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