March 16, 2017

Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

American and Russian troops in the city of Manbij, Syria

Recent American military moves in Syria may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy in the region. The presence of both American and Russian forces in the northern Syrian city of Manbij (photo) may herald the Trump Administration's new strategy to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This map shows the current situation on the ground in northern Syria.

Click on image for larger view

Syria is a confusing tableau of competing interests, and at times a four-way fight. Major combatants in the fighting*:

- Free Syrian Army (FSA, green) - backed by Turkish forces (Operation Euphrates Shield)
- Syrian Armed Forces (red) - backed by Russian military, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shi'a militia, and Hizballah forces
- Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, yellow) - a joint Kurdish-Arab group backed by the American-led coalition (Operation Wrath of Euphrates)
- ISIS (brown)

ISIS remains the common enemy of the other three combatant groups. In a perfect world, the three other combatants would ally with each other in the fight to defeat ISIS. While all of them are engaged in the fight against the Islamist group, at times they also engage in combat operations against each other, thus diluting the main effort against the terrorist organization.

Recent events may indicate a sea change in American policy following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In August 2016, the Turks began their intervention in northern Syria, ostensibly to support elements of the Free Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS. The FSA - heavily supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces - was able to push ISIS forces back over 40 miles from the Turkish border south into Syria, finally seizing the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab in late February.

After that hard-won fight, the Turks and FSA set their sights on the SDF held city of Manbij, about 30 miles to the east of al-Bab. This decision was obviously made by the Turks, whose main objective in Syria is not to defeat ISIS, despite protestations to the contrary.

Turkish troops are in Syria to ensure that when the Syrian situation is resolved, there is not an autonomous Kurdish region (similar to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq) on Turkey's southern border. The Syrian Kurds, who call the northern part of Syria Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, want exactly that.

The Turks, on the other hand, believe the Syrian Kurds to be at best supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or at worst, a mere extension of the terrorist/separatist group.

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As the Turkish and FSA forces began to pivot their forces from al-Bab east towards Manbij, the SDF made a quick arrangement with Syrian regime forces, allowing them to move north (black arrow on map) to take up positions in and around Manbij. The Kurds would rather strike a deal with the Syrian regime than get into a fight with the Turks who appear determined to remove them from what they consider Kurdish territory.

Not only does this agreement between the SDF and the regime serve to thwart a Turkish move on Manbij, it isolates the Turks from ISIS front lines, and further blocks their eventual march towards ISIS's self-declared capital of al-Raqqah. The Turks have insisted that they lead, or at least by involved in, the assault on al-Raqqah.

As all three non-ISIS combatants focused their attention on the city of Manbij, the effort against ISIS was bound to suffer. To prevent a three-way fight between the Turkish-backed FSA, the Syrian regime and the American-backed SDF, both the United States and Russia deployed forces to the city as a potential buffer between the three groups and to attempt to refocus the fight against ISIS.

This seemingly simple move in a complicated situation by two of the world's major powers just might indicate a significant shift in American policy in Syria, or the realization that the previous policy was flawed.

Under President Obama, U.S. policy in Syria hinged on two goals: to "defeat and destroy ISIS" and support the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government. Given the political-military realities on the ground in the region, the two objectives were at odds with each other. I think that became clear with the Russian military deployment to Syria in the fall of 2015.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated mission was to fight ISIS, his main objective was to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime in exchange for long-term Russian access to Syrian naval facilities and air bases - he appears to have achieved that objective.

The tenuous U.S.-Russian cooperation in keeping the Turks (with the FSA), Kurds and Syrian regime from engaging each other in Manbij could be de facto American acceptance of the survival of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and signal a willingness to work with the Russians to focus on the defeat of ISIS. See my earlier thoughts on this move: SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

President Trump said during his campaign that he will not launch wars to topple dictators. It appears that while seemingly more committed than Barack Obama to the defeat of ISIS, he is not committed to the removal of Bashar al-Asad. I have said in the past, the overarching objective in Syria is taking on ISIS - we can address the regime later, if at all.

One sticking point, however, if there has been a change of policy. What of the American-backed Syrian opposition groups? I would suggest they seek some form of political arrangement with the Syrian government - I do not see this Administration ready to support a long-term insurgency to remove Bashar al-Asad.
* For more details on the combatants, see my earlier article: American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....