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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

The Syrian conflict is entering a delicate and dangerous phase

Domestic factions no longer control the destiny of the Syrian crisis, writes Hassan Hassan

Turkish soldiers train with their tanks and armored vehicles near Syrian-Turkish border earlier this week. EPA
Turkish soldiers train with their tanks and armored vehicles near Syrian-Turkish border earlier this week. EPA

Before the start of the Turkish operation in the Kurdish town of Afrin, a rebel commander called a relative inquiring about participation in the offensive. The relative, a notable figure within the opposition, advised him to not take part.

But the rebel commander, from eastern Syria, had no choice. “My fighters, Turkey has been paying their salaries for three years,” he responded. A few days later, the relative told me, the rebel faction became one of several groups that attacked Afrin as part of a Turkish campaign to dislodge Kurdish militias from the city in the north west.

In a separate case, another member of the opposition was recently contacted by Turkish officials to attend the Sochi summit set to take place next week in Russia. Only three weeks ago, the opposition had almost unanimously declared its rejection of the Moscow-sponsored summit, on the grounds that the conference was a Russian ploy to hijack the political process in Geneva. The opposition’s stance at the time was understood to be backed, if not orchestrated, by Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan had also described Bashar Al Assad as a “terrorist”, a clear departure from Turkey’s rhetoric since its policy shift in the summer of 2016.

The member of opposition invited by Turkey, too, has no choice. He related that he was “ordered” by his Turkish backers to show up.

As with the two anecdotes, a sequence of events in recent weeks underscore how the conflict in Syria today is no longer in the hands of the domestic parties involved. It has become almost exclusively a foreign affair, more than any point of its seven-year history. It is now about different countries accommodating or wrestling each other, no matter what locals think.

Russia wanted the Sochi conference to happen. According to Russia experts, the Sochi summit is designed to signal a political milestone achieved by Moscow, ahead of the presidential election in March, to be added to the military victory against ISIL ceremonially announced inside Syria by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, last month. Moscow invited regional and international players to attend, and wanted to invite representatives of various Syrian forces.

Turkey opposed the participation of representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party that Ankara regards as an arm of the PKK. During a short-lived fallout between Ankara and Moscow partly over the matter, the Syrian regime began an assault to retake Idlib. According to Dr Ali Bakeer, a Middle East analyst based in Turkey, the Ankara-Moscow fallout was interrupted by a provocative American announcement of a “border security force” to be established from the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. The US announcement, according to Dr Bakeer, helped heal the tension between Russia and Turkey.

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A few days after this episode and the regime’s offensive in Idlib, Turkey announced a campaign to attack Afrin, a city it considers to be a stronghold for the PKK in Syria. Prior to the offensive, Russian made a proposal to the Kurds in Afrin to allow the regime to enter the city as a way out of the Turkish offensive. The proposal was presumably coordinated with Turkey to reach a settlement that would serve the interests of both Turkey and Russia. The Kurds rejected the proposal, and a bombing campaign by Turkey began.

Turkey clearly chose an attack in Afrin because the city was not under the protection of the United States. Despite widespread rumours about the US stance on the escalation, American officials quietly and publicly supported the Turkish campaign. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said Washington only advised their Turkish allies of showing restraint and precision during the assault. For the Americans, Sipan Hamo, the general commander of the People’s Protection Units, the military arm of the PYD, bears the blame for aligning his Afrin-based forces with Russia and being betrayed by them.

Thus, Afrin is the prize given to Turkey to ease its growing concerns about the flirtation with the Kurds by both Russia and the US. For Russia, the prize is well earned, since Turkey has done the most in recent years to enable Moscow’s attempts to redraw the military and political map of Syria since the Turkish intervention in the summer of 2016. It is a direct transaction between two foreign powers over the fate of two major cities in the north west, namely Idlib and Afrin. In both cases, they come at a high human cost, deepen existing local friction and could trigger future civil wars.

The US, seemingly a bystander, is part of this problem. Even though officials say they have no responsibility over the behaviour of the Kurdish factions in Afrin, since it is not part of their operational theatre in the north east, the groups are linked and the latest escalation is a byproduct of the Turkish-US fallout over the Syria policy over the past three years.

To close the circle, the latest escalation comes amid a compromise reached between Washington and Moscow over the summit in Sochi. This compromise involves an American support for the holding of the summit, despite its previous fears that the summit was designed to hijack the Geneva process, in exchange for Russian pressure on the regime to pledge support for holding real election in the country.

Syria is thus entering a new delicate phase. This phase will arguably be more central to the future dynamics in Syria than past phases. Some may see an opening, that outside powers could force the warring sides in Syria to reach settlements they could not reach when the conflict was more chaotic.

But if such settlements are modelled on the scenario currently playing out in northwestern Syria, that will undoubtedly cause new wounds and potentially new civil wars within the existing ones.