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Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War


A child navigates rubble and barbed wire in Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 11, 2016.

A child navigates rubble and barbed wire in Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 11, 2016.

While world powers gathered in Munich negotiate an “ambitious” cease-fire plan for Syria, forces on the ground are growing increasingly desperate, resorting to shifting strategies and alliances to survive.

It is a scenario likely only to further confuse the military situation on the ground and potentially worsen a humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions.

The Syrian Center for Policy Research reported Thursday that at least 470 thousand people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war.

Some Western officials are beginning to despair of a solution.

FILE - A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a shell toward Islamic State fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria.

FILE - A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a shell toward Islamic State fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria.

​“It is an absolute mess there,” a U.S. official told VOA, citing a part of northern Syria known as the Manbij pocket as an example.

“There are so many competing parties," the official said. “It’s really difficult to tell you what the ground truth is.”

Officials say alliances among the various rebels groups in Syria often shift by the day.

“It’s difficult to plan when things are constantly changing,” the U.S. official added.

Although Russian and Iranian support for the regime of President Bashar al Assad is clear, there is no consensus on how far the Russians and the Iranians are willing to go once pro-regime forces ultimately take the city of Aleppo.

It is also unclear what the U.S. will do to protect its partners on the ground, such as the Syrian opposition rebels or the Syrian Kurds.

FILE - Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria.

FILE - Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria.

Kurds open office in Moscow

Perhaps sensing that the tide of power is changing as the Russian and Iranian-backed regime forces decimate the Syrian opposition, Syria’s Kurds on Wednesday opened up a representation office in Moscow.

“Russia is a great power and an important actor in the Middle East. It is, in fact, not only an actor, but also it writes the script,” said Merab Shomoyev, chairman of the International Union of Kurdish Public Associations at the opening.

Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the move both helps protect the Kurds and allows Moscow to antagonize neighboring Turkey by allying itself with a Turkish enemy.

“It’s a brilliant move by the Kurds and a brilliant move by the Russians,” Pregent told VOA.

“It creates a buffer zone [with Turkey] and makes it look like Russia is establishing alliances on the ground,” Pregent said. “The Kurds on the ground now have a guarantor in Russia that they couldn’t find in the U.S.”

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near the Tishrin dam, after they captured it from Islamic State militants, south of Kobani, Syria, Dec. 27, 2015.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near the Tishrin dam, after they captured it from Islamic State militants, south of Kobani, Syria, Dec. 27, 2015.

Still friends with US

Henri Barkey of the Wilson Institute said the Syrian Kurds’ decision would not significantly impact the United States, which has been working closely with the group to fight Islamic State (IS) extremists.

“The Syrian Kurds are looking to make as many friends as possible, and the Russians clearly want to show the Americans and everyone else that ‘if you don’t treat the Kurds well, we will take advantage,'” said Barkey.

“I would not say it is a game changer by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “Fundamentally, from the Syrian Kurd perspective, the most important relationship is the one with Washington.”

According to Barkey, the United States has trained the Syrian Kurds since 2014, when IS swept up large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria; supplied them with equipment; invited Syrian Kurd representatives to the U.S. operations cell in Irbil, northern Iraq.

“This relationship is much deeper than people think,” said Barkey.

FILE - A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber bombs a target in a photo made from video footage provided by the Russian Defense Ministry, December 2015.

FILE - A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber bombs a target in a photo made from video footage provided by the Russian Defense Ministry, December 2015.

Protection from Turkey

“Everyone is playing to the benefit of their own interests,” explained Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat turned co-founder of the international development organization, People Demand Change.

“The Russians benefit because they want to give Turkey a tough time, and Turkey cannot attack the Kurds because they are under the protection of Russian planes," said Barabandi.

Turkey historically has had contentious relations with its own ethnic Kurds, who have agitated for autonomy inside Turkey and maintained armed wings in neighboring Iraq.

Ankara is trying to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters, or YPG, from forming a proto-state along its border in the fear that it would further galvanize Kurds in Turkey.

“We’re not going to let Ankara, Tehran or Damascus ... any of those people break the bonds of brotherhood that holds Kurds together,” said Osman Baydemir of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) in Turkey.

Russia’s outreach to the Kurds while conducting a brutal bombing campaign against the Syrian opposition has effectively changed the dynamics on the ground in the fight against IS, according to Barabandi.

“The people are asking the anti-regime fighters to give up in order to stop the Russian attacks,” he said. “We will soon be reaching a point where there is no military opposition with heavy weight, and Russia will tell the world ‘you chose us, or them.'”

Seeking new allies

Analysts fear a different outcome: that the currently West-supported moderate Syrian opposition groups who are quickly losing ground could turn to the al Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, for a chance to fight back.

Russia and Iran, already working through various militias and Hezbollah in Syria, also may be looking for new allies.

“Both the Russians and the Iranians are growing increasingly interested in using proxies rather than their own forces to fight in Syria,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers this past Tuesday.

“The Russians are incurring casualties. The Iranians are,” he said.

The shifting alliances do not bode well for an end to the conflict.

“From a humanitarian point of view, it is sad,” Barabandi said. “The people, they lost everything.”

  • 16x9 Image

    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

  • 16x9 Image

    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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