Assad’s bluff may double as a gain for Syria’s Kurds

4VIvFXKQbnoEbI8UDJKlBVApSWjiO5ERBashar al-Assad’s regime might soon be targeting northeastern Syria. This oil rich region is primarily composed of Kurds, and is secured predominantly by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds control over 28 percent of Syria and are backed by the United States.

In an interview last month with RT, Assad highlighted his intentions for the northern Kurdish held territory: “The only problem left in Syria is the SDF. We’re going to deal with it by two options. The first one, we started opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigner.”

He added, “we have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort to liberating those areas by force.”

If Assad decides to resort to forceful tactics, it is unclear whether he will receive backing. It is unlikely that Russia will allow a full military campaign. This move would not only be costly, but lengthy as well, and may risk weakening the advances made by the regime.

Furthermore, an assault on the Kurds could give a basis for the U.S. to move beyond the Euphrates river and into regime territory, forcing Russia into a position it does not want – direct confrontation with the U.S.

Assad is also aware that the Kurds are highly organized and battle hardened, unlike other groups he’s been able to easily defeat within weeks, like in eastern Ghouta. In addition, opening up a new front line along the Euphrates valley could cost billions and will surely prolong the 7-year civil war. In 2016, Assad said that the war had cost $200 billion, but acknowledged that only stability will allow Syria to recover, saying “economic issues can be settled immediately, when the situation stabilizes in Syria.”

Iran has also been protecting the regime since 2011, and is also unlikely to move beyond its current position as they are facing immense pressure from the international community to leave Syria. The Iranian regime has banked on the destruction of Syria since 2011 and has been able to expand, institutionalize its presence, and even threaten neighboring Israel. Most recently, Israel is reported to have convinced the Russians to move Iran away from its northern border, although this was later denied by Assad.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Europe in order to gain significant support to pressure Iran to leave Syria. He visited Germany, France and the United Kingdom and said his goal for the trip “was to a large extent, achieved.”

So, if Russia is not willing to move against the U.S.-backed Kurds, and Iran is facing pressure from Israel and the international Coalition to leave Syria altogether, this only means that Assad is bluffing and his threat towards the Kurds is nothing more than the same authoritarian rhetoric he’s been spewing for the last seven years.

Ultimately what matters for Assad is to remain president of Syria. He may be able to succeed if he agrees to give the Kurds greater autonomy, similar to that of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It is critical to recognize that the Kurds have the upper hand here: Assad is only portraying resilience, when in reality he is eager for negotiations only to normalize his rule.

In response to Assad’s threat, the governing body of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Council sent a delegation to Damascus to pave the way for talks with the regime. Assad’s threat was really a reaching out to the Kurds, and the SDC is embracing the opportunity.

Despite being the most reliable and successful force against the Islamic State, Syrian Kurds are perceived as secondary actors, and are often isolated and excluded from major peace talks including the U.N. sponsored talks in Geneva. Despite this, they have strategically negotiated with Russia, Assad, the U.S., and at one point even Turkey, who the Kurds assisted in moving an Ottoman tomb that was under threat inside Syria.

The Kurds in Syria have approached the situation pragmatically, which has helped them succeed.

There is still much uncertainty on whether the negotiations will have a positive outcome, but one thing is definite – Assad will not have the same control over Syria as he did pre-civil war.

The areas liberated by the Kurds in Deir Ezzor province hold large reserves of oil and gas, which is the primary source of revenue for the region. In 2017, the SDF captured the country’s largest oil field, al-Omar, from Islamic State. Al Omar produced 75,000 barrels per day in 2011 and brought in billions in revenue for the regime.

The SDC has the opportunity to negotiate not only territory but access to the Euphrates river via the Tabqa dam, or Euphrates dam, which is the main source for fresh water for the region, and was previously a major ISIS command center for its nearby capital, Raqqa. Prior to its liberation, a U.S. Central Command statement called the Tabqa dam “a key element of northern Syria’s economy, agricultural and way of life,” and warned that its destruction by ISIS “could lead to a severe humanitarian crisis.”

However, the tip-toeing policy of the U.S. towards the Kurds could be a source of concern. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned during the recent Turkish incursion into Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish region, that the reason for Turkey’s actions in Syria was because “Washington carries out open, and discreet delivery of arms to Syria for transfer to those groups that cooperate with them, especially to the SDF.”

U.S. President Donald Trump also threatened to withdraw from Syria, a move that would hinder the progress made in the war-torn country against ISIS, and would leave a vacuum for Iran and Russia to fill. This would leave the Kurds alone once again. The unpredictable policy of the U.S. towards the Kurds could play into Assad’s hands by giving him the power to claim that the Kurds are unwise to trust the Americans.

The Kurds realize that sooner or later the U.S. will give in to the demands of its NATO ally Turkey. A recent example of this was Manbij, a town near Afrin where U.S. and French forces are positioned along with top SDF military advisors. The town is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a force made up of local Arabs. Turkey demands that the SDF move east of the Euphrates river or they will attack. As expected, the U.S. gave into Turkish pressure and forced the withdrawal of SDF advisors from Manbij under a Turkey-U.S. deal.

Therefore, the Kurds have refined their alliances based on short term gains that will allow them to create a long-term presence, even if it means negotiating with a dictator like Bashar al-Assad.

Originally published at The Defense Post on June 21, 2018.

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