New deal on Syria?

The mind-boggling developments in Syria have been coming thick and fast.

Amid diplomatic shuttling among Turkey, Russia and Iran, for the first time on Aug. 18, Syrian regime forces bombed Hassakeh, a northeastern Syrian city, which is mainly under the control of the Syrian Kurds’ People’s Defense Units (YPG). On the second day of air campaign, the U.S. sent jets to defend their special forces who are fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as part of the coalition forces in Hassakeh.
Although there was no exchange of fire between the war jets, it was the first time that U.S. and Syrian regime forces came so close to engaging in armed conflict.

The timing of the incident brings to mind whether or not regime forces’ decision to attack Syrian Kurds might be part of an emerging deal that appears to be pulling Ankara closer to Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.
The issue of Syrian Kurds has been one of the main topics which has driven a wedge between Washington and Ankara. As it became clear that Bashar al-Assad would outlive political predictions during the grinding course of the Syrian War, Turkey began concentrating all its efforts on hindering the establishment of an independent Syrian Kurdish entity along its southern frontier.

However, developments in the field have produced a different reality, in contrast to Ankara’s expectations.
So far, Turkey has failed to convince Washington to cease cooperating with the YPG, which Turkey regards as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The train-and-equip programs to develop alternative fighting units to the Syrian Kurds ended in abject failure, as the so-called moderate Sunni fighters tended to immediately shift toward al-Qaeda and ISIL out of interest or survival instincts.  It was against this backdrop that Turkey agreed to the Manbij operation to be led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which largely relied on Syrian Kurds, on the condition that the YPG would withdraw to the east of the Euphrates once the operation concluded. However, the SDF has announced that it will next march on al-Bab, situated to the far west of Manbij.

If regime forces continue their attacks on Syrian Kurds, it could constitute a game changer in the field. It will certainly put the fight against ISIL at jeopardy by targeting a major ally of the U.S. on the ground and dangerously paving the way for an outright clash between the U.S.-led coalition forces and the pro-Assad camp.

However, it is too early to conclude whether or not the bombing of Hassakeh took place as a result of Turkish diplomatic pressure or if the regime will resume its attacks later on. During a recent visit to Iran, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the “PKK was no different than the YPG or PJAK,” a Kurdish group that operates in Iran. Tehran is most likely to share Turkey’s sensitivities regarding the Kurdish issue, as clashes between Kurdish militants and the Revolutionary Guards have erupted again after 20 years of calm.

However, Russia has always maintained friendly relations with the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and it lobbied hard on behalf of Syrian Kurds to join the last round of the Geneva talks. The PYD operates an office in Moscow, and it is no secret that Russian air campaigns paved the way for YPG gains on the ground against ISIL and other rebels. For one thing, there is a consensus among the powers engaged in Syria War that the ultimate solution to the conflict will be political, not military. However, it is also true that military gains on the ground will determine which actors will be able to sit at the table for negotiation.

From this perspective, what has been playing out in Hassakeh reflects an intense competition among the players to raise their stakes and strengthen their hands, particularly at a time when ISIL is losing ground. Thus, it is possible to read the recent air campaign as a signal of the desire to contain the territorial expansion of Syrian Kurds. It is no secret that the PYD’s declaration of autonomy has irked the al-Assad regime. In addition to this, Hassakeh hosts the U.S.’ Rimelan airbase. It is natural that al-Assad might be trying to eliminate the U.S. presence from Syria.

Either way, developments that are likely to shape the course of war and peace in Syria deserve the utmost attention.