East of the Euphrates


The SDF should stop playing the role of US proxy in eastern Syria: it will eventually be abandoned anyway

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Pentagon announced at the weekend that Russian warplanes bombed a site held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates River, and the Syrian army shelled another of the militia’s positions in an industrial area in the city of Deir az-Zour, wounding six fighters.

Russia officially denied this, insisting its operations in the area are confined to ‘ ‘pinpoint strikes only on [Islamic State] targets that have been observed and confirmed through several channels.’

But the denial does not change two basic facts: First, the SDF, consisting mostly of Kurdish fighters, is backed by the US and receives arms, training and support from the American military. Secondly, its attempt to take seize Deir az-Zour and ar-Raqqa and keep the Syrian army out is illegal and illegitimate: it amounts to an irregular militia challenging the sovereignty of the Syrian state at the behest of foreign backers.

Why have SDF forces have been advancing on Deir az-Zour, setting themselves up as the equivalent of the national army, and serving as a tool in the hands of the US to pursue its aggressive agenda in Syria?

Deir az-Zour and Raqqa are Syrian cities. The Syrian army has a right and duty to fight to keep them under Syria’s sovereignty, confront any military force that enters its territory without the consent of the government, and cross to the eastern bank of the Euphrates to retake control of territories it lost as part of an American scheme to dismember the country.

Moreover, the SDF leadership should understand that the American military support on which it is currently riding high will not persist. Otherwise, the US would still be supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions which it spent close to a billion dollars arming and training for six years. The fate of the SDF will be no different to that of the so-called ‘Awakening Councils in Iraq, which the US sponsored to fight al-Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 and abandoned as soon as they had completed the job.

The Syrian army will eventually re-enter Raqqa and Deir az Zour, as it did Aleppo, Palmyra and other former rebel strongholds. It is only a matter of time. The question is whether, in the process, it will clash with the SDF and its American ‘advisors’, turning the two cities into the scene of a fresh confrontation after IS is ejected from them.

Reconstruction time

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the process of winding the conflict down continues apace.

The sixth and perhaps final round of peace talks was convened in Astana last week, focused on the establishment of a new de-escalation zone in Idlib governorate – stronghold of the Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS) alliance of hardline jihadi factions.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was announced that Jaysh al-Ahrar, a coalition of 16 factions with more than 2,000 fighters and the third largest HTS grouping, was breaking away from the alliance — following in the footsteps of the Noureddin Zangi and Jaysh al-Fateh factions.

The most formidable rebel alliance in Syria is shrinking fast and being whittled down to its original core, the al-Nusra Front. Its titular leader, Abu-Jaber ash-Sheikh, is rumoured to want to resign, and its chief sharia judge Abdallah al-Muheisni and his colleague Abu-Muslih al-Olayani have been trying to return to Saudi Arabia after also quitting their posts.

This leaves the group’s military commander, Abu-Muhammad al-Golani, standing alone and facing only two options: to take refuge in Turkey, on the assumption the authorities there grant him asylum and protection. Or to fight to the death or until he is captured.

The Turkish authorities are very likely to be behind these splits given the enormous influence they wield over the armed groups. The aim may be to dismantle the terrorist-designated HTS head of a joint military campaign involving Syria, Iran, Russia and Turkey to eradicate the group and restore calm to Idlib in line with the Astana understandings.

A meeting of minds between the four countries was behind the success of the six rounds of talks at Astana between representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition factions. The parallel political process pursued in Geneva under UN auspices is meanwhile going nowhere, largely because of disarray within the ranks of the political opposition. Astana seems set to supplant Geneva process and evolve into a political negotiation process in its own right, involving the same participants with some limited additions.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had a point when he remarked recently that the war in Syria was over. So did Robert Ford – the US’ last ambassador in Damascus and an enthusiastic advocate of regime-change by force – when he said that President Bashar al-Asad and his allies had won. Asad’s letter last week to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thanking Iran for having stood by Syria for the past six years appeared aimed at sending out a similar message.

Even Saudi Arabia seems to be getting it, as evidenced by the side-lining of Riad Hijab, chief negotiator of the Saudi-sponsored wing of the offshore opposition, and by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where he said Riyadh wanted to reach a political solution in Syria without insisting on Asad’s removal.

The participation of Qatar, previously the other main Arab sponsor of the opposition and armed group, in the latest round of the Astana talks, is another telling sign.

In Damascus, the talk is of the country finally moving toward the phase of post-war reconstruction with Asad remaining at the helm.

The SDF should welcome this prospect and contribute to it, rather than allowing itself to play the role of US proxy in another war east of the Euphrates.