Changing Dynamics of Syrian Conflict under Trump Administration

Roman bridge over the Afrin River

Nauman Sadiq for Veterans Today

On Monday, Tom Perry of Reuters broke the story [1] that Russia is setting up a military base in the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Reuters quoted YPG spokesman Redur Xelil that agreement had been concluded on Sunday and that Russian troops had already arrived at the position in Afrin with troop carriers and armored vehicles.

The motive given by Tom Perry in his report about Russia’s deployment of troops to northwestern Syria is that it would help deter cross-border attacks against the Kurdish-dominated area of Afrin from Turkey, which is hostile to the YPG Kurds.

 Although the Russian defense ministry has denied the report and called the base a “reconciliation center” to monitor ceasefire violations in Syria, but this development heralds the formation of a new alliance between Russia and Kurds in the Syrian theater of proxy wars.

It would be pertinent to mention here that unlike the pro-US, Iraqi Kurds led by Masoud Barzani, the Syrian PYD/YPG Kurds as well as the Syrian government are ideologically aligned, because both are socialists and have traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence.

Moreover, it should also be kept in mind that the Syrian civil war is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a Arab regime and the Syrian Kurds. And the net beneficiaries of this conflict have been the Syrian Kurds who have expanded their area of control by aligning themselves first with the Syrian regime against the Sunni Arab militants since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to August 2014 when the US policy in Syria was regime change.

In August 2014, however, the US declared a war against one faction of the Sunni Arab militants, i.e. the Islamic State, after the latter overran Mosul and Anbar in June 2014, and the Obama Administration made a volte-face on its previous regime change policy and started conducting air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, from where the occupying US troops had withdrawn only in December 2011.

After that reversal of policy by the Obama Administration, the Syrian Kurds took advantage of the opportunity and struck an alliance with the US against the Islamic State at Masoud Barzani’s bidding, thus further buttressing their position against the Sunni Arab militants as well as the Syrian government.

More to the point, for the first three years of the Syrian civil war, from August 2011 to August 2014, an informal pact had existed between the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds against the onslaught of the Sunni Arab militants, until the Kurds broke off that arrangement to become the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s policy in the region.

According to the aforementioned pact, the Syrian government had informally acknowledged Kurdish autonomy; and in return, the Kurdish militia had defended the areas in northeastern Syria, particularly al-Hasakah, alongside the Syrian government troops against the advancing Sunni Arab militant groups, specifically the Islamic State.

Notwithstanding, under the previous Obama Administration, any collaboration with the Syrian government against the Islamic State was simply not on the cards. The Trump Administration, however, looks at the crisis in Syria from an entirely different perspective, a fact which is obvious from Donald Trump’s statements on Syria during and after the campaign.

Being an ardent supporter of Israel, Donald Trump has assured Benjamin Netanyahu that he will uphold Israel’s regional security as adamantly as the security of the US, therefore it is implausible that the Trump Administration would directly collaborate with the Syrian government, Hezbollah, or the Iranian resistance axis in general, which is the single biggest threat to Israel’s regional security.

Thus, expecting a radical departure from the six year-long Obama Administration’s policy of training and arming the Sunni militants against the Shi’a regime by the Trump Administration is unlikely. However, the latter regards the Sunni jihadists as a much bigger threat to the United States security than the former. Therefore, some indirect support and a certain level of collaboration with the Russians and the Syrian government against the radical Sunni Islamists cannot be ruled out.

Here let me emphasize that President Trump has been in the office for only two months, it’s too early to predict his approach to the region once he has been fully briefed and has assumed a position of responsibility. His stance on the Middle East region and Syria in particular will unfold in the coming months and years.

What would be different in the respective Syria policy of the two markedly different US administrations, however, is that while the Obama Administration did avail itself of the opportunity to strike an alliance with Kurds against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but it was simply not possible for it to come up with an out of the box solution and use the Syrian government troops and allied militias against the Sunni jihadists.

The Trump Administration, however, is not hampered by the botched legacy of the Obama Administration in Syria, and therefore it might align itself with the Kurds as well as the Russians and the Syrian government against the Islamic State’s militants in Syria.

Two obstacles to such a natural alignment of interests, however, are: firstly, Israel’s objections regarding the threat that Hezbollah poses to its regional security; and secondly, Turkey, which is a NATO member and has throughout nurtured several Sunni militant groups during the six year-long civil war, would have serious reservations against the new US administration’s partnership not only with the Russians and the Syrian government but also with the PYD/YPG Kurds in Syria, which Turkey regards as an offshoot of separatist PKK Kurds in southeast Turkey.

 Notwithstanding, with Russia’s blessings, an alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government against the Sunni Arab militants has already been forged, and it would be a wise move by the Trump Administration to take advantage of the opportunity and to avail itself of a two-pronged strategy to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State: that is, to use the Syrian government troops to put pressure from the south and the Kurds to lead the charge from the north of the Islamic State’s bastion in Syria, Raqqa.

The Syrian government and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are already collaborating in Manbij where the Kurds have handed over several villages to the Syrian government troops in order to create a buffer zone and to avoid confrontation with the Turkish troops and the allied Sunni militants, who have recently liberated al-Bab from the Islamic State and have now set their eyes on Manbij.

Moreover, Karen De Young and Liz Sly mentioned in an article [2] for the Washington Post that the Russian and Syrian government’s convoys had already arrived in Manbij and the US government had been informed about the movement by the Russians.

In the same article, the aforementioned reporters had also made another startling revelation: “Trump has said repeatedly that the US and Russia should cooperate against the Islamic State, and he has indicated that the future of Russia-backed Assad is of less concern to him.” Thus, it appears, that the interests of all the major players in Syria have converged on defeating the Islamic State, and the Obama era policy of regime change has been put on the back burner.

Sources and links:

1- U.S.-allied Kurd militia says struck Syria base deal with Russia:

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSKBN16R1H4

2- Collaboration between the Syrian government and Kurds in Manbij:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-plan-to-seize-raqqa-calls-for-significant-increase-in-us-participation/2017/03/04/d3205386-00f3-11e7-8f41-ea6ed597e4ca_story.html

About the author:

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, neocolonialism and Petroimperialism.

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