US Exit Marks Syria Endgame

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Idlib
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits a military base in the town of Habit in the countryside of Idlib province, Syria, on October 22, 2019. Photo credit: © Syrian Presidency/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire
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It has been a spectacular two weeks in Syria. The US has largely exited “this long-bloodstained sand,” as President Donald Trump called it, abandoning its local Kurdish allies to the Syrian regime, Turkey and Russia. Turkey has effectively started to mend its ties with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, ushering in a fraught-with-uncertainties endgame of the brutal civil war now in its eighth year.

Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s deal with the US last week and more recently a deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Turkey’s dangerous gamble in northeastern Syria is over, for now. The three-way agreement, which will see the Assad army take over the border from the Kurds, essentially resurrects a 1998 deal signed by Turkey and the Syrian regime, leading to a symbolic recognition by Turkey of Assad’s victory in Syria.

The ceasefire saved countless lives: Hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced during the first two weeks of fighting. Turkey and its local allies, many of them jihadist rebels with links to Al Qaeda, stand accused of war crimes.

But analysts say the deal will be hard to implement and could lead to further bloodshed as the different parties, just about all of whom claimed victory, scramble for influence.

“Personally I don’t have much optimism about Putin’s deal with Erdogan,” Stanislav Ivanov, a geopolitical expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told WhoWhatWhy.

“The mechanism of joint Russian-Turkish border patrols in cooperation with the Syrian border guards and the military is still unclear. … Will the Turkish military or their satellites from the Syrian National Army provoke new armed clashes in the border areas?”

There are strong indications that there is more to the accords than has been released publicly. Particularly striking is that the Kurdish leaders, whose fragile experiment in radical democracy is now under threat after they were forced to invite the regime into their lands to protect them from Turkey, welcomed the agreement.

“We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people,” General Mazloum Abdi, the Syrian Kurdish military leader, said via his spokesman on Twitter. “President Trump promised to maintain partnership with SDF [Kurdish-dominated militia] and long-term support at various spheres,” he added.

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It was a stark contrast to images of Kurds pelting withdrawing US forces with potatoes in an expression of the betrayal and desperation they felt. The Kurds are widely seen as the greatest losers of the deal.

“The PKK [Kurdish militia closely linked to and here used interchangeably with the SDF] is largely a spectator to its fate at this point: what it cannot do is survive in the areas Turkey and its Arab proxies seize, so the PKK will fold itself back into the Assad-Iran-Russia camp on terms decided in Damascus and Moscow that are likely to be Carthaginian,” Kyle Orton, an independent Syria expert, told WhoWhatWhy. “Assad is paranoid at the best of times and a PKK this empowered by the Americans will not be tolerable to the regime; the next phase will be the PKK being cut down to size.”

Further fueling speculation, a cryptic tweet by Trump suggested that the Kurdish general might be invited to Washington in the near future. Oil may play an important part of it: While Syria has only a fraction of the resources neighboring Iraq and other countries in the region have, most of these resources are in areas held by the Kurds. These fields have played an outsized role in the war, such as when US air raids killed dozens or even hundreds of Russian contractors in fighting there last year. Now Trump himself has suggested that some US forces might stay behind in order to stake a claim on Syria’s oil. 

Many analysts doubt that would work out. “Delusional,” tweeted Aaron Stein, a prominent regional expert, in response to claims that the US might play a role in the development of Syrian oil fields.

Another hotly debated point among analysts is the fate of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold situated west of the Kurdish-held areas. Warming ties between Turkey and the Syrian regime could spell disaster for the Turkish-backed rebels, and some reports claim that Turkey has already acquiesced to a regime takeover of Idlib. (We have written in the past about the complicated ways in which these two theaters of operations are linked.)

“The Idlib situation will be ‘resolved’ essentially on the regime coalition’s terms, which could be very costly for Turkey,” Orton said. He added that the agreement nevertheless constituted “a decisive victory” for Ankara, which has fought a four-decade Kurdish insurgency on its own soil.

Alongside the Kurds, the US is seen as a major loser of the Turkish invasion and the subsequent deals. Yet experts have long said that the US is in “quicksand” in eastern Syria and that a long-term American presence there is untenable. As Stein argued in a separate analysis, the biggest mistake of American officials perhaps was not in withdrawing, but in trying to circumvent Trump and not preparing the withdrawal better.

“The United States also still has options to make the most out of this terrible situation, but that requires sober decision-making about U.S. goals and how to impose costs on Russia and manage Turkey,” wrote Stein. “It is not clear if this administration is up to the task, and the problem is not just the president.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Kurdishstruggle / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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