterated from the air, but they weren’t.
Consider also the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memorandum of 2012 that supported the establishment of a ‘salafist’ principality in eastern Syria as a means of keeping pressure on the government in Damascus. Having taken most of the city in 2014, the IS presence in Deir al Zor fitted the bill perfectly. In September 2016, US and ‘allied’ aircraft (some Australian) launched dozens of missile strikes against Syrian military positions on the Tharda mountains, overlooking Deir al Zor and its besieged Syrian air-force base, killing scores of soldiers and wounding many more. The instant the attack was over, IS moved out of Deir al Zor to take the Syrian positions over. The United States claimed the attack was a mistake, which was surely a lie, conveniently accepted by the Australian government: the evidence, including the aerial monitoring of Syrian troop movements over a period of days, suggests that it was carefully planned.
Before Deir al Zor was finally liberated by the Syrian army in November 2017, Russian drone cameras picked up US special forces and SDF mingling with IS fighters north of the city. According to some reports, the US helicoptered IS commanders out of the city before the Syrian army moved in. If this somehow seems a contradiction of stated US policy aims to destroy IS, the capture of Raqqa, the Syrian seat of the caliphate, in October 2018 was more of a handover, with hundreds of armed IS fighters and their dependants, a total of thousands of people, allowed to leave the city—some headed for the Turkish border, others for Idlib, the centre of intensive fighting against the Syrian army by various takfiri groups.
Finally, the United States allowed IS to continue the oil trade that was a mainstay of its finances. After Russia launched its war in support of Syria in September 2015, it released reconnaissance photos showing hundreds of tankers lined up on both sides of the Syria–Iraq border waiting to transport oil to Turkey, and not just oil from territories seized by IS but oil from the Kurdish governorate of northern Iraq, then in disagreement with the central government over oil profits. The United States obviously knew of this trade but did nothing to stop it, perhaps because of the Kurdish connection. It was only after Russia launched devastating attacks on tankers, depots and refineries that the United States stepped up its own war on IS. Russia did more damage to the caliphate in weeks than the United States had done in a year: it was Russia, supporting Syrian troops on the ground, that broke the caliphate’s back in Syria, not the United States and its proxy allies.
Two NATO members are now occupying large parts of Syria. Their conflict over the Kurds only drives further downhill a relationship that has been deteriorating for years. The principal markers have been the US refusal to extradite the Pennsylvania-based Muslim guru Fethullah Gulen, blamed for orchestrating the failed coup attempt of July 2016, and the trial in the United States of a senior manager of Turkey’s Halk Bank, accused of playing a central role in Turkish money-laundering for Iran.
As the Turkish pendulum has swung away from the United States, so it has swung towards Russia. Relations between the two countries recovered rapidly after the shooting down of a Russian fighter aircraft by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015. They have close economic ties: Turkey has been buying more than half of its natural gas from Russia, and Russia is a lucrative market for Turkish primary produce. These ties were only temporarily damaged after the downing of the Russian plane. Since then Erdogan has been cleverly seduced by Putin. He was brought into the Astana peace talks, and Russia clearly gave Turkey some kind of green light to launch its operation in Afrin, following the YPG’s refusal—since reversed—to align itself with the Syrian government. Turkey’s purchase of sophisticated Russian weaponry (S400 surface-to-air missiles) was received very badly by the United States and NATO. In Syria, for the moment, Turkey’s interests lie with Russia and not the United States. How far this will go remains to be seen, but the drift is there.
The United States is trying to pull Turkey out of the Russian orbit. Its efforts at conciliation have included an offer by Tillerson to set up a jointly run ‘security zone’ along the Turkey–Syria border, its statement that it has withdrawn heavy weapons from the YPG, and its threat to cut arms supplies to the SDF if it fights any enemy other than IS, which hardly exists in Syria any more except for remnants. Someone is going to be sacrificed here and most probably—almost certainly—it is going to be the Kurds. Erdogan has caused offence in Europe and the United States through his abrasive manner and the suppression of human rights in Turkey under his government, but Turkey is too important a player on the regional and global scene to let go.
Although vulnerable in its landlocked north-eastern corner of Syria, the United States is clearly determined to stay in Syria. As with Afghanistan, it could be there for decades. It has a land base from which it can project its power across the region, a base that could be used for war (as in a war between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran/Syria in which the United States would be able to support Israel from inside Syria) or for bullying purposes in political bargaining over Syria’s future. Turkey’s intentions are similarly open to interpretation. It could also be in northern Syria for a long time to come: its campaign will be a test for a military command purged of nearly half its senior officers after the coup attempt of 2016 and an army facing a well-trained Kurdish opponent that will fight hard for every inch of land. Erdogan has promised a quick and successful end to operation ‘Olive Branch’; an alternative view is that he has stuck his hand into a Kurdish wasp nest.
By late January the Turkish offensive had compelled the YPG-dominated Kurdish administration of Afrin to return to the Syrian national fold. Almost certainly the Syrian military would not be able to respond to its call to protect the northern border against Turkish attack: what was very significant in this communiqué was the commitment made to the territorial unity of Syria. Afrin was described as ‘an inseparable part of Syria’ in which the YPG, by fighting Al Qaida and IS, had contributed to ‘the preservation of the unity of the Syrian lands and national institutions’. Whether this signalled a general realignment of the YPG with the Syrian government, at the expense of its relationship with the United States, remains to be seen.
If there is one thing the Syrian war is not about it is the best interests of the Syrian people. The Kurds, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are all trying to get what they can out of it. They have overlapping interests as well as separate interests. Seven years later, the United States has made it clear that the war is still about the overthrow of the Syrian government and confrontation with Iran, which it is pursuing on other fronts, in coordination with Israel. Russian intervention has added an axiomatic new reason for staying. There are those who are saying the war is over, but this is far from true: too many governments still have too much at stake to bring it to an end.
* The EU has set aside €6 billion for Syrian humanitarian relief but has linked reconstruction aid to political transition. The allocation of funds will be discussed at a conference scheduled for the northern spring. Russia says Syria needs aid immediately; the US says not a dollar should go to areas under the control of the government (most of the country) until the government has been replaced. In the meantime, Syria has signed numerous reconstruction contracts with Russia and Iran. Chinese companies are ready to move in, with Brazil indicating that it also will be seeking contracts. Estimates of the cost of repairing the material damage done to Syria since 2011 run at well over US$200 billion.