Turkey’s October invasion of Syria forced the United States to withdraw from territory it de-facto controlled along the border and prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to reach a narrow, security-focused arrangement with the Syrian regime to return to a series of towns and territory in the northeast. The Turkish armed forces have separately reached an agreement with the United States and Russia for a safe-zone, spanning the territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn and extending down to the M4 highway. This Turkish zone fall far short of Ankara’s original plan to take control over the entirety of the northeast, but prompted the Syrian Kurds to invite the regime and the Russian Federation back to territory Damascus had abandoned in 2012.
At the edges of the Turkish zone, Ankara’s proxies have clashed directly with the Syrian Arab Army and the SDF. Ankara’s relative hands-off approach to these skirmishes suggests that Turkey is content with allowing its Arab proxies to clash with the regime in Ain Issa and Tel Tamr, but is not politically prepared to fight for control over these two towns. The clashes, however, have helped to solidify the narrow, security specific entente between the SDF and the Syrian regime.
Throughout the Syrian civil conflict, the SDF has, quite rightly, refused to sever its ties with Damascus, given the Syrian Kurds’ broader concerns about the Turkish sponsored anti-Assad opposition. However, it has also chosen to partner and host American and European military forces, a policy anathema to Bashar al Assad’s longer-term demand to take back control over the entire of the country, and to expel all uninvited foreign forces. The SDF has become dependent on foreign forces to protect its political project, which is premised on radical political decentralization and the maintenance of an armed group that operates outside the control of the Syrian Arab Army’s chain of command. Simply put: Assad is not going to accept the SDF proposals and, for now, the Syrian Kurds have not offered any compromises that threaten its own de-facto control over the northeast.
The Syrian regime has, for now, the luxury of choosing its battles. With Russia’s open-ended support, the regime can focus the brunt of its military power on Idlib. The “Turkey issue” is, for now, Russia’s to manage and to contain. After Idlib is retaken, the regime can work through Moscow to push for an outcome that is not detrimental Bashar’s interests, and includes a demand for foreign forces to leave the country. At this point in the conflict, the regime and its allies are certain to increase pressure on the SDF, so as to ensure that any effort to create parallel political and military structures is prevented.
The American presence, now south of the M4 highway and in the isolated Al Tanf base in southeastern Syria, is unlikely to prevent this outcome. The United States has managed to slow and complicate a SDF-regime agreement over the future of the northeast, but the American presence is temporary and will eventually end. Projecting forward, the SDF will eventually have to grapple with a post-American Syria, and how a broken state, under Bashar’s control (with Moscow’s security guarantee) will use the threat of military force to coerce Kurdish acquiescence to regime rule. The United States could play a more constructive role, but to do so it would need to reach agreement with Russia about the future of Syria and the role of the Syrian Kurds within it. This approach would require iterative and open dialogue between the United States and Russia and would require Moscow be willing to make concessions to Washington, and vice versa.
Absent a U.S.—Russian agreement, the Syrian Kurds will have to grapple with a recalcitrant regime, determined to eliminate a separatist project. The United States could seek to level the playing field, if it chose to narrow its own goals in Syria, and work to ensure that Russia guarantees some security guarantees for the SDF. However, absent any broader, top-down U.S.—Russian agreement towards this end, the most likely outcome is that Damascus and Moscow will use coercion to force the SDF to yield to regime control. This does not necessarily mean that the regime wont make some minor concessions to the Kurds, but any such endeavor is almost certain to fall short of the core Kurdish demand for autonomous rule, and require the hard return of the regime to Syria’s northeast.
As the guarantor power for the Syrian state, Russia has a series of intractable problems it now has signed up to manage. While Russia may try to wash its hands of the Syrian civil war once the battle for Idlib ends and the conflict shifts towards an open-ended counter insurgency campaign, Moscow will still have to grapple with these complicated intra-Syrian challenges if it intends to secure regime control over the country. To manage this quixotic problem set, Russia, does have an interest in dialogue with Washington, but has not yet signaled it is willing to make the compromises necessary to actually find common ground with the United States. Beyond this, the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurds have opposing political and military goals that will not be easily reconciled. Turkey has created a regime-Kurdish alliance of convenience, but once Ankara is removed from the equation, the basic tension between the Syrian regime and the SDF will re-emerge and conflict could ensue. As the regime’s guarantor, Moscow now has to grapple with these challenges, giving Washington an avenue to exploit if it has the political fortitude to take advantage of potential Russian over reach. A true pathway to end conflict requires all sides to compromise, but even after years of war, no side appears willing to engage in substantive talks to end the war.
Aaron Stein, USA, Director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.