It is becoming more difficult to grasp the entangled strategies of the principle players in northern Syria, even for well versed observers who follow the situation there on daily bases. The post-Raqqa situation has five main challenges:
* How can the US avoid a long-term commitment to the security of that region
* How to prevent the return of ISIL
* How to stabilize the lines between the Turks and the Kurds
*How to prevent Iran and its proxies from grabbing that area
* And how to create a sustainably stable and safe situation
We understand that there has been a profound review of the situation in that area in the White House in the last few weeks. There are contradicting reports about the conclusions. But whatever was decided, if there were indeed clear cut policies agreed-upon, any attempt to reach conclusive and positive answers in the five mentioned challenges would be an attempt to square the circle.
Giving the territory of north-east Syria to Assad, Hezbollah and the IRGC will definitely result in the resurrection of ISIL as a counter measure taken by hostile regional powers. Giving this territory to the PKK and its YPG will certainly result in creating another Nusra assisted by some circles in Ankara. Offering it to Russia will be followed by a Russian decision to delegate it to Assad and his Iranian and Shia allies for lack of interest in investing heavily and for a long time in Syria. Giving it to Turkey will mean a series of massacres against the Kurds. And due to the previous administration’s fatal errors, there is no local Syrian power that is able to push back on Nusra or ISIL if they try a comeback.
But if you go in, you must also know how to get out. So, the question debated in Washington is not any more how to attack Raqqa, rather it is who will run this space after Raqqa.
However, the issue seems to be debated with a priori, or an already fixed idea: not to have any US long-term mandate in north-east Syria. In this sense, the debate started from the premises of two given choices; either long-term mandate or very short engagement then “Aurevoir”. If this is truly the case, then creative ideas are not explored thoroughly enough.
Mission creep is not a destiny set by some Greek Gods and left to humans to helplessly fulfill. As there is mission creep there is also gradual disengagement. If a proper Syrian force is created, and there is enough materiel to start, it could be assisted later on with a moderate Kurdish force, once credible assurances are given to the Turks and Ankara accepts them. Arab countries can provide substantial assistance in that regard. This could also be coordinated with the Russians. There is no reason for Moscow to reject it so long as it does not attack Assad’s western territories and it as such a force is committed to fight the resurgence of ISIL or similar groups.
The creation of a moderate and strong Syrian (Arab and Kurdish) force in the north east should be based on a unified Syrian territory and strictly within this frame. A creative form of relation could be worked out between this region and Damascus. If difficult, be it. The status should remain as it is until we see a better day.
But why would not we go the other way-that is letting Assad control that region? The reason is clear from previous experiences. Assad does not have what it takes to control this territory. He would be compelled to call Hezbollah and the IRGC to rescue his forces. Furthermore, the presence of Assad forces invites resistance by Syrians, who may listen then to ISIL’s offers of weapons and a reserved place in paradise on top.
This implies that the US should change its approach in north-east Syria. It should work out a plan to train a strictly vetted Syrian force, all the while discussing the assurances Ankara wants to obtain in return for lifting its veto and assisting in the project of building a moderate Kurdish force to join their Arab brethren. Turkey has a very good relation with Iraq’s Kurdistan, and Iraq’s KRG can help. The US will also be required to talk to the Russians and the Arabs about its intentions and what is needed from them to make sure that ISIL or Nusra will not re-emerge in that region.
Will this mean a freezing of the current picture in north-east Syria until the proposed moderate force is built? Yes, it would. Raqqa is encircled from the four sides now. Leave ISIL to rot slowly there. It cannot hurt anyone from Raqqa anymore, particularly if the siege becomes also electronic and very strict on land and across the Euphrates.
US objectives in that area are clear: prevent the resurgence of ISIL or similar groups – keep a US-friendly force in control there-prevent Iran and its stooges from grabbing that region, and avoiding a long-term commitment.
Russia’s objectives are also clear: keeping Assad in power (that is keeping the Syrian state structure in control in Damascus) – preventing the resurgence of ISIL – and, allowing Iran’s expansion as a very last resort (resisting it unless there is no other options)
Turkey’s objectives are already and repeatedly expressed by the Turks for the last few years: prevent a PKK controlled entity across the borders.
Iran and the Arabs are dead determined to prevent each other from controlling that region.
Evaluating these contradicting objectives should start from categorizing them. For example, Russia’s objectives are benign. Moscow will not get more than what it already has. Moreover, Moscow understands the consequences of fueling a continuation of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East if north Syria is given to the IRGC and Hezbollah. That implies that Iran’s objectives are not benign from the perspective of pacifying Syria and the region.
While the US compromised, for free, its Assad’s future negotiating card during the last year, it still can, and convincingly so, argue that an Assad control over north east Syria will certainly produce another ISIL. This is the simple truth. And Russia knows it. Giving the area to the IRGC will produce ISIL’s in many other spots as well. So, it is not a viable option if rationally examined. Mistakes should not be repeated.
We still think that it is possible to reach an accommodation with Ankara. Maybe some tough love and some superficial concessions can help. Ultimately, it is extremely short sighted policy to depend on the PKK under the pretext of defeating ISIL fast. ISIL is already defeated and what is remaining is just the burial ceremony, the symbolism and the usual political blah, blah.
Iran has to be told that it already got its boy seated relatively comfortably in Damascus and if it wants more it will practically end with less.
Now is the time to think in long term lexicon. It is the time to make up for the missed opportunities of 2012 and 2013. It is the time to start building a truly strong Syrian force of two wings: Arab and Kurdish. Iraq’s Peshmerga can help. The Turks, Arabs and Russians can help, provided that the cards of each are played in total transparency. And in fact, whoever will try to cheat this time will end up losing quite a lot.
The golden rule is that none other than the indigenous inhabitants of a place can keep it safe. The inhabitants of north east Syria are Arab and Kurdish Syrians. Maintaining peace and security in that region should be delegated primarily to them. The mission of US and Russia is to train a moderate effective force made of Syrians in that region. It will take time, and that does not fit with the mentalities of the theatrical optics that come with “mission accomplished” shows. But this will be the only safe way to calm Syria and the region. If Moscow wants to avoid the anger of its allies in Tehran and Damascus, it can always “lead from behind” as a great strategist once said! Russia can maintain calm in west Syria and the US can help stabilizing the east. If this does not imply partition, and it should not under any circumstances, then we may realistically envision a day when Syria will come together to rebuild its future and make up for lost years.
16 March, 2017