Military marriages of convenience face uncertain futures in Syria

Military marriages of convenience face uncertain futures in Syria
Comment: Whoever 'wins' in Raqqa, everybody in Syria is likely to lose, writes Tristan Dunning.
7 min read
05 Apr, 2017
YPG fighters outside Raqqa prepare for the fight to retake IS' last Syrian stronghold [NurPhoto]

As the noose tightens around the Islamic State group in Syria, whoever wins the race to its stronghold of Raqqa - whether this be the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the various Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, or the Assad regime's army (supported by Russian airpower) - it is all too probable that these erstwhile "liberators" will soon be regarded as occupiers.

It is unlikely that the people of Raqqa - the first regional capital to throw off the yoke of the Syrian regime - will consent to being ruled over by the Kurds, the vaguely defined Free Syrian Army (FSA) - a foreign-backed force often regarded as a proxy for Turkish interests - or the regime that the people rebelled against in the first place, and which has since committed numerous atrocities.

The Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons last week, and the Trump administration's retaliatory cruise missile strikes against the Shayrat airfield in Syria, further underscore the tinderbox conditions characterising the now apparently defunct detente between non-IS actors in northern Syria. 

The question is: does Russia now bow to US dictates in Syria or go ballistic in response?

Beyond what one hopes is a blunt but circumscribed message delivered to the Syrian regime and its Russian allies, the Trump administration is caught in a variety of Catch 22s on multiple fronts regarding the expulsion of IS from Raqqa. 

If it backs the YPG-led forces of the SDF, then it will alienate the Turkish government led by President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, because Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist organisation affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).  

The PKK and Ankara have been waging a war in the south east of Turkey since the early 1980s, originally aimed at Kurdish independence but now focused on Kurdish autonomy and greater cultural rights. Regardless, this decades-long insurgency has resulted in the death of more than 40,000 people

If the Kurdish-led force succeeds in taking predominantly Arab Raqqa, it runs the risk of sparking a wider Arab-Kurdish sectarian war in both Syria and Iraq.

Backing the YPG-led SDF and thereby angering the Turkish government would undermine the cohesiveness of NATO.  This is especially the case given that Turkey possesses the second-largest army in NATO, and is traditionally seen as the bridge between the "East" and the "West". 

It also risks pushing President Erdogan even closer to Russia. In addition, if the Kurdish-led force succeeds in taking predominantly Arab Raqqa, it runs the risk of sparking a wider Arab-Kurdish sectarian war in both Syria and Iraq.  

The YPG has already been accused by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of ethnic cleansing in areas into which it has expanded throughout the course of the Syrian civil war.

And there are also reports that the Turkish government is trying to put together a coalition of Arab tribes of al-Jazira and the Euphrates to fight both IS and the YPG - potentially setting Ankara on a collision course with the United States.

Many have also accused both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds of opportunism in exploiting the chaos to further their territorial ambitions in Syria and Iraq - so a day of reckoning may be at hand after the territorial destruction of the IS "caliphate". 

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In such a scenario, it is debateable how effective Kurdish forces will actually be in the absence of US airpower - as the Kurds have essentially acted as mopping-up units since the US directly joined the fight against IS in 2014. 

In any potential conflict between Kurdish forces and either the Turkish or the Iraqi government, it seems extremely unlikely that the US would use military force against Ankara or Baghdad. This is not even to mention intra-Kurdish conflict between the PKK and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, whose allies have already come to blows around the Yazidi town of Sinjar.

Conversely, if the US accedes to Turkish demands and backs the Turkish-led FSA, the Syrian Kurds led by the YPG - quite rightly - will see this as a betrayal, especially given their international reputation over the past few years as the most reliable allies of the United States in the fight against IS. 

This, in turn, could cause the YPG to throw in their lot with the Syrian regime - with whom they already have a shaky non-aggression pact - and by association, with Russia and Iran. The acting political leader of the PKK, Cemil Bayik, has previously signalled his preference for dealing with Iran over the United States. 

Moreover, if a Turkish-led force takes Raqqa, then President Erdogan will be able to bask in the glory of being the destroyer of IS. This, in turn, will bolster his political push to install an executive presidency in Turkey via a referendum this month, and augment his standing through the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

The US would then find itself complicit in furthering Erdogan's authoritarian agenda inside Turkey and his ambitions abroad - not that the US has in the past been shy about standing behind "strongman" regimes.

This, however, seems unlikely. The Turkish-led forces are restrained by the presence of both Russian and US boots on the ground in areas held by both the Kurds and the Syrian regime army. Oddly given Erdogan's previous insistence that Assad must go, the Russian-backed Syrian army now acts as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish-led forces after the SDF ceded some villages near the town of Manbij, where US forces are based.

Finally, if the US stands aside and does nothing, and Assad's army retakes Raqqa, then one is left wondering what the point was of the past seven years of war and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that have resulted from it.

Such inaction would also enhance Russian prestige. That said, on the ground, the legitimacy of the regime has been completely shattered in many areas of the country due to the numerous atrocities it has perpetrated - making it difficult to see how the pieces of Syria's jigsaw might be put back together again. 

In all of these scenarios, the United States will likely look inconsistent and duplicitous. Washington appears likely to alienate at least some of its allies, and push them towards other actors who are antagonistic towards US interests - whether these be the Syrian regime, Russia or Iran.

More to the point, there is no realistic endgame in sight. 

The destruction of the group's territorial base will not resolve any of the grievances that contributed to conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place

The existence of IS has in some ways been convenient because it has allowed the assembly of loosely defined coalitions - or at least de facto cooperation - in both Syria and Iraq into order to destroy the self-styled caliphate. 

However, the destruction of the group's territorial base will not resolve any of the grievances that contributed to conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place. 

These grievances, moreover, have been exponentially exacerbated by years of war and atrocities. Meanwhile, IS will not be destroyed but will evolve and likely revert to its previous guerrilla tactics, with the intention of fomenting division among these groups, and thus helping to foster the conditions conducive to its eventual reincarnation. 

Finally, the Trump doctrine is so opaque and seemingly whimsical that it's hard to divine what the goals of the US in Syria exactly are - aside from "bombing the sh*t" out of IS - but it's probably safe to say that state-building, long-term engagement and reconstruction do not rate highly among Trump's priorities.  

In short, regardless of who emerges "victorious" in Raqqa, the ongoing carnage in Syria is set to continue for the foreseeable future, and may actually be entering into an even more dangerous phase once the common threat of the IS "caliphate" is removed. 

Tristan Dunning is an affiliate of the School of Political Science and the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.

He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine published in Routledge's Critical Terrorism Studies Series.

Follow him on Twitter: @trisdunning

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.