Changing Partners in Syria May Even Land Assad in America’s Kurdish Lap

The clash of interests in Syria between the US and Russia burst out in the open with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s unusually undiplomatic tirade on Monday, Feb. 19, against what he called America’s “provocative” support for autonomy-seeking Kurds in Syria. He warned the Trump administration “not to play with fire.” Their very dangerous games could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state. “We are seeing attempts to exploit the Kurds’ aspirations,” Lavrov said. Present at the Middle East conference in Moscow where Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and a top adviser of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

What really irks Moscow is US control of territory in northern Syria – from Hasaka up to Manbij (see the lead article with map in this issue) – and the protection it offers the Kurds for establishing local government institutions and mobilizing and training thousands of new recruits for their YPG militia. The militia will then be ready to defend the rising semiautonomous Kurdish republic, which is being modeled on the Kurdish Republican Government of Iraq.

Lavrov omitted to mention that, as he spoke, pro-Assad forces were entering the north Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin to repel the offensive that Turkey launched on Jan. 21. The YPG had for the first time agreed to quit one of Syria’s most important Kurdish towns and allowed a regime force to gain entry. Ankara’s assault had finally generated an accord between the Kurds and the Assad regime after long stop-go dialogue. The Kurds, on advice from Washington, accepted Moscow’s mediation for a provisional truce. They decided it was better to get out of the way and leave the Assad’s army to handle the Turks than to face them in a bloody duel in Afrin.

Part of their rationale was that, once Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan saw that he had achieved the objective of his offensive, which was to expel the Kurdish militia, he would pull his army back to behind the border. But this rationale did not add up. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusogl said Monday that his country is ready to battle Syrian government troops if they enter the enclave to protect Syrian Kurdish fighters. And on Tuesday, Turkey conducted air strikes against the route taken by a pro-Assad Popular Forces militia to Afrin town.

Washington’s steps and the Turkish invasion of Afrin have scrambled the alliances operating in Syria hitherto: the Assad regime, rebel factions, the Kurds, Turkey, Iran, the United States and Russia are all dancing to a change-your-partners tune. Almost any point on the Syrian map could burst into flames without warning or, conversely, yield outlandish deals and partnerships.

Given the mind-boggling complexity of the current Syrian set-up, DEBKA Weekly’s sources close in on some of the interests at stake:

  • The Afrin episode has for the first time created some common ground between the United /States and the Assad regime. The Americans are intent on a pro-US self-ruling Kurdish entity rising in northern Syria, which would be available for preserving US spheres of influence east of the Euphrates River and along the Iraqi border – just as Kurdish forces led Raqqa’s liberation from ISIS. While Washington was not party to the new Kurdish dialogue with the Assad regime or the Moscow-brokered truce in Afrin, it was definitely watching from around the corner. The first indirect channel of communications had begun to take shape between Washington and Damascus.
  • Assad has no interest in Kurdish self-government, but he does want to distance the Kurds from the Washington’s protection and Moscow – and still more to use the Kurds as a stick for clobbering Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and ridding northern Syria of his army’s presence.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the phone on Monday, Feb. 19, to the Turkish president, for an urgent bid to avert a clash between the Turkish and Syrian armies by negotiating a truce in Afrin. A clash would derail his campaign to end the Syrian war under the joint sponsorship of Russia, Turkey and Iran in time for the Russian presidential election next month.
  • Putin can’t allow Assad to initiate a military move in Afrin, with tacit US backing, because it would encourage him to run out of Moscow’s control. This tendency was apparent in the Syrian ruler’s go-it-alone air and artillery attacks in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, regardless of the plight of its 400,000 inhabitants, the rising death toll and the humanitarian crisis. A Syrian ground attack is held back so long as Russia withholds air support.
  • Turkey has big plans for Syria beyond Afrin and the Kurds. Erdogan is eyeing the scores of unaffiliated radical Muslim militias. He is planning to establish a pro-Turkish Sunni rebel bloc and so capitalize on the community’s historical feud with the Alawite Assad dynasty and eventually topple it.
    DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that Ankara’s intelligence agents are busy trying to form a merger between two Sunni Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement – both of which are on US and Russian black lists of terrorist organizations.

• Ahrar al-Sham is a coalition of Islamist and Salafist groups, operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Islamic Front, with an estimated 20,000 fighters. Nour al-Din al-Zenk is one of the most influential rebel factions in Aleppo. Erdogan aims to show Washington and Moscow that, if they can reel in Syrian rebel militias for promoting their agendas, so too can Turkey.

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