By Nauman Sadiq, VT Islamabad
In a predictable development on Thursday, James Mattis has offered his resignation over President Trump’s announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Syria, though he would continue as the Secretary of Defense until the end of February till a suitable replacement is found. Speculations about replacing him were rife for several months, therefore the news doesn’t come as a surprise.
It would be pertinent to note here that regarding the Syria policy, there is a schism between the White House and the American deep state led by the Pentagon. After Donald Trump’s inauguration as the US president, he had delegated operational-level decisions in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to the Pentagon.
The Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster represented the institutional logic of the deep state in the Trump administration and were instrumental in advising Donald Trump to escalate the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.
They had advised President Trump to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 8,400 to 14,000. And in Syria, they were in favor of the Pentagon’s policy of training and arming 30,000 Kurdish border guards to patrol Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
Both the decisions spectacularly backfired on the Trump administration. The decision to train and arm 30,000 Kurdish border guards infuriated the Erdogan administration to the extent that Turkey mounted Operation Olive Branch in the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in Syria’s northwest on January 20. Remember that it was the second military operation by the Turkish forces against the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. The first Operation Euphrates Shield in Jarabulus and Azaz lasted from August 2016 to March 2017.
Nevertheless, after capturing Afrin on March 18, the Turkish armed forces and their Free Syria Army proxies have now set their sights further east on Manbij, where the US Special Forces are closely cooperating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in line with the long-held Turkish military doctrine of denying the Kurds any Syrian territory west of River Euphrates.
After Donald Trump’s announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Syria on Wednesday, clearly an understanding has been reached between Washington and Ankara. According to the terms of the agreement, the Erdogan administration released the US pastor Andrew Brunson on October 12, which had been the longstanding demand of the Trump administration, and has also decided not to make public the audio recordings of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which could have implicated another US-ally the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the assassination; and in return, the Trump administration has given a free hand to Ankara to mount an offensive in the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria and has also decided to withdraw 2000 US troops from northern and eastern Syria.
Another reason why the Trump administration has given a free hand to the Erdogan administration to mount an offensive against the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria is that Ankara has been drifting away from Washington’s orbit into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, has been cooperating with Russia in Syria against Washington’s interests since last year and has placed an order for the Russian-made S-400 missile system, though that deal too has been thrown into doubt after Washington’s recent announcement of selling $3.5 billion worth of Patriot missile systems to Ankara.
Regarding the Kurdish factor in the Syrian civil war, it would be pertinent to mention that unlike the pro-America Iraqi Kurds led by the Barzani family, the Syrian PYD/YPG Kurds as well as the Syrian government have been ideologically aligned because both are socialists and have traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence.
The Syrian civil war is a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a-led government and the Syrian Kurds, and the net beneficiaries of this conflict have been the Syrian Kurds who have expanded their areas of control by aligning themselves first with the Syrian government 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” and the CIA was indiscriminately training and arming the Sunni Arab militants against the Shi’a-led government in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan with the help of Washington’s regional allies: Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf states, all of which belong to the Sunni denomination.
In August 2014, however, the US declared a war against one faction of the Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, when the latter overran Mosul and Anbar in early 2014, and Washington made a volte-face on its previous “regime change” policy and started conducting air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thus, shifting the goalposts in Syria from the impossible objective of “regime change” to the realizable goal of defeating the Islamic State.
After this reversal of policy by Washington, 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 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 Washington’s policy in the region.
In accordance with the aforementioned pact, the Syrian government informally acknowledged Kurdish autonomy; and in return, the Kurdish militias jointly defended the areas in northeastern Syria, specifically al-Hasakah, alongside the Syrian government troops against the advancing Sunni Arab militant groups, particularly the Islamic State.
Fact of the matter is that the distinction between Islamic jihadists and purported ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria is more illusory than real. Before it turned rogue and overran Mosul in Iraq in June 2014, Islamic State used to be an integral part of the Syrian opposition and it still enjoys close ideological and operational ties with other militant groups in Syria.
It’s worth noting that although turf wars are common not just between the Islamic State and other militant groups operating in Syria but also among rebel groups themselves, the ultimate objective of the Islamic State and the rest of militant outfits operating in Syria was the same: to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Regarding the Syrian opposition, a small fraction of it is comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority has been comprised of Islamic jihadists and armed tribesmen who have been generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by their regional and global patrons.
Islamic State is nothing more than one of numerous Syrian militant outfits, others being: al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al Islam etc. All the militant groups that are operating in Syria are just as fanatical and brutal as the Islamic State. The only feature that differentiates the Islamic State from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded.
The reason why the US turned against the Islamic State is that all other Syrian militant outfits only have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Syrian government, while the Islamic State established a global network of transnational terrorists that includes hundreds of Western citizens who have become a national security risk to the Western countries.
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.