Syria and the Shaping of Turkish, Russian and US Interests

31 October 2019

By Ian Dudgeon

This article previously appeared on Australian Institute of International Affairs "Australian Outlook"

Despite heavy criticism of Trump and the US for abandoning the Kurdish forces, there are some cautious positives to the situation in Syria.

Two significant events shaped developments in Syria during the past 10 days. The first was President Trump’s initiative to ‘impose’ a five day ceasefire effective from 23 October within the ’safe zone’ along the Syrian/Turkish border, to enable members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force (SDF) to vacate the border area prior to Turkey’s full-scale military incursion. The second was the agreement reached between the leaders of Russia and Turkey at Russia’s Black Sea city of Sochi on 26 October about the respective areas of occupation of Turkish and Syrian/Russian military and police elements on the border, following the Turkish incursion.

Both developments enabled a mostly orderly and largely bloodless withdrawal and occupation/re-occupation respectively along the border following the expiry of the ceasefire.

Despite heavy criticism of Trump for abandoning the SDF, and commencing the reduction of the US military presence in Syria, he deserves full credit for his initiative.  It was a ceasefire President Erdogan could not refuse. Trump sent both Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo to Ankara to personally deliver his message.

In addition, to ensure there was no misunderstanding, Trump also imposed some interim economic sanctions (since lifted), having insensitively threatened beforehand in a tweet on 7 October that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” unless Erdogan complied. It worked, with minimal skirmishes along the border after the incursion re-commenced.

The Sochi agreement also facilitated the smooth coordination between the Syrians/Russians and Turks on border occupation. The former occupied that border area from the northern city of Mambij to Tal Abyad, some 112 km by road to the east, and the Turks the border area from Tal Abyad to Ras al Ayan, approximately the same road distance further east. It is not clear if the Turks have or still intend to occupy all or part of the remaining 200 km of the border east of Ras al-Ayan to Iraq.

Despite this cooperation and coordination between Turkey and Syria, Syria’s President Assad has publicly criticised Turkey’s incursion as breaching national sovereignty. This is rhetoric only; he has no real option but to accept these developments, with Russia acting as mentor and broker.

Iran and Hezbollah are not known to be involved physically in this border region, although both are present in southern and south-western Syria. Iran is involved separately in talks with Turkey and Russia on a political settlement in Syria. Russia may be ensuring both Iran and Hezbollah are not involved as their presence could complicate issues.

However, while US forces are no longer present in key border areas, they have retained elements in eastern Syria to continue to monitor and target IS remnants. The threat of some IS resurgence remains a real possibility, notwithstanding the reported death of IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi during an impressively planned and executed US raid on his living compound in Idlib province on 27 October.

US forces have also invented a new role for themselves, that of defending Syria’s eastern oil fields from reoccupation by IS or the Assad government. This, apparently, has necessitated an increase in the size of the US forces in that area to about half an armoured brigade, a sizeable footprint that won’t be challenged by either the Turks or Syrian and Russian forces. The reality, however, is the SDF recaptured the oilfields from IS some time ago. More plausible reasons for this new role is an excuse to use that footprint to signal that the US has not fully withdrawn, that the US remains a serious stakeholder in events, as well preventing  Assad from accessing the oil and spending the revenue on more armaments or like, rather than urgent domestic reconstruction or related humanitarian needs.

The future of the Kurds? The concept of an independent homeland is not a reality, and never was. There are some indications the Kurds are now in contact with Assad and willing to negotiate a return to some sort of semi-autonomous status under overriding central government control, as existed prior to the commencement of the civil war in 2011.

Superficially, the outlook for some positive steps towards stability and potentially a political settlement in Syria exists. But as foreshadowed in my previous report, major challenges remain. These include entrenched ethnic and religious differences, controlling the actions of some volatile resettled militias, and the enormous complexities of the acceptable resettlement of millions of both internally and externally displaced Syrians, especially if not back to their original home or ancestral land. And the likelihood of bloody fighting remains, especially by hard-line jihadist elements such as the Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Syria’s northern Idlib province.

Against this background, it is essential that Assad handles the potential reintegration of the Kurds sensibly, sensitively and quickly. He will need quality mentoring and assistance to do this, including ideally, by UN and related agencies.

Heeding the lessons of Iraq, and in the context of national reconciliation, Assad needs to adopt, with necessary adaptations, core elements of the existing Kurdish “government infrastructure” as the backbone of their potential semi-autonomous status, and also integrate acceptable SDF elements into the Syrian military and police forces. A concurrent reconstruction program that also brings health, education and other essential services is also essential. A workable solution could also condition the non-Kurd anti-Assad populous to seek political accommodation. None of this will be easy:  the Kurds must feel they have a future within the state, and mistrust on all sides will be very high.

Without oversimplifying existing or future complexities, there are some cautious positives. Turkey’s immediate security concerns are being met, with the border buffer zone expected to disrupt support from Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG – and the backbone of the SDF) to Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both designated by Turkey as terrorist organisations.

Russia is showcasing its credentials as a new Middle East power broker. It has played a major and highly visible role in negotiating and implementing the Syria-Turkey border dispute, and will have a major mentoring role in shaping the future of any political settlement in Syria. Assad’s future, at least in the short term, is dependent on this.

The US also should not be overlooked. Trump has certainly got his message across about restricting US involvement to primary US interests, and quitting ‘useless wars’.  As disruptive as this has been for Kurdish allies in Syria, the implications of his imposed ceasefire and symbolism of protecting Syrian oilfields have also sent a clear message of continuing US involvement in shaping outcomes that serve their interests, and conditionally, those of their allies.

Ian Dudgeon is a presidential associate of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.