This article was published in Arab News on November 7, 2017.
Race heats up for zones of influence in Syria
As the anti-Daesh fight nears an end, the race for zones of influence is flaring up among the big foreign stakeholders, Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey.
The rivalry between the US and Russia is translated into action by racing to re-take the oil-rich provinces from Daesh. The Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), equipped and strongly supported by the US, seized Raqqa from Daesh but has not yet ceded the entire control of the city’s administration to the local people. The US may be contemplating handing it over to forces that it may use in the future as a leverage on the Syrian government.
Raqqa is also important because of its proximity to the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province. The SDF, on Oct. 22, seized in this province from Daesh the Al-Omar oilfield, which accounts for around a quarter of Syria’s pre-war oil output. With this new seizure, the SDF now controls around 80 percent of Syria’s oilfields. Russia-supported Syrian government forces reciprocated by capturing Deir Ezzor.
Kurds have already proclaimed the autonomy of the provinces that they control and have an eye on almost all of the oilfields in these provinces. This is more than a fair share for them. They have to settle for an equitable allocation of oil revenues. Otherwise the oil issue will remain as a source of instability for a long time. The Syrian government is not opposed to the idea of granting them a certain degree of autonomy, but not in all oil-rich provinces, especially the ones where Kurds do not constitute the majority of the population.
The Trump administration’s Syria policy is not yet clear. Russia and Iran, as well as the Syrian Kurds, are using this state of indecision to gain as much terrain as possible to be in a stronger position at the negotiation table.
Another rivalry in Syria between the US and Russia is on the Kurdish issue. The Syrian Kurds expect to receive rewards for having cooperated with the US in Raqqa and elsewhere. Having suffered disillusionment in front of the Baghdad government forces, the Iraqi Kurds do not know how the US will handle their cause. Russia is working hard to make the Syrian Kurds part of the democratization process. Kurds will use this rivalry to gain as much terrain as possible.
There is also US-Iran competition in many areas in Syria, one of which is the control of the Syrian part of the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus route. This route is important for Iran to supply arms and ammunition to Hezbollah. The US wishes to control it and Deir Ezzor is the most suitable location to interrupt this supply.
Despite some cooperation, Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey are all vying to assert their dominance now that the fight against Daesh is ending.
Russia and Iran are cooperating on several Syria-related issues, but this cooperation has an uncertain future, because Russia would not like Iran to become an important actor in Syria that will compete with it, while Iran is expecting the return of huge financial and military support that it has extended to Syria.
Pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or Hashd Al-Shaabi) have expressed willingness to support the government forces in Syria. The PMU is fighting Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq to expel them from “disputed territories.” In Syria, it will cooperate with the government forces and this will weaken the position of the Syrian Kurds.
Another stakeholder in Syria is Turkey, which has a strong military presence in the west of Manbij province in northern Aleppo and in the Idlib province. Despite the Syrian government’s protest against Turkey’s military presence, there is a certain degree of legitimacy for its presence in Idlib, because Turkish troops are deployed there according to a decision adopted in the Astana meeting where the Syrian government was also represented. Turkey’s recognized role in Idlib is to observe the cease-fire in a de-confliction zone, but Turkey is of course more focused on not letting the Kurds establish an uninterrupted Kurdish belt in its southern borders.
Russia is cooperating with Turkey in Idlib but does not want it to go beyond the limits that it will tolerate. When Turkey opposed the participation of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) representatives in the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov commented that “they are citizens of Syria, not Turkey.”
These rivalries have to be considered as lesser wars in a bigger war.