Showdown between pro-Assad forces and US-backed Syrian Kurds?

November 19, 2017
Over the horizon. A Syrian pro-government fighter watches as smoke rises from buildings in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on October 31. (AFP)

Ottawa- Syrian President Bashar As­sad has indicated that his troops and allied forces might take military action against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) af­ter the battle in Syria’s eastern gov­ernorate of Deir ez-Zor against the Islamic State (ISIS) ends.

Assad’s senior political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said in an in­terview with Lebanese television channel Al Mayadeen that the re­gime was looking to recapture the northern city of Raqqa, which was liberated from ISIS by the SDF backed by the United States.

Referring to the conflict in the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk be­tween the central Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurds, Shaaban noted that what happened there “should be a lesson” to Syria’s Kurds in the northern parts of the country. She rejected any possibility that her government would negotiate with the Kurds.
Those comments and others by regime officials regarding escalation against Syria’s Kurds, whose forces control an estimated 22% of the country, are problematic and bring into question many aspects of the complex Syrian civil war.
“It is not in our interest nor in the interest of the regime that we move towards military escalation,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said. “We reject this escalatory tone,” he said.
Nevertheless, he added: “If we are assaulted, we have enough strength to respond.”
Assad’s statement on the pros­pects of war with the SDF came after he met in Damascus with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayati remarkably noted, with particular emphasis on American military presence in the north, that the Syrian regime troops and allied forces would capture Raqqa from the SDF.
The relationship between the United States and the Syrian Kurds consolidated in late 2014 with Washington’s selection of the Peo­ple’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant component of the SDF, as its sole partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Through the last few years and as it fought ISIS in north­ern Syria, the YPG gained semi-au­tonomous authority in its areas of control.
While the Assad regime was fight­ing Arab opposition forces, it sought to avoid conflict with the YPG and accepted growing Kurdish power in the north.
However, the regime has regained much power and territory thanks to significant backing from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah and it seems Assad is looking to pick a fight with the Kurds. High-profile regime fig­ures have referred to the American military presence with the Kurds in northern Syria as “illegal invading forces.”
Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Wash­ington, said the Assad regime and its Iranian ally were worried about the United States maintaining a “re­sidual force in northern and eastern Syria.” That, he said, “is going to constrain Assad’s ability to recon­quer the country.”
Heras said the Trump administra­tion realises the strategic nature of having a military presence in north­ern Syria and has put significant ef­fort into maintaining that presence.
“Unless there is a larger under­standing between the United States and Russia as to… the contours of the future US presence [in northern Syria],” Heras added, “Assad will continue to make loud noises.”
It seems that the regime in Da­mascus is testing the extent of US commitment to the Kurds in Syria. Shaaban noted the regime calcu­lates from the American reaction to Kirkuk’s fall to Iraq- and Iran-backed forces that it can act aggres­sively against Syria’s Kurdish militia with no consequences.
Nevertheless, the question that remains is whether the Assad re­gime has the military power to fight the SDF, a force armed by the United States that has gained substantial fighting experience from its battles against ISIS.
The Assad regime lacks manpow­er and seemingly cannot sustain control over newly captured terri­tory while simultaneously engag­ing in military campaigns. Most re­cently, pro-regime forces funnelled through central Syria towards the east and made rapid gains against ISIS, reaching Deir ez-Zor and the Iraqi border. However, they have lost control over some territory they captured along the way.
Unlike the SDF, “the Assad regime and allies have very rarely actually fought major urban campaigns,” said Heras.

The regime’s tactics are to use starvation sieges and massive aerial bombardment to force its op­ponents to cede control.
“Since the beginning of 2016, there is no major [Assad] regime operation that ended with the com­plete collapse of its opponent in an urban area,” Heras said.
“Assad likes to promote his tiger but, in a lot of ways, his military is a paper tiger.”
While Assad’s announcement may be phony, his goal is to recap­ture all of Syria with no space for compromise on the objective. Soon­er or later, the Kurds in Syria may find themselves in confrontation with the regime. At that point, the American military presence in the north could be significant for the Syrian Kurds’ political survival in the country.