Af­ter Daesh col­lapse, Syria govt faces U.S.-backed Kurds

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - SYRIA & IRAQ - By Sarah El Deeb

BEIRUT: With the fall of Daesh’s (ISIS) last sig­nif­i­cant strong­hold in Syria, Ira­nian and Rus­sian-backed Syr­ian troops now turn to face off with their main ri­val, the U.S.backed forces hold­ing large oil fields and strate­gic ter­ri­tory in the coun­try’s north and east.

The com­pli­cated map puts U.S. and Ira­nian forces at close prox­im­ity, stand­ing just across the Euphrates river from each other, amid mul­ti­ple hotspots that could turn vi­o­lent, par­tic­u­larly in the ab­sence of a clear Amer­i­can pol­icy. There are al­ready signs. Iran threat­ened last week that Syr­ian troops would ad­vance to­ward Raqqa, the for­mer Daesh cap­i­tal, which fell to the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces in Oc­to­ber, rais­ing the po­ten­tial for a clash there.

The Kur­dish-led SDF also con­trols some of Syria’s largest oil fields, in the oil-rich east­ern Deir al-Zor prov­ince, an es­sen­tial re­source that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment also says it will take back.

The SDF also faces rest­less­ness in an Arab-ma­jor­ity town it lib­er­ated last year, a pos­si­ble sign of things to come in other ar­eas that the Kur­dish-dom­i­nated forces con­trol in their self-rule area in north­ern Syria, now about 25 per­cent of the coun­try’s ter­ri­tory.

The ques­tion now is whether the United States is will­ing to con­front the troops of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and Ira­nian-backed mili­ti­a­men. The Kurds are seek­ing a clear Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to help them de­fend their gains. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials have said lit­tle of their plans and ob­jec­tives in Syria beyond gen­eral state­ments about con­tin­u­ing to deny Daesh safe havens and con­tin­u­ing to train and equip al­lies.

Dur­ing a meet­ing this week with Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, the ad­viser of Iran’s supreme leader, As­sad said his war was against ter­ror­ism and against plans to par­ti­tion Syria, a di­rect ref­er­ence to Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions for a rec­og­nized au­ton­o­mous zone in the north. He re­peated that his gov­ern­ment plans to re­gain con­trol of all of Syria.

Gov­ern­ment vic­to­ries “have foiled all par­ti­tion plans and the goals of ter­ror­ism and the coun­tries spon­sor­ing it,” As­sad said.

Mean­while, four U.S. of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that the U.S. and Rus­sia are near­ing an agree­ment on Syria for how they hope to re­solve the Arab coun­try’s civil war once Daesh is de­feated.

The United States has been re­luc­tant to hold a for­mal meet­ing be­tween the lead­ers un­less they have a sub­stan­tive agree­ment to an­nounce. The of­fi­cials weren’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the de­lib­er­a­tions and re­quested anonymity.

With its col­lapse in Al­buka­mal Thurs­day, Daesh has no ma­jor ter­ri­tory left in Syria or Iraq. Its mil­i­tants are be­lieved to have pulled back into the desert, east and west of the Euphrates. The group has a small pres­ence near the cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus. Late Thurs­day, the mil­i­tant group car­ried out a coun­terof­fen­sive in Al­buka­mal, re­gain­ing con­trol of more than 40 per­cent of the bor­der town.

The Euphrates now stands as the di­vid­ing line be­tween Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops and the SDF in much of Deir al-Zor prov­ince.

Gov­ern­ment forces and their al­lies, in­clud­ing Ira­nian troops and fight­ers from Hezbol­lah, con­trol the western bank. They hold the provin­cial cap­i­tal and sev­eral small oil fields.

The Kur­dish-led force, along with Amer­i­can troops ad­vis­ing them, is on the east­ern bank. They hold two of Syria’s largest oil fields, nearly a dozen smaller ones, one of the largest gas fields and large parts of the bor­der with Iraq. They say they are de­ter­mined to keep the gov­ern­ment from cross­ing the river.

Ve­lay­ati said the U.S. pres­ence aims to di­vide Syria. “They have not and will not suc­ceed in Iraq and they will also not suc­ceed in Syria,” he said dur­ing a visit to Le­banon last week­end. “We will soon see the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and pop­u­lar forces in Syria east of the Euphrates and they will lib­er­ate the city of Raqqa.”

