By Robert Ellis
WHEN it comes to Syria, US President Donald Trump is like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme. When he marched his troops up the hill, they were up, and when he marched them down the hill, they were down. But when they were halfway up the hill, they were neither up nor down.
Trump’s sudden decision on October 6 to allow a third Turkish incursion into Syria not only took the US and the rest of the world by surprise, but has handed control of the game plan for Syria to Russia. On Russia’s initiative, Turkey has invoked the 1998 Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria to legitimize its operation, as it considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) to be an offshoot of the Turkish PKK and a threat to Turkey’s security and stability.
The agreement reached between Russia and Turkey in Sochi on October 22 restricts Turkey’s control to a 75-mile area between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn to a depth of 20 miles, and provides for joint Turkish-Russian patrols. As outlined at the UN General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s plan is to resettle two million Syrian refugees in this “safe zone” at a cost of $53 billion. No provision is made for the 300,000 people who have already been displaced by Operation Peace Spring, or the 167,000 driven out of Afrin by Operation Olive Branch.
Middle East affairs analyst Seth Frantzman has written in After ISIS of the US disconnect. The State Department wanted to work with Ankara, the CIA preferred the rebels, and the Pentagon preferred the YPG. Now, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, presidential envoy Brett McGurk and National Security Advisor John Bolton gone, there is nobody to put a leash on Trump.
The president’s decision not to oppose Turkey’s invasion, which Trump has called “strategically brilliant,” was panned in The Washington Post by Brett McGurk as “strategically backward.” The latest move, to send US forces which have been withdrawn to Iraq back to Syria to defend the Kurdish-held oil fields in Deir ez-Zor, was equally unpredictable.
The idea of securing the oil fields has captured Trump’s attention, and as a senior administration official has admitted to Foreign Policy: “That is probably to play POTUS.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper has explained: “We will secure the oil fields to deny their access to ISIS and other actors in the region and to ensure that the SDF [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces] has continued access.”
NOW the president has a new slogan – “Keep the oil” – but this ignores the fact that Bashar Assad’s regime, backed by its Russian and Iranian allies, might be interested in regaining control of Syria’s own resources.
At the same time, in direct contrast to Trump’s plans of withdrawal, there are reports of US forces returning to northeastern Syria to rebuild military bases evacuated during Operation Peace Spring.
Russia has had a long-standing alliance with Syria, dating back to 1944, and as Frantzman concludes, it has leveraged the chaos in the region and the rise of ISIS to its benefit. A series of incremental but consistent policies has made it appear more reliable than the United States.
At the peace talks in Astana in January 2017, Russian diplomats circulated a draft constitution for the Syrian republic (not the Syrian Arab republic), which would have constituted a solid basis for a settlement. This included a guarantee for the protection of cultural diversity, provisions for religious and ideological diversity and political pluralism, as well as equal opportunities for women and environmental protection. It also acknowledged Kurdish cultural autonomy. However, the draft was rejected by the Syrian opposition.
In 2017, Russia and the YPG enjoyed close cooperation in ousting ISIS from the Deir ez-Zor region east of the Euphrates, in the course of which Russian aircraft carried out 672 sorties and bombed more than 1,450 targets. YPG commander Sipan Hemo also received an award for heroism from the Russian State presidency. This, however, did not stop Russia from turning a blind eye to Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, and giving the green light to Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in 2018.
Turkey has vetoed representation of Syrian Kurds from northeastern Syria on the constitutional committee in charge of drafting a new Syrian constitution. Nonetheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that the Kurdish issue is much broader than just the dimension of the Syrian crisis, and that Russia has created conditions that would allow it to agree on the Kurds’ fate in Syria calmly rather than in pauses between combat actions.
It is unfortunate that Trump, who has placed so much emphasis on a good deal, should have excluded the United States from being part of the solution.
The writer is a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.