With ISIS beaten, US faces new dangers in Syria war

Source: Defence Manpower Data Center/AFP Photo/Wakil Kohsar. (AFP)


2017/12/03 Issue: 134 Page: 9


The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche



Beirut- With the Islamic State (ISIS) defeated in Syria and Iraq, the United States is trying to figure out what to do about its entanglement in the Syr­ian war, particularly regarding Iran’s steadily growing power in the region.

Obliterating ISIS was the Ameri­cans’ primary objective in Syria, part of a military strategy that has been inconsistent and often incoherent. “This has been a tactical campaign masquerading as a strategy from the beginning,” Ben Connable, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer, told Foreign Policy magazine.

With ISIS militarily overwhelmed, there is growing agitation in Wash­ington — and beyond — that Iran must now be the main focus, as many ana­lysts believe it should have been all along. The completion of Iran’s long-sought land bridge from Tehran to Damascus, which immensely increas­es the Islamic Republic’s military and power projection capabilities in the Levant and the eastern Mediterrane­an, is the focus here.

The last link in the land bridge is the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal, seized by Syrian President Bashar As­sad’s Army and Iranian-led forces on November 8. This controls the border crossing and the roads to the west. The corridor would end at Quneitra, the largely deserted former capital of the war-divided Golan Heights, and the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean.

In the event of a Hezbollah-led con­frontation with Israel on the Golan Heights in southern Syria, the Iran-backed forces could be swiftly rein­forced and resupplied.

“A difficult decision awaits the US,” observed Jonathan Spyer, an analyst who was recently in Syria.

“Much will depend on the choice made… (E)ven if the US chooses to stick with its current allies in eastern Syria, this will not prevent the Iranian land bridge from coming into being. It is already a fait accompli.”

The fighting in Syria is focused primarily on grabbing territory to strengthen the hands of the various combatants in peace talks to decide what a post-war Syria will look like.

US-backed fighters of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) scored a major victory, backed by formidable US air power, in captur­ing the strategic north-eastern city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital on the Euphrates, on October 17.

They are racing Assad’s forces pushing to take Syria’s largest oil and gas fields held by ISIS, a strategic prize that could determine the shape of post-war Syria. The fields account for half Syria’s pre-war oil production.

Analyst Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel Washington think-tank, observed that, by helping As­sad’s forces bridge the Euphrates on September 18 and establish a foot­hold on the eastern bank, “Moscow is increasing the risk of direct confron­tation while obstructing US efforts to defeat the Islamic State and limit Ira­nian arms transfers.”

Tactically, that operation seriously threatens US efforts, spearheaded by the SDF, to control Syria’s main oil and gas fields.

Assad wants the fields for their potential revenue to help fund post-war reconstruction and the Russians and Iran-led forces are helping him achieve that since it would bolster his prospects of recapturing strategic ter­ritory lost in the war.

Assuming the Americans and their SDF allies were “unable to capture the major energy and agricultural zones south of Deir ez-Zor, the SDF — and Washington — would lose much of their leverage over the Assad re­gime, Iran and Russia in any political settlement to the Syrian crisis,” Ta­bler observed.

It would also be a massive boost for Iran’s efforts to complete its stra­tegic land bridge westward through Iraq to north-eastern Syria because it would put Israel, Syria’s southern neighbour, within striking distance of Iran’s massive land forces for the first time.

Israel’s generals will not sit still for that strategic threat to gain traction.

Turkey, a NATO member and pu­tative US ally, is preparing for a war with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, more or less as soon as the cam­paign against ISIS is wrapped up. Tur­key has branded the YPG as terrorists linked to Turkey’s outlawed rebel­lious Kurds.

Turkey announced on November 26 that it would launch a military of­fensive against the SDF-held Afrin region in northern Syria. Two days later, Kurdish forces fired on a Turk­ish border post, drawing retaliatory Turkish artillery fire.

The exchange was minor but heightened the belief that an all-out battle between the two forces was in­evitable.

The United States sought to keep the two sides apart during the war against ISIS but, now that the jihad­ists have been driven out, Turkey seems determined to hammer the leftist Syrian Kurds. They effectively control about one-quarter of Syria, including large Arab-populated ar­eas.

Just how the Americans expect to distract Ankara from moving against the Kurds in force is not clear. Many Kurds fear the Americans will leave them in the lurch, just as they aban­doned their Iraqi cousins, unques­tionably the most pro-Western force in Iraq. They were driven out of the Kirkuk oilfields on October 16 by the Iran-backed Baghdad government forces.

Tehran feared that an Iraqi Kurd­ish state could be a bridgehead for peshmerga forces to threaten the Shia Crescent corridor from Tehran that would give Iran access to the Mediter­ranean and opportunities for further expansion.

For the United States, the Turkish threat is a big problem because if the Americans stay in Syria after ham­mering ISIS to protect their Kurdish allies they risk being dragged into likely conflicts between Arabs and Kurds and between Turkey and the Kurds.

With the SDF having overrun all ISIS-held territory accessible to them in north-eastern Syria, the Turks believe Washington no longer has a valid reason for arming the 120,000- man force. News reports from Wash­ington on November 27 said the Trump administration planned to reduce arms shipments to the SDF to mollify Ankara, but not to cut them off altogether.

“We are reviewing the pending adjustments to the military support provided to our Kurdish partners as much as the military requirements of our defeat-ISIS and stabilisation ef­forts will allow to prevent ISIS from returning,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.

However, Turkish Foreign Min­ister Mevlut Cavusoglu claims that US President Donald Trump assured Ankara the SDF would no longer be provided with weapons.

In July, Trump reportedly termi­nated the funding for Syrian rebel groups by the Central Intelligence Agency when it became clear that Assad, propped up by Russia and Iran, was not going to stand down as Syria’s president. The US move was widely interpreted as signalling what Syrian expert Joshua Landis termed “the raggedy ending of America’s failed regime-change policy in Syria and the region at large,” a process that began with Russia’s armed inter­vention in September 2015.

“This is the last gasp for the policy of regime-change… and sounds the death knell for Western efforts to roll back Iranian and Russian power in the Levant,” observed Landis, direc­tor of Oklahoma University’s Centre for Middle East Studies, who lived in Syria and Lebanon for 14 years.

Assad finds himself in arguably his strongest position since 2012. He controls an estimated one-third of the country, its main cities — or what remains of them — and two-thirds of its remaining population.

That makes the rebels’ demand he must step down before peace can return unrealistic, although analysts say he will have to contend with endemic low-level insurgencies for years amid the legacy of fear and re­sentment of his ruthless regime that permeates much of the country.


Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.


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