Arab News on November 13, 2018. Foreign powers jockey for influence in northern Syria

This article was published in Arab News on November 13, 2018.
Foreign powers jockey for influence in northern Syria

A summit meeting held in Istanbul last month brought Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan together with his Russian and French counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They were not, of course, expected to solve the Syrian crisis, but they reconfirmed their resolve for convening the constitutional committee before the end of the year, as well as their tacit support for the agreement reached in Sochi between Erdogan and Putin for the prevention of carnage in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
As the light at the end of the tunnel becomes clearer in the Syrian crisis, the foreign actors’ race to gain leverage continues unabated in the north of the country. This is, at the same time, a race to gain zones of influence.
The Sochi agreement on Idlib is an important milestone in the evolution of the Syrian crisis. It brought Turkey deeper in the crisis and took it one step closer to Russia. The power balance in Idlib thus tilted slightly in favor of Turkish-Russian cooperation. Iran is also part of this cooperation in its capacity as a member of the Astana triumvirate, but it is not as active as the two others. However, this cooperation is counterbalanced by Russia’s strong support for the Syrian regime. Iran stands on the Moscow-Damascus side of this equation.
Turkish-Russian cooperation has fared well so far, but it is likely to face another crossroads when the day comes to decide what to do with the extremist opposition fighters in Syria.
In another chapter in the northern Syrian arena, the tension is not entirely eased between Ankara and Washington on the evacuation from Manbij of the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This tension stems from the repeated postponements by the US of living up to a promise made to Turkey when Manbij was being liberated, in 2016, by the US-led anti-Daesh coalition. Turkey did everything it could to prevent the YPG fighters from crossing to the west of the Euphrates.
After years of intensive negotiations, a road map was drawn up by Turkey and the US, which provided for the evacuation of the YPG fighters from the city, but the US is dragging its feet with a view to striking a delicate balance between NATO ally Turkey and a non-state actor, the YPG.
To demonstrate its disillusionment with Washington’s ambiguous attitude, the YPG made some overtures to Damascus to reach a modus vivendi on the city’s administration and the exploitation of the natural resources in the areas east of the Euphrates.
Parallel to this evolution, in March 2017, the Legislative Assembly of Manbij approved the appointments of the members of 13 municipal committees, which included 71 Arabs, 43 Kurds, 10 Turkmen, eight Circassians, an Armenian and a Chechen. Each committee acts as a ministry and, at the beginning of October, the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria announced the opening of provincial branches of these committees in other parts of the self-declared autonomous regions.
Turkish-Russian cooperation has fared well so far, but it is likely to face another crossroads when the day comes to decide what to do with the extremist opposition fighters in Syria.
Yasar Yakis
Erdogan repeatedly states that, once Manbij is cleared of YPG “terrorists,” the administration of the city will be entrusted to the “legitimate representatives,” meaning that the Kurds who support the YPG will be left out. This statement indicates that the “legitimate representatives” means different things to different parties.
Major actors have different designs for the east of the Euphrates. Turkey’s top priority has always been to thwart any attempts to create a Kurdish entity in the north of Syria. It only belatedly grasped the importance of the east of the Euphrates and that the emergence of a Kurdish entity there would have more lasting negative effects on Turkey’s security than the Euphrates Shield or Olive Branch operations.
For the US, the most important task is to supply weapons and ammunition and provide training to the YPG, despite Turkey’s fierce opposition. Another task is to uproot the Iranian presence in the region before the Kurdish self-rule is consolidated.
Russia is also strongly supporting the Kurdish cause, but prefers, at this stage, to remain slightly distant and let the US exhaust all its ammunition, so that it may enter the scene in this part of the game when it can play a more conclusive role. The US and Russia may be cooperating on many Kurdistan-related issues. They are certainly on the same boat for drafting a constitution favoring the devolution of powers to the local administrations and leaving the road open for a federal structure in the longer run.
For Iran, northern Syria is important for helping Damascus extend its sovereignty to the entire territory; not letting the US settle there; and keeping the supply line open to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The power balance in Syria will evolve according to the interactions among these and innumerable other factors.

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