More Wars in Syria

Why has the Trump administration reverted to the regime-change agenda?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Syrian foreign ministry has had an exceptionally busy week, not just preparing for upcoming talks in Vienna and Sochi to seek a political solution to the crisis, but also responding to moves by Turkey and the US:  Turkey’s threat to invade northern Syria to wipe out the forces of the Kurdish People Protection Units (YDP) there, and the US’ declaration that it would keep its troops in Syria indefinitely and its revival of its regime-change agenda for the country.

In a speech on the current administration’s foreign policy on Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told an audience at Stanford University that the US would maintain an “open-ended” military presence in Syria in order to achieve three main objectives: to prevent the return of Islamic State (IS) after its defeat in al-Raqqah and Mosul; to combat Iranian influence; and — most ominously — to “ensure the departure of the Asad regime.”

This prompted the authorities in Damascus to break their silence, reconsider their priorities and draw up plans to confront the American military presence in the east of the country. For now, this consists of some 2,000 specialists who are engaged in training and arming a 30,000-strong Kurdish army and planning the creation of a Kurdish state — which this force would set up and protect — where permanent US military bases could be established.

The Syrian leadership, which has been pursuing a graduated approach to confronting its many enemies on its territory, clearly feels that plans to partition the country are being put in place following the defeat of Islamic State (IS),

and that the US has adopted these plans in full. It has become alert to this threat and has begun to confront it, with the foreign ministry stating that “the American military presence on Syrian territory is illegitimate and illegal, constitutes a violation if international law, and aims at protecting the Daesh (IS) organization which was established by the Obama administration. We will confront this illegitimate presence.”

The Syrian foreign ministry’s statement did not say when or how this illegal American military presence would be confronted. But a mysterious statement was unexpectedly issued by an organization calling itself the ‘Syria Allied Forces’ Operations Room’. This threatened to “launch strikes against American forces in Syria and the region at the appropriate time” in response raids by US-led coalition attacks on Syrian army units in the al-Tanaf district adjoining the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. The statement added that the lack of retaliation to date was due to “restraint, not weakness.

This is the first time we have heard of this organization. It is not unlikely that it is a variant of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces composed of Syrian and/or Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese volunteers, formed to launch attacks on US forces in northeastern Syria and possibly also western Iraq (where some 5,000 US personal are based) like those mounted by the Iraqi resistance against the US occupation after the 2003 invasion.

What else does Tillerson expect when he declares that his country’s forces will remain in Syria even after the defeat of IS to fight against and destroy Iranian influence and remove President Bashar al-Asad from power? Does he think the Syrian and Iranian regimes will shower him with roses and stage rallies to sing his praises?

 

The biggest strategic challenge facing the Syrian leadership is the prospect of having to wage two big military confrontations simultaneously: against the US and its secessionist plans in the north, and also the Turkish threat to invade the YDP-controlled cities of Afrin and Manbaj.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad warned on Thursday that the Syrian air force would shoot down any intruding Turkish warplanes, and that any Turkish incursion would be deemed an act of aggression.

It is unlikely he would have issued such a strong statement against Turkey without a nod from Russia, which opposes any Turkish intervention in Afrin and has strong ties with the Kurdish forces in control there.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose relations with both the US and Russia are tense due to their links to Kurdish militias he considers to be terrorists, cannot afford to clash with both superpowers simultaneously and thus lose the support of both. That is why he sent his army and intelligence chiefs to meet with the Russian defence minister and seek Moscow’s support for his goals.

We do not know what message the two Turkish envoys passed on, but it is hard to imagine Russia approving an assault on Afrin and Manbaj. Even if a deal was reached, the Russians have their own demands: the lifting of the Turkish veto on Kurdish representation at the Syrian peace conference in Sochi, and for Ankara to work more closely with Damascus and Tehran in countering the US’ dismemberment schemes which threaten all alike.

Erdogan has a tough call to make. He has threatened to ensure that the US-backed Kurdish army in northern Syrian is still-born, vowed to invade Afrin and Manbaj, and brought together 22,000 Syrian opposition fighters to support such an operation. In other words, he has climbed up a tall tree which he cannot come down from without a Russian ladder.

Syria clearly does not oppose the strangulation of the nascent Kurdish army, and would welcome any Turkish-American clash that might ensue. But it will not turn a blind eye to a Turkish intervention in Afrin. Erdogan must decide whom to confront first: the Russian-backed Syrians in northern Syria, or the American-backed Kurds in the northeast. Taking on both at the same time would be suicidal.

2018 is set to be a year of bug battles on Syrian territory, in which the map of alliances will definitely change. These may develop from proxy wars, waged by external powers via Syrian, Arab and Kurdish clients, into direct wars. It may still be January, but the indications and outlook are ominous.