Kurdish Factor ‘Key to the Success of the Syrian Ceasefire’

 

 A Syrian flag on a truck with a machine gun of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) near the town of Mhin, Syria

   On Monday, the Russian-US sponsored ceasefire in Syria officially stepped into force. Asked to comment on the chances that the Lavrov-Kerry ceasefire plan has for turning into a comprehensive settlement, experts speaking to one of Russia’s leading independent online newspapers explained that ultimately, much will depend on the Kurdish wildcard.

   Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that they had reached an agreement on a new plan aimed at quelling the violence in Syria, including a nationwide ceasefire which officially came into force at 16:00 GMT on Monday.

   United Nations Syria special envoy Staffan de Mistura praised Russian and US officials for their effort, emphasizing that it was a sign of determination Moscow and Washington both have to solving common problems, particularly the struggle against the Daesh (ISIL/ISIS) terrorist group.

   Meanwhile, even before the ceasefire stepped into force, some American and Russian experts rushed to suggest that the ceasefire has little hope of lasting. Last week, before the ceasefire deal was announced, the Washington Post published an article explaining that as Daesh’s self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ continues to collapse, the risk of a wider war breaking out between the multiple regional and global powers involved in the conflict grows

   The newspaper’s ideas on what could come next in Syria included several chilling scenarios, from Kurdish-Arab proxy wars involving Ankara, to Turkish-Kurdish, Turkish-Syrian, Syrian-US, or even a broader Sunni/Shiite war that might spread across the region.

   Pondering the chances of these dangerous scenarios becoming a reality and pulling Syria into endless war, independent online newspaper Svobodnaya Pressa turned to geopolitics experts Stanislav Tarasov and Alexei Fenenko and asked their view on the prospects of peace returning to the war-torn country.

   Tarasov, the director of the Middle East – Caucasus Research Center, said that he felt the scenarios listed by the Washington Post were all a real and dangerous possibility, and that the fragmented and multilayered nature of the conflict means that there are actually several dozen different conflicts that could flare up in the region, not just the ten listed by the US newspaper.

   At the same time, “how the situation develops depends on the implementation of the agreement made by Lavrov and Kerry as a result of 15 hours of talks, which concluded on Saturday night in Geneva,” the analyst added.

   Recalling that many details about the five-part agreement remain unknown, Tarasov explained that the deal includes small steps to a ceasefire, in 48 hour increments, along with a delineation of ‘moderate opposition’ forces from terrorists; the latter will require the creation of the Russian-American Joint Executive Center, “composed of the military and intelligence services of the two countries. The delineation is [also] meant to prevent the bombing of areas where there are civilians, and [eventually,] to lead to coordination between the Russian and US military forces operating in Syria.”

   Given the failure of previous efforts to reach peace in Syria, including the numerous Geneva talks involving the Syrian government, opposition, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia, Tarasov suggested that the bilateral agreement between Moscow and Washington “makes sense only in one case: if Russia and the US are able to set apart spheres of influence, and to work together across the country.”

   Today, the analyst noted, together with Russia and the US, Turkey and Iran, “plus a scattering of radical and non-radical non-state actors,” are directly involved in the Syrian conflict.

   With Iran yet to make clear its reaction to the Russian-US agreement, Tarasov emphasized that Turkey, on the other hand, is the one to watch, when it comes to the ceasefire deal; “Ankara becoming more and more involved in the conflict, even though it is now clear that Operation Euphrates Shield was in some sense agreed to by Moscow and Washington. The question is how long the Turks go along with the US and Russia.”

     Turkish authorities, the expert noted, “are already trying to play an independent game, carrying out separate negotiations with Washington about storming Raqqa, while clashing with the Syrian Kurds, who are supported by the Americans. Against this background we can see the activation of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] factor. It’s no accident that there are terror attacks occurring in Turkey almost every day…All this only further works to tangle the knot of contradictions around Syria.”

   In any case, the Tarasov noted that another factor which complicates any predictions about how the situation will develop next is the US’s November elections. “Barack Obama has very little time left before he leaves office. And no matter who enters the White House in November – Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump – the new administration will need time to develop a new Syria policy and to form a new state apparatus. As practice shows, this restructuring usually takes seven or eight months,” i.e. into mid-2017.

   “And this means that the agreement between Lavrov and Kerry can either be blocked by the new administration, or substantially transformed in several areas.” © Sputnik/ Mikhail AlaeddinSyrian Army troops in the Ramouseh district of southern Aleppo.

   As far as the parties to the conflict go, each of them will ‘demand a place under the sun’ during peace negotiations. For now, Tarasov noted, almost all of them can at least formally agree on the need to preserve the Syria’s territorial integrity. In this situation, “some signs suggest that visions of a confederated Syria are being considered.”

   “The problem, however, is that Ankara is not satisfied by the idea of a confederation. Turkey fears the emergence of an autonomous [Kurdish] enclave in Syria, according to the model of the de-facto independent Kurdish enclave in Iraq. Turkey considers that the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds will strengthen separatist Turkish Kurdish sentiments, thereby destabilizing the country.” © Sputnik/ Mikhail VoskresenskiyAssad Not Allowed to Go After Terrorists Under Ceasefire – US State Dept.

   If this were to happen, the analyst noted, “some part of Turkey would turn into today’s Syria, figuratively speaking. And in this case there is simply no obvious way out of this situation.”

   In any case, “for now, we are witnessing this diplomatic waltz between Lavrov and Kerry. It’s true that they have experience of effective joint action – for example, when Russia and the US solved the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. But whether the two countries’ foreign ministers will be able to repeat that success in the current situation remains an open question.”

