This article was published in Arab News on July 18, 2017.
Multiple wars in Syria
Syria’s multiple wars continue unabated in various parts of the country. Fighting Daesh is apparently a priority for almost all major actors in Syria, but a barely concealed competition is ongoing between Russia, the US, Iran, Israel and Turkey to secure zones of influence.
Russia’s priority is to establish a military presence in Syria, so it is using the anti-Daesh fight to secure the Damascus region because it wants to maintain strong relations with the future regime, with or without President Bashar Assad. An equally important motive is to prevent any potential threat to its naval base in Tartus and its air base in Hmeimim, south of Latakia.
The US has two priorities: To contain Iran’s ability to supply weapons and ammunition to Hezbollah, and to facilitate its own objectives in Iraq. Hence the intense military activity in and around Tanf, a small border town in southeast Syria on the Damascus-Baghdad highway.
This road is the most suitable land corridor to link Iran with Damascus and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. So in its anti-Daesh fight, Tehran is focusing on controlling this route. Foiling this Iranian plan is crucial to Israel, and the US is helping it in this task. All these operations are being carried out under the cover of fighting Daesh.
The US wants to keep the Syrian territories next to Iraq’s Anbar province under its control. If Iraq breaks up following the Kurdish independence referendum later this year, the country’s Shiite part is likely to fall into Iran’s zone of influence. The US may then need to change the balance of power in its favor by supporting Iraq’s Sunni part from the American-controlled region of Syria.
The US declared a “de-confliction zone” around Tanf on behalf of the anti-Daesh coalition. This is different from the UN-approved “de-escalation zones” agreed in Astana in May by Turkey, Russia and Iran. Damascus and Moscow do not consider the unilaterally declared “de-confliction zone” legal.
If Iraq breaks up following the Kurdish independence referendum later this year, the country’s Shiite part is likely to fall into Iran’s zone of influence. The US may then need to change the balance of power in its favor by supporting Iraq’s Sunni part from the American-controlled region of Syria.
US forces attacked pro-Damascus forces when they entered the zone. The small border town of Tanf, in the sparsely populated desert, has become prominent because of this strategic fight between the US and Iran. These operations are also being carried out under the cover of fighting Daesh.
US support for the Kurds is another part of this strategy. The fight to oust Daesh from its de facto capital Raqqa is being carried out by the US in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed mainly of Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This cooperation remains a thorny issue between Ankara and Washington. It is not yet known whether the YPG will be allowed to take part in governing the city after Daesh is ousted.
Raqqa is a Sunni city with strong tribal ties. It did not participate actively in the anti-regime uprising. So after Daesh is ousted, Raqqa tribes may be inclined to cooperate with the regime, especially now that its removal is no longer a priority among the major players. Kurds do not constitute more than 7 percent of the indigenous population. If the US does not persuade them to withdraw from Raqqa after its liberation, US-Turkish tensions will continue.
Ankara’s main concern continues to be Kurdish encroachment in areas of northern Syria where they are a minority. It is not yet clear whether Turkey will carry out a military operation in the northern Syrian province of Afrin.
Ankara is probably aware of the risks of such an operation. But military preparations may have given the Kurds a warning that Turkey is serious about such an operation, and that its worries will be dispelled only if they give up their aspiration to turn northern Syria into an uninterrupted Kurdish belt.