High stakes in Washington’s Syria gamble

Beyond issuing expressions of unease and calls for calm, the United States has few options to persuade Ankara to halt its attack.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Imminent conundrum. A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter mans a monitoring point near the Syrian village of Qilah on the south-western edge of the Afrin, on January 24. (AFP)
Imminent conundrum. A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter mans a monitoring point near the Syrian village of Qilah on the south-western edge of Afrin, on January 24.(AFP)

Beirut - The gruelling war in Syria, soon to enter its seventh year, has taken yet another shift towards complexity with a Turkish assault on a Kurdish-held enclave in the north potentially complicating a decision by the United States to keep US forces in Syria and build a 30,000-strong militia to protect a vast expanse of eastern Syria.

Turkey launched a ground and air offensive against the Afrin enclave north of Aleppo, which is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

However, the YPG also forms a large component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It is backed by the United States and played a key role in helping defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria.

The United States has announced that it plans to keep approximately 2,000 troops in eastern Syria and to develop a 30,000-person militia to defend the vast triangle formed of the Turkish and Iraqi borders and the Euphrates River from a return of ISIS and to check the pervasive influence of Iran. Around half of the new militia would consist of local recruits and the other half would be made up of the SDF.

The Turkish assault on the US-allied Kurds in Afrin placed Washington in a quandary. Beyond issuing expressions of unease and calls for calm, the United States has few options to persuade Ankara to halt its attack. Indeed, Turkey has signalled that it is willing to expand its campaign against the YPG to Manbij east of Afrin and even east of the Euphrates River into the area controlled by the United States and its allied forces.

Tensions with Turkey are not the only threat to the continued US presence in Syria. Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and various Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, have played a critical role in helping ensure the survival of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The military support and the provision of billions of dollars to prop up the ailing economy have earned Tehran significant influence in Syria.

“I suspect the major imperative behind building a border protection force is to keep the Iran-led militias and the Syrian regime from taking over areas liberated from [ISIS],” said Frederic Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. “Yes, these forces can also have a useful internal stabilisation role in terms of mopping up pockets of [ISIS] and preventing the resurrection of the caliphate but the main mission would be to keep out elements whose presence would contribute to the regeneration of extremist Islamists of the Sunni variety.”

Such analysis was hardened by comments from a senior US State Department official who indicated that containing Iranian ambitions in Syria was a major factor in the decision to keep US troops in the country.

“We are deeply concerned with the activities of Iran, with the ability of Iran to enhance those activities through a greater ability to move materiel into Syria,” David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said in a response to a question from a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on what role US forces played in Syria other than battling ISIS.

Satterfield appeared to be referring to a much-speculated Iranian land bridge connecting Tehran to Damascus via Iraq along which Iran could transport weapons, materiel and fighters to Syrian battlefields.

Various routes snaking across Iraqi and Syrian territory have been posited as potential conduits for Iran. One of them follows the Euphrates River from Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border up to Deir ez-Zor before heading west across the desert to Palmyra and Damascus. Another cuts across northern Syria hugging the Turkish border to reach the Mediterranean.

The presence of US troops and a 30,000-strong militia holding eastern Syria would be an obstacle to a land corridor along either of those two routes.

While the rift with Turkey appears to be the imminent conundrum for Washington to address, a longer-term threat could emerge if the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian partners decide to confront the US hold on eastern Syria. Assad has repeatedly stated his intention to restore control over the entire country.

The presence of a US-supported enclave covering almost one-third of the country and including economic assets such as oil wells and the grain basket of the Jazeera region in the north-east is an unpalatable prospect not just for Damascus but Tehran and Moscow as well.

That begs the question of just how determined the United States is to defend its toehold in eastern Syria if Iran- and Russia-supported Syrian government forces make an effort to push east of the Euphrates.

Will the United States stand its ground and provide the necessary air and ground support to its militia ally?

If the answer, initially, is yes, for how long will Washington’s resolve last before it abandons its local ally and retreats from an Assad regime determined to restore control over the rest of the country, with Iran and Russia potentially seeking to effect another US humiliation in the Middle East and with NATO ally Turkey glowering from the sidelines?

The sorry history of the US experience in the Middle East in the past decade casts a long shadow over this new engagement.

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