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The future of eastern Syria and the Israeli interest

A recent visit to an enclave controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed its importance as a bulwark against Iran
In this Saturday June 22, 2017 photo, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria. Several weeks ago, the SDF which is dominated by Syrian Kurdish forces with a mix of Sunni Arab militias and a Christian faction made a swift and surprising advance, breaking through the historic wall that surrounds the old center of Raqqa. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
In this Saturday June 22, 2017 photo, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria. Several weeks ago, the SDF which is dominated by Syrian Kurdish forces with a mix of Sunni Arab militias and a Christian faction made a swift and surprising advance, breaking through the historic wall that surrounds the old center of Raqqa. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The war between the Assad regime in Syria and the largely Sunni Arab uprising against it which began in March 2011 is now in its closing stages. The last independent rebel enclaves in parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces have ceased to be. As of now, the rebellion remains in two parts of the country. In both these areas, the rebels can maintain themselves only because their presence is supported by an outside power.

The two areas are the US base at al-Tanf and the surrounding area, and the Turkish maintained area of control extending from Jarabulus on the Syrian Turkish border, westwards to include the Afrin area, and then south to Idleb Province.

The medium to long term existence of these enclaves is far from assured. But in any case, they represent a transition in the civil war in which rebel fighters are no longer pursuing a political project of their own. They have of necessity become contractors working for foreign powers with their own projects in Syria.

The situation reflects a sea change in the Syrian dynamic. The Assad regime is no longer under threat. Thanks to Iranian and Russian assistance, its survival is now ensured. It remains, however, in possession of only 60% of the territory of Syria. The largest area now outside of regime control is the 30% of the country under the control of the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SPD). The Syrian situation is now dependent on the decisions and the rivalries of outside powers, not primarily on the wishes of Syrians on all sides. In the case of the 30% of Syria controlled by the SDF, its future is dependent on the US.

If the US chooses to quit eastern Syria, the SDF will have little choice but to negotiate their surrender with the authorities in Damascus.  Failure to do so will leave them vulnerable either to the fate of their comrades in Afrin – invasion by Turkey, or to that of the rebels in Ghouta, Deraa and Quneitra – forceful reoccupation at the hands of the regime/Iran/Russia.

In late July, I travelled to the SDF enclave in eastern Syria, visiting Raqqa City, Manbij, Qamishli, Ein Issa and Kobani.  The intention was to gauge the sentiment among both officials and ordinary people regarding the present state of affairs in Syria, and in particular regarding the prospect of the regime’s return.

The first thing which strikes a visitor to this part of Syria is the relatively peaceful and orderly atmosphere.  I visited all parts of Syria during the war (except for the ISIS area of control). Rebel areas were always characterized by chaos. Your security was dependent on the authority of the particular rebel group with which you were embedded. In the regime-controlled areas, one is immediately aware of being in a totalitarian state, in which the power of the authorities has penetrated every human interaction and normal straightforward dialogue with strangers is impossible.  While the SDF controlled area is no democratic paradise, it is qualitatively different in atmosphere.

However, one still has to be careful. The regime, in its visible form, is not entirely gone from the SDF controlled spaces. In the cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh, Assad’s forces are deployed in ‘security squares’, i.e., areas of regime military control, supplied via the regime controlled military airport at Qamishli.  Travelling west of Qamishli requires a careful traversing of the city, to avoid these enclaves. Foreigners straying too close to them have been detained by Assad’s newly-confident soldiers in recent weeks.

The SDF-controlled area looks more secure than it is. In Raqqa and Manbij, the civic councils are functioning, the SDF and Asayish security police checkpoints are as ubiquitous and efficient as ever.  But underneath the apparent normality, there is anxiety.  The question on everyone’s lips is: Are the Americans staying? There is no easy answer.

In March 2018, President Donald Trump vowed to bring home American troops within the year. There are 2000 declared US Special Forces personnel in the SDF-controlled area. The real number is probably twice that. Trump’s statement added to the sense of insecurity.

SDF officials and their civilian counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) remain, at least for public consumption, optimistic about the possibility of a long-term American presence to underwrite their enclave.

Aldar Khalil, one of the top officials in the enclave, said that “It is not logical that the US will leave immediately or soon. After ISIS, the US will fight Iran. And they will fight Iran within Syria.”

From this point of view, the SDF enclave, which emerged as part of the war against ISIS, would be integrated into an emergent US strategy to contain and push back the Iranians. “Many projects are in Syria – that of the Turks, of the Russians, of the Iranians. The Americans see us as the least dangerous, the most moderate,” added Khalil.

Mustafa Bali, chief media officer of the SDF, concurred: “US interests require them to be here,” speaking at a dusty SDF base in the town of Ein Issa. “The US is concerned by the Iranian crescent” (– meaning the desire of the Iranians for a contiguous line of control stretching from the Iraq-Iran border via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea).

And as Nuri Mahmoud, SDF spokesman, notes, “We have been in coalition with the US since the Kobani battle. There has been media speculation regarding imminent withdrawal. Putin also once said that his forces were leaving – but the opposite took place. Syria today is a place of international confrontation, in which all forces seek to strengthen their allies on the ground. The US will not leave Syria without stability on the ground.  And we see no evidence of imminent withdrawal.”

These sentiments are to a degree supported by the latest statements of US officials.  Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking in early June, said that “As the operations ultimately draw to a close, we must avoid leaving a vacuum in Syria that can be exploited by the Assad regime or its supporters.”

A report in the Times of London on July 27, meanwhile, cited ‘Gulf sources’ as confirming that President Trump in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki that US troops would remain in Syria until Iranian forces withdrew.

The Times article also noted that National Security Advisor John Bolton told ABC News that US forces would remain “as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East.” This sounds like a commitment that ought to offer reassurance to Washington’s Kurdish allies.

Actions, however, are a better guide than sentiments. And it appears that the SDF/SDC leaders remain skeptical regarding US long term plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place between their representatives and those of the Assad regime, in Damascus.

It is not quite clear where things are heading. But Israel’s interest in this is clear. Maintenance of the east Syria enclave and the base at al-Tanf means keeping a substantial physical obstacle to the Iranian hope for a contiguous ‘corridor.’ It would also prevent an overall Iranian triumph in the war, and give the West a place at the table in any substantive political negotiation over Syria’s future.

Israel should hence make its voice heard via all available channels in Washington, in both the executive and the legislature, in support of the maintenance of the SDF enclave in eastern Syria.

Specifically, efforts should be made to ensure a formal US declaration of a no-fly zone for regime and regime-allied aircraft east of the Euphrates. This move, reminiscent of the no-fly zone declared over Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War of 1991, would with one stroke ensure the continued viability of the SDF-controlled area. There should also be a formal recognition of the SDF zone, or the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,’ as it is formally known. This entity is not seeking independence from Damascus, so western concerns regarding the formal break up of Syria need not be raised by such a move.

As the strategic contest between Iran and its allies and the US and its allies in the Middle East moves into high gear, it is essential that the West maintain its alliances and investments, and behaves and is seen to behave as a credible and loyal patron and ally. Eastern Syria currently constitutes a testing ground for this. In Qamishli, Kobani and other hard defended zones, its people await the West’s decision.

This article, originally appearing as a policy paper of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, is republished with permission.

About the Author
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Syria, Iraq, radical Islamic groups, and Kurds, is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, December 2017), and The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010).
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