By Nauman Sadiq, VT Islamabad
The Syrian army said it entered Manbij on Friday for the first time in years, after the Syrian Kurds urged Damascus to protect the town from the threat of impending Turkish military offensive, though Turkish President Erdogan has termed the handover a “psyops” by the Kurds.
If Turkey mounts an offensive in Manbij, it would be the third invasion by the Turkish armed forces and their Syrian militant proxies in the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. The first Operation Euphrates Shield in Jarabulus and Azaz in northern Syria lasted from August 2016 to March 2017, immediately after the foiled coup plot against the Erdogan administration in July 2016. And then, Turkey mounted Operation Olive Branch in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria that lasted from January to March 2018.
In order to simplify the Syrian theater of proxy wars for the readers, it can be divided into three separate and distinct zones of influence: the Syrian government-controlled areas, the regions administered by the Syrian Kurds and the areas occupied by the Syrian opposition.
Excluding Idlib in northwestern Syria, which has been occupied by the Syrian opposition, all the major population centers are controlled by the Syrian government: which include, Damascus, Homs, Hamah, Latakia and Aleppo, while the oil-rich Deir al-Zor has been contested between the Syrian government and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and it also contains a few pockets of the remnants of the Islamic State militants alongside both eastern and western banks of the Euphrates River.
The regions administered by the Syrian Kurds include the Kurdish-majority Qamishli and al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, and the Arab-majority towns of Manbij to the west of the Euphrates River in northern Syria and Kobani to the east of the Euphrates River along the Turkish border.
The Turkish “east of Euphrates” military doctrine basically means that the Turkish armed forces would not tolerate the presence of the Syrian PYD/YPG Kurds – which the Turks regard as “terrorists” allied to the PKK Kurdish separatist group in Turkey – in Manbij and Kobani, in line with the longstanding Turkish policy of denying the Kurds any Syrian territory to the west of the Euphrates River in northern Syria along Turkey’s southern border.
Excluding the western Mediterranean coast and the adjoining major urban centers controlled by the Syrian government and the Kurdish-administered areas in the northeastern Syria, the Syrian opposition-dominated areas can be further subdivided into three separate zones of influence.
Firstly, the northern and northwestern zone along the Syria-Turkey border, in and around Aleppo and Idlib, which has been under the influence of Turkey and Qatar. Both these countries share the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and have provided money, training and arms to Sunni Arab militant organizations, such as al-Tawhid Brigade, Zenki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham, in the training camps located in the border regions between Turkey and northern Syria.
Secondly, the southern zone of influence along the Syria-Jordan border, in Daraa and Quneitra and as far away as Homs and Damascus. It was controlled by the Salafist Saudi-Jordanian camp which provided money, weapons and training to the Salafist militant groups, such as al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam in the suburbs of Damascus, until those militant outfits were evicted from southern Syria by the offensives of Syrian armed forces and allied militias with the backing of Iran and Russia.
Here, let me clarify that this distinction is quite overlapping and heuristic at best, because al-Nusra’s jihadists have taken part in battles as far away as Idlib and Aleppo, and after its eviction from southern Syria, al-Nusra Front, which rebranded itself to Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham in January 2017, has found its new redoubt in Idlib in northwestern Syria alongside the Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored militant groups, though it belongs to the Wahhabi-Salafi denomination espoused by Saudi Arabia.
And thirdly, the eastern zone of influence along the Syria-Iraq border, in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which was held by a relatively maverick Iraq-based Salafist militant outfit, the Islamic State, until Deir al-Zor was recaptured by the Syrian government forces, and Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor governorate to the east of Euphrates River were cleared by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
It’s worth noting that before the Russian intervention in September 2015, leaving the western Mediterranean coast and Syria’s border with Lebanon, the Baathist and Shi’a-led Syrian government was surrounded from all three sides by hostile Sunni forces: Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood in the north, Jordan and the Salafists of the Gulf Arab States in the south, and the Sunni Arab-majority regions of Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, which were then occupied by the Islamic State, in the east.
The ethnic and sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a-led governments and the Kurds. Although after the declaration of a war against a faction of Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, Washington also lent its support to the Shi’a-led government in Iraq, the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq are not the trustworthy allies of the United States because they are under the influence of Iran.
Therefore, Washington was left with no other choice but to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria after a group of Sunni Arab jihadists overstepped their mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014, from where the United States had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
The so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” are nothing more than Kurdish militias with a symbolic presence of mercenary Arab tribesmen in order to make them appear more representative and inclusive in outlook.
Regarding the Kurdish factor in the Syrian civil war, it would be pertinent to mention here that unlike the pro-America Iraqi Kurds led by the Barzani clan, 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.
Moreover, as I have already described that 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, Saudi Arabia 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 previous unrealistic objective of “regime change” to the achievable goal of defeating the Islamic State in order to save its credibility as a global power.
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, hence further buttressing their position against the Sunni Arab militants as well as the Syrian government.
More to the point, however, 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 Kurdish-majority areas in northeastern Syria, specifically al-Hasakah, alongside the Syrian government troops against the advancing Sunni Arab militant groups, particularly the Islamic State.
Finally, everyone has their own axe to grind in Syria, as there are no permanent allies or foes in international politics, only interests are permanent. It’s all about maintaining the balance of power. But whenever the US throws its weight behind a faction, it invariably disrupts the delicate equilibrium.
The allies of Washington then tend to assume that they are negotiating from a position of strength with the weight of a global power behind them; and under the mistaken assumption, they overreach themselves and encroach upon the rights of their regional adversaries.
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.