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Assad versus the Kurds in Northeast Syria

Assume you are a Syrian Arab living side-by-side with other Syrian Kurds in Hasakah, a city with considerable Kurdish minority, in northeastern Syria. The city is under the control of Kurdish forces except for roughly a quarter of its total area. Then assume that you see the forces of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fighting the Kurdish forces to control the city while telling its Arab population that they must side with their Arab “brothers” to fight the Kurds. Obviously, if the anti-Assad Arab-Kurdish front in that part of Syria collapses, this will transcend the fall of Hasakah into the hands of al-Assad’s forces. It will lead to a long term mini-civil war in the northeastern part of Syria.

The US has a small military base around 4 miles to the northwest of the city. It will be telling to see what American forces will do upon seeing the fight between two forces, both saying that they fight ISIL, getting closer to this base. So far, and until the moment of writing this report, US forces settled with a visible statement, through flying some helicopters over the base, that they are there.

The reaction of the Turks was different, however. Now, that they see their enemy in Damascus, al-Assad, fighting their enemies everywhere, the YPG or pro-PKK People’s Protection Units, they must be, shall we say, happy.

And happy they are. Turkish premier Binali Yıldırım observed Saturday that Damascus must have understood that Kurds in northern Syria have become a threat, after regime jets pounded US-backed Kurdish forces in the country’s northeast late last week.

“This is a new situation. It is clear that the regime has understood that the structure the Kurds are trying to form in the north (of Syria) has started to become a threat for Syria too,” Yıldırım told foreign correspondents in Istanbul August 20, referring to the Syrian Kurds’ bid to join up regions under their control.

Moreover, Yıldırım vowed Ankara would play a “more active” role in the next six months in stepping up its efforts towards solving the five-year Syrian civil war.

“We say the bloodshed needs to stop. Babies, children, innocent people should not die. That’s why Turkey will be more active in trying to stop the danger getting worse in the next six months, compared with before,” Yıldırım said.

Now, the voices that tried to downplay any potential change in Turkey’s policies on Syria will have to explain the reason why Yıldırım, in the same press conference, adopted the position of his ambassador in Moscow to the letter. The Prime Minister said al-Assad could have a role in the interim process but he must play no part in its future. This is different from what Ankara insisted on just a few months ago.

But it is worthwhile observing that US fighters did not intervene in the fight between its allies in the YPG and the Assad army. However, US jets intercepted Syria SU-24 Fencers twice when they got too close to the US base that hosts around 300 US military personnel in a mission to train the Kurds. Syrian pilots did not respond to the radio calls of on the emergency frequency nor did they acknowledge calls attempted by the coalition on the air safety channel used for communication with the Russian aircraft operating over Syria. In any case, when the US fighters reached the area, the Syrian jets had already left. A Pentagon spokesman warned that “the Syrian regime would be well-advised not to do things that place them (coalition forces) at risk.” Syrian military planes did not seem to be deterred by the warning. They were only deterred by facing US planes.

The firsts in this episode are evident: al-Assad bombed the Kurds for the first time. The decision was received positively in Turkey which is praising, in a first, the fact that the Syrian leader is “finally” aware of the threat of the armed Kurdish units. US forces did not intervene to protect the YPG units it has just armed and trained (this is not generally a first, but it is the first in the specific case of the Kurds). And the prospect of a direct engagement between US Air Force and Syrian SUs was a serious element.

But what to make of all this?

The assumption that al-Assad’s attacks on Hasakah are a political move, and not military, seems compelling. Al-Assad’s message is addressed to both Turkey and the US. In the case of Turkey, he wants to convey a message to Ankara that it should carry on its reset policy towards Moscow and to continue with its review of its strategy on Syria. “The Americans will not help you reduce the threat of emerging Kurdish forces on your borders. After all, the US is arming and training those Kurds. We in Damascus are where you should come to talk about the threat of the PKK,” the message seems to say.

To the US, al-Assad’s move says that he will not allow any other force, other than his own allies, to tackle the fight against ISIL. “Je suis la” the message says. “No YPG or moderate opposition has the right to fight ISIL or any other group.” The Kurdish forces that al-Assad bombs are the main force fighting ISIL on the ground. They represent the backbone of the US strategy to fight the terrorists in Syria. Does it not make anybody in Washington wonder why al-Assad is bombing the US backed forces that fight ISIL better than any other group?

The US seems to be completely outflanked and sidelined in the evolving dynamic in Syria where all the parties are rushing to achieve tangible gains on the grounds while President Obama is still in office.

The result would obviously be a move towards a political settlement in Syria based on a Russian-Turkish-Iranian-Assad deal. Everything we see now is directed at reaching a point where a group of countries led by Putin impose a solution for Syria. Unfortunately, there is no other explanation to where the current cerography will lead to.

Yet, it is wrong to assume that Turkey will sign a document that totally betrays the hopes of the Syrian people. The problem in this regard is that Ankara’s stance may gradually thin until it reaches a point where it becomes merely a face-saving discourse, much as its position on normalizing relations with Israel.

We may see a faster dance during the next six months or so. The pace is set by the Kremlin, and the dancers are heading to the floor one after the other. The US is not invited, except to spread the stars and stripes at the very end of a long and busy party where it had a marginal role.

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