   For his part, Alexei Fenenko, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Security Problems, explained that he too sees the Kurdish question as the key to the success or failure of the current ceasefire. There are three main possible scenarios as far as Turkey’s involvement is concerned, he said.

   “The first is a purely military attempt to suppress Syrian Kurdish autonomy; it doesn’t matter who does it – Assad or someone else. The problem with this, however, is that Damascus does not have the strength to defeat Kurdish forces. The Kurds have proven themselves excellent fighters in the fight against Daesh; plus they have American backing.”

   “The second scenario is to turn Syria into a confederation. But this decision would automatically mean war with Turkey. Ankara would never voluntarily allow an autonomous Rojava on their border without war.” And finally, the last option, according to Fenenko, “is to somehow come to an agreement with the Kurds in a way that does not irk Ankara.” That option, for obvious reasons, would be the most difficult to achieve. But anything else, including the creation of a state of Kurdistan involving Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, would mean war with Turkey.

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Washington’s Two Strategies in Syria Canceling Each Other Out

 

 US Troops Wearing YPG Kurdish Patches in Northern Syria

 

   The United States has pursued two strategies to resolve the Syrian crisis – one led by the CIA, the other devised by the Pentagon, but instead of reinforcing each other they are getting in each other’s way, with Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria serving as tangible evidence of this trend.

     Ankara launched its offensive, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, on August 24 to ostensibly push Daesh out of the border town of Jarablus and the surrounding areas. The Free Syrian Army backed by Turkish warplanes, tanks, artillery and special forces seized the town largely without any resistance from Daesh. The Turkish troops and the rebels then started fighting US-backed Kurdish militias in areas that have already been liberated from the terrorist group by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

   Both Turkey and the SDF, largely made up of fighters from People’s Protection Units (YPG), are key US allies in the region.

     “The origins of the conflict lie in the fact that the United States has two policies in Syria. Initially the US policy was designed to support the opposition to the Assad regime,” Jerusalem-based journalist Seth J. Frantzman wrote for the National Interest.

   As part of these efforts, the US was vetting rebel armed groups that could prop up the so-called moderate opposition. Both the CIA and the Pentagon were involved in this process.

   The Pentagon’s $500 program was meant to produce approximately 5,000 fighters. The initiative ended in a major embarrassment for the US Department of Defense (DoD) when General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that only “four or five” US-trained rebels were fighting against Daesh.

     According to Frantzman, the rise of Daesh prompted Washington to shift its focus from trying to depose Assad to counterterrorism.

   By late 2015, “Defense Department, CIA and State Department policies began to diverge, and the Defense Department began to see the Kurdish YPG and its effective fight against [Daesh] as the best partner for the anti-[Daesh] coalition forces,” he said.

   Turkey was not happy with this plan. As Kurdish forces moved further west and closer to the Euphrates, Ankara became increasingly insistent that the river was a red line that the Kurds were not allowed to cross. High-ranking Turkish officials have repeatedly said that if the Kurds decide to move further west, the Turkish military would launch a ground operation to stop them.

This is exactly what happened.

   On August 12, the SDF took control of Manbij, a city located west of the Euphrates, in an operation that was conducted in close cooperation with the Pentagon. Three days later the Kurdish forces said that the Daesh-held town of al-Bab, situated further to the west, was their next target, adding that the Manbij offensive would continue until the militants are pushed out of surrounding areas.

   Two weeks later Ankara sent its Armed Forces to northern Syria.

   On August 24, several hours after Operation Euphrates Shield was launched, US Vice President Joe Biden sent a strong message to the Kurds, saying that they must move back east of the Euphrates. Two days later John Kerry downplayed US support for the Kurds saying that there “has been some limited engagement with a component of Kurd fighters on a limited basis.”

     Washington’s response to Turkey’s incursion undoubtedly upset many Kurdish fighters since they, not Ankara, were instrumental in the US-led anti-Daesh efforts in northern Syria.

   “There is ample evidence that the DoD has been in competition with the CIA to find viable partners and that the DoD has been more successful in its relationship with the Kurds and SDF, who are far more effective than the plethora of Syrian rebel groups.”

   Moreover, the clashes between the Turkish military and the YPG appear to be pointing to Ankara’s true goals in this region.

   “The risk the United States faces is alienating the Kurds and seeing the SDF salient in Manbij collapse. This will set back US plans to launch a strike on Raqqa and cut off the head of the [Daesh] snake,” Frantzman observed.

‘Or We’ll Force Them Out’: Kurdish PYD Demands Turkey’s Withdrawal From Syria

Turkish army tanks take position near the Syrian border

 

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party demanded an immediate withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria after Ankara had launched an operation to liberate the city of Jarablus from Daesh.

 The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) demands that Turkey immediately withdraws its forces from the territory of Syria, a representative for PYD in France, Khaled Isa, told Sputnik on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Turkish tanks entered Syria as part of an operation to free the border town of Jarablus from militants.

“Turkey is trying to turn its indirect occupation of Syria into a direct one,” Isa said. “We demand that Turkey immediately withdraws from the territory of Syria, stops supporting terrorist groups in Syria, otherwise we will force them out of our territory.”

Ankara announced early on Wednesday that Turkish forces, reinforced by US-led coalition aircraft, had begun a military operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield” to clear the Syrian border town of Jarablus of Daesh militants.Turkey’s operation in northern Syria is aimed at stopping the threats posed by Daesh (banned in Russia) and Kurdish militants, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Ankara considers PYD an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant organization outlawed in Turkey.