MOSCOW - Syria’s conflict is entering its endgame, say analysts.
Not that there isn’t going to be plenty of split blood and heartache ahead, especially for those who fought against President Bashar al-Assad or fled the country for Turkey or elsewhere. They will have to choose between making peace with the Assad government, if they are allowed to by the brutal government in Damascus, or forever remain exiles.
Families will most likely be collectively punished — as they have been throughout the war.
For Syria’s Kurds the dream of their own independent state is now just that — another wisp of hope blown away by the winds of war. Geography condemns them to be used when needed by more powerful forces and then discarded when they no longer serve purpose.
The Kurds have had no alternative but to realign with Syrian government forces in the face of the bigger threat from the Turks and Ankara’s Arab Sunni proxies, drawn from former anti-Assad rebel militias. The latter were out for revenge for the failure of the Kurds to join the wider uprising against Assad and for coordinating with Damascus and the Russians as Aleppo fell in 2016 to grab Arab majority villages and towns west of the Euphrates River.
For the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels who battled Assad, the Kurds’ self-focus was a betrayal and a weakening of an uprising they thought should be the priority.
As had been clear for the past year and more, the denouement of the eight-year bid to topple Assad, an uprising that sparked a series of vicious micro-conflicts and allowed breakaway jihadists from al Qaida to set up a pseudo-state, was always going to be shaped by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.
No solid comittments
Both the Obama and Trump administrations never felt there was enough national interest involved in Syria for the U.S. to commit fully to Assad’s ouster. Barack Obama rejected the pleas of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director Leon Panetta to arm the rebels with more lethal weaponry.
Fearing the U.S. would be dragged into a quagmire, and dismayed by the chaos thrown up by the Arab spring, Obama turned on and off the spigot of arms, shifting support back and forth between rebel militias as they got too close in battlefield alliances with jihadist groups or pulled away from them. What Obama in 2012 described as a “red line” was crossed when he held off from punishing Assad for the use of chemical weapons.
The decision to pick the Kurds as the proxy force to deploy against the Islamic State was seen at the time by some in the Obama administration as one that risked encouraging the Kurds to beehive the U.S. would help them set up their own state in the Levant. Some senior Obama officials feared picking the Kurds as Washington’s counter-terrorist allies might ensnare the U.S. in Syria or lead to inevitable Kurdish disappointment.
The Kurds themselves were always aware of the risks for them — as they made clear to this correspondent during battlefield trips into Northeast Syria. “We know that ultimately we can’t trust anyone," Giwan Ibrahim, the head of the Kurdish police in Qamishli, told me during one trip. He made clear the aim of the Kurds — even above their hope to set up their own state — was to ensure their cities and towns didn’t end up being razed like much of the neighboring Arab-majority province of Aleppo.
The deal-making between Damascus and the Kurds started in earnest nearly a year ago when U.S. President Donald Trump first broached the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, admit Kurdish officials. For Trump the pullback he wanted was matter of fulfilling his campaign promise to get the U.S, out of “endless wars.”
“The clear losers are the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the very fighters who have been critical to the U.S. counterterrorism efforts against ISIS in Syria,” according to Chatham House analyst Lindsay Newman. Another loser in the short term is the U.S. because others will take note of Washington’s decision to abandon the Kurds at the behest of Turkey and question whether the U.S. is a reliable partner.
“Additionally, the abandonment of a strategic [non-state] ally at the request of another (NATO) ally when it is expedient to do so will be registered not only by the Kurdish fighters in Syria but also potential partners worldwide, including Juan Guaido in Venezuela and the Cuban-American diaspora,” she argues.
The overall winner of the recent turn of events in a Byzantine conflict that until now has seemingly been one without end is President Assad. His troops for the first time are patrolling — admittedly alongside Turks and Russians — his country’s Northeastern border with Turkey.
Kremlin officials are making no disguise of their delight at the deal struck Tuesday during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi between President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some Western diplomats suspect the deal was already in the works weeks ago and before the pair of leaders met in Sochi.
Under the agreement Russian military police and Syrian border guards will start removing any Kurdish fighters still remaining 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border. Once that’s achieved the Turks say they will withdraw to a 10 km strip of land along the border, entrusting that Damascus’ forces will be in full control deeper inside Kurdish territory.
A senior Turkish official described the Sochi agreement as an “excellent" deal for Ankara as it will achieve Turkey's long-held goal of a border strip cleared of Kurdish fighters, who the Turks dub as terrorists because of their ties to Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
“The outcome of the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Sochi today indicates that Erdogan has become a master of leveraging the U.S. and Russia against each other to maximize Ankara's gains,” Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S.-based think tank, said in a tweet.
Kremlin officials see it differently.
The say Putin has successfully used the Kurdish issue to help Assad restore control over the northeast of Syria and to set in train the circumstances that will persuade Erdogan to restore relations with Damascus. And as broker of the deal they argue Putin is widely seen now as a key Middle East arbiter, restoring Russian influence in the region, a key Kremlin aim. They believe the Syria crisis is accelerating their efforts to pull Turkey, a NATO member, deeper into Moscow’s diplomatic orbit.
The view from Moscow
The Russian media are also in no doubt that Syria has become a win for Putin. “Putin won the lottery! Russia’s unexpected triumph in the Middle East,” wrote commentator Mikhail Rostovsky in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. Maksim Yusin, an editor at the leading Russian business daily Kommersant, argues, “All of this benefits the Russian Federation.”
“This is such a pleasure,” said Olga Skabeeva, the host of a Russian state television program. “Russian soldiers have taken an American base under our complete control, without a fight!”
But some Western analysts say Moscow’s celebrations may be premature. Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says it is important to look beyond the immediate headlines.
“The grim reality is that Syria is all too typical of what can only be called “failed state wars.” Tragic as the legacy of the current fighting may be for the Kurds, there is virtually no chance that Syria will emerge as a peaceful or stable state over the coming years, or that it will not be a source of tension and conflict in the region,” he said in a commentary.
He added: “Assad may be able to create a new authoritarian regime, if he can absorb and suppress Syria’s Kurds, limit the resurgence of ISIS in Syria, defeat the last major enclave of Sunni rebels in Idlib, and reach some stable agreement with Turkey — none of which is as yet certain. Even if he’s successful in all four cases, however, this will only buy time unless he can make radical and nearly impossible changes in the very character of his regime. To do so would risk losing the support of Russia and Iran.”