Does Washington have a plan for the partition of Syria?
Now that the fighting in Raqqa is down to clearing out a few pockets of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters the next important regional question is: What about the Kurds?
How that question will be answered primarily depends on two men with outsized egos and a disinclination to back down: US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Relations between the United States and Turkey are at a low point and the Syrian Kurds are caught in the middle. Erdogan considers the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara and Washington.
The United States has supported the PYD and the YPG as part of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) because they have been the only fighters capable of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and recapturing Raqqa. That was the number one concern for the United States.
What happens next with the Kurds?
The YPG will be reluctant to surrender territory captured during the Syrian conflict. That would enrage Erdogan, who doesn’t want an independent Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border. Many of Erdogan’s supporters say the United States and Russia have a secret plan to support the creation of a Kurdish state. It would be a “second Israel,” they think, which is why Erdogan’s domestic constituency wants him to send troops into Syria and Iraq to deal with this threat as soon as possible.
Experts in Washington say the US response to any such move by Turkey would depend on two factors: The future of US military bases in Turkey, such as Incirlik near Adana, and Trump’s mood, which can change several times in one day. Trump does not like being directly challenged on foreign policy issues. His Twitter war with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is a case in point.
While Erdogan and Trump have publicly been cordial, it’s not clear how the US president would respond to a direct challenge from the Turkish leader. Would Trump be unconcerned about an important military base in Turkey?
Trump, however, is preoccupied with his domestic agenda, not least the passing of tax-reform legislation. For Erdogan, this might mean it is a propitious time to move into Syria.
As for what the Kurds may want, we probably need only look to the recent referendum on independence by Iraqi Kurds in the north. While this infuriated the government in Baghdad and perplexed Kurdish allies abroad, it’s not hard to see a similar situation arising in Syria.
Some in the world of Washington think-tanks say the United States needs to reward the Syrian Kurds for their courage in the fight against ISIS. The United States, they say, should support Syrian Kurdistan (or Rojava) as a federal region within Syria. Anything less would be considered a betrayal by the Syrian Kurds and their allies abroad. This would undoubtedly put the United States at odds with Erdogan, however.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on October 26 said the United States sees no place for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the new Syria. Tillerson met with UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is expected to reconvene peace talks following the SDF’s success in Raqqa and gains by the Syrian regime’s Russian-backed forces. Tillerson said the discussions were “fruitful” but his comments on Assad are unlikely to be received well by Russia or Iran. Turkey, however, has no love lost for Assad.
The funny thing is that this moment might not have happened if Erdogan had not been so adamant about getting rid of Assad’s regime instead of simply defeating ISIS. In 2014, the United States approached him with a plan to work together. It suggested the creation of an anti-ISIS force minus the Kurds but Erdogan insisted on a no-fly zone over sections of Syria as part of his anti-Assad plan, causing the United States to back out of the deal and turn to the YPG for military reasons.
Now, the situation is very different: ISIS is all but defeated, Tillerson may have said “no Assad” but almost no one else is talking about how to actually remove him and the Kurds are in a difficult position. It’s hard to say how long Erdogan will ignore his supporters’ demands to send Turkish forces into Syria and Iraq. If he decides to go into Syria, Erdogan risks a massive falling out with the United States and bad blood with Russia.
However, if Erdogan is going to continue to push back against the United States, he’ll need Russian support as a counterbalance so the next move may be up to the Syrian Kurds. Watch what they do in the coming few weeks. That will foreshadow what happens next between Turkey and the United States.