The U.S. coali­tion de­clined to com­ment on Ve­lay­ati’s re­marks, say­ing “it would not be ap­pro­pri­ate to com­ment on spec­u­la­tion or ru­mor by any third party.”

Wash­ing­ton has been wary of Iran’s in­creas­ing in­flu­ence in the area and its at­tempts to es­tab­lish a land cor­ri­dor from Iran across Iraq and Syria to Le­banon.

For weeks, the coali­tion said the SDF in­tended to push to Al­buka­mal.

Now it is not clear what the U.S. will do.

To avoid fric­tions in the crowded bat­tle­field, the U.S.-led coali­tion said it main­tains con­tacts with As­sad’s ally Rus­sia.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis ac­knowl­edged this week that al­lies have pressed for a clearer U.S. pol­icy in Syria. The pri­or­ity was to get the U.N.-spon­sored peace talks back on track, he said, of­fer­ing few de­tails.

“We’re try­ing to get this into the diplo­matic mode so we can get things sorted out … and make cer­tain [that] mi­nori­ties – who­ever they are – are not just sub­ject to more of what we’ve seen” un­der As­sad, he said, ap­par­ently re­fer­ring to en­sur­ing some sort of ac­com­mo­da­tion to Kur­dish am­bi­tions.

The talks, sched­uled for Nov. 28, have al­ready been chal­lenged by Rus­sia, which seeks a big­ger role.

Moscow called for in­tra-Syr­ian talks to chart a po­lit­i­cal process and in­vited the dom­i­nant Kur­dish party that forms the back­bone of the SDF, the first such in­ter­na­tional in­vi­ta­tion. A date for the Rus­sia talks has not been set.

Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter in Beirut, pre­dicted the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment will use mil­i­tary pres­sure to reach a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion with the Kurds amid lack of ev­i­dence that the U.S. has any “com­mit­ment to en­gi­neer­ing po­lit­i­cal change in Syria or in­deed has a Syria pol­icy at all.”

In an ar­ti­cle last week in the Al-Hayat news­pa­per, Sayigh said Rus­sia is the likely ar­biter be­tween Kurds and the gov­ern­ment.

Il­ham Ahmed, a se­nior politi­cian with the po­lit­i­cal arm of the SDF, said in­di­rect talks with the gov­ern­ment have taken place but there are no signs of a change in their po­si­tion. “A clear po­si­tion from the coali­tion can pre­vent con­fronta­tion,” she said.

Ahmed de­nied re­ports that the gov­ern­ment de­manded the Kurds re­turn Arab-ma­jor­ity lands that the SDF con­trols, which in­clude Raqqa.

She rec­og­nized oil fields can be a ma­jor bar­gain­ing chip.

“The oil fields play two op­po­site roles. They can be an ef­fec­tive way to ne­go­ti­a­tions. But they can also be the cause for a new war if they re­ject the so­lu­tion,” Ahmed said.

More than half of Syria’s oil wealth is based in Deir al-Zor. Syria had proven oil re­serves of 2.5 bil­lion bar­rels, and the in­dus­try was a pil­lar of the Syr­ian econ­omy be­fore the con­flict in 2011.

Mean­while, the Kur­dish-led SDF faces the com­pli­ca­tions of try­ing to run Arab-dom­i­nated ar­eas. With U.S.-back­ing, the force sought to al­lay any Arab res­i­dents’ fears of Kur­dish dom­i­na­tion by form­ing joint lo­cal coun­cils and elect­ing Arab and Kur­dish of­fi­cials.

But this week, the SDF-held town of Man­bij saw protests by Arab res­i­dents against com­pul­sory mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion im­posed by the SDF.

Hun­dreds were briefly de­tained, ac­cord­ing to Mo­ham­mad Khaled, with ac­tivist-op­er­ated Aleppo 24.

Ahmed de­scribed the protests as “fab­ri­cated” by the gov­ern­ment and Turkey, which sees Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions as a threat.

‘A clear po­si­tion from the coali­tion can pre­vent con­fronta­tion’

Iran threat­ened last week that Syr­ian troops will ad­vance to­ward Raqqa, which fell to the SDF in Oc­to­ber, rais­ing the po­ten­tial for a clash there.

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