Palmyra was just re-liberated for the second time after a hard-fought battle for this strategic city, while in the same week, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq visited Turkey to plot the “Rojava Civil War”. Each of these events will directly impact on the disjointed efforts that are underway to liberate Raqqa from Daesh, as they both carry with them their share of opportunities and challenges for all the actors involved.
Although the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) might feel emboldened to sprint towards the northeast and beat the Turks and the pro-US, Kurdish-majority “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) in the ‘Race for Raqqa’, they need to be careful to not leave any security gaps in the already liberated territories and inadvertently create space for another Homs suicide bombing like the one which occurred earlier in the week. In parallel with this, the Turks and Kurds are each trying to play the US off against the other, and it’ll be very difficult – if not impossible – for Washington to achieve the perfect consensus between them in organizing a multilateral ground campaign for the liberation of Raqqa.
This in turn could prompt either Mideast actor to take steps – whether unilaterally or in coordination with the US – which undermine the security of the other, thereby prompting both of them to initiate proactive destabilization efforts against their rival, hence Turkey’s plot to foment a “Rojava Civil War” using Iraqi-based Syrian Kurdish fighters and the PYD-YPG’s promise to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Turks if they advance any further into northern Syria.
Saved for the Second Time
To begin with the re-liberation of the Palmyra, this glorious victory opens up the gates for the SAA to make progress towards Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, crucially right at the time as the Turks and SDF (in competition with one another) are poised to make determined military moves towards Daesh’s ‘capital’ city. It’s unclear at this moment whether the SAA will advance past Palmyra towards either of these two locations or stay away and solidify their gains for the time being. The second choice looks to be the most logical for the time being, but the Syrian leadership might boldly order the military to keep up the momentum in the ‘Race for Raqqa’, understanding that everything is currently in flux right now and that this might be the most advantageous moment to liberate more of the country’s territory before the window of opportunity closes.
Turkey, as expected by many, is becoming much more unpredictable nowadays and no longer appears to be taking all of its military cues from Russia, which is evidenced by the clashes that its “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) proxies had with the SAA outside of Al-Bab. Russian mediation was thankfully able to stop the violence from spiraling out of control both times that it broke out, but it was still a very worrying precedent that might foreshadow more such incidents in the near future, especially as tensions spike over which side will ultimately be the one to liberate Raqqa. Freeing this city won’t just earn the victor a lot of global acclaim, but will greatly enable them to dictate the post-war political terms for this part of Syria, be it the unitary nature that the SAA is fighting to defend or the autonomous/”federalized” one that both the Kurds and Turkey are interested in.
Turks and Kurds
It might strike the reader as odd that Ankara would entertain such a political entity along its southern borderland after launching “Operation Euphrates Shield” under the stated pretext of stopping this very creation, but the fact of the matter is that Turkey is only opposed to such a zone if it’s controlled by the PYD-YPG Kurds, which the Turkish government perceives to be an offshoot of the terrorist-designated PKK. If a pro-Turkish political faction were to come to power in this geostrategic region just like what has already happened in the KRG with Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), then Ankara would actually welcome this eventuality because it would allow it to establish its desired ‘buffer zone’ in northern Syria, influence broader events in the country at large, and promote the grand strategy of “Neo-Ottomanism”.
The PYD-YPG Kurds, however, want an autonomous/”federalized” entity in order flank Turkey’s southern border with a PKK safe haven and to fulfill their and their patrons’ long-awaited goal of carving out a “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” in the heart of the Mideast. This directly endangers the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian state, though the SAA is presently unable to properly deal with the problem considering that it must first defeat Daesh and then work on a Russian-mediated settlement for Turkey’s eventual withdrawal from the north. For the time being, then, the best that the SAA can hope to do is prevent both the Turks and Kurds from expanding the territories under their control, which is why Damascus may be compelled to push the ‘division line’ in Al Bab as far east as possible as soon as they’re able to.
Slow and Steady
The re-liberation of Palmyra enables the SAA to do so from the southern direction and up to the Euphrates, conditional of course on whether it has the political will and resources to carry this out. Concurrent with this, military forces in and around Aleppo and Al Bab can also move eastward, too, which could in theory allow the SAA to cast a broad security/sovereignty net all the way up to Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, though likely being unable to liberate either of these two right now unless they receive substantial assistance from their Russian and Iranian allies. That support can’t be taken for granted because Moscow and Tehran have already publicly reiterated on numerous occasions that they want a political – not military – settlement to the war, and both countries, for manifold reasons, are reluctant to expand their military footprint in Syria.
Russia and Iran are still helping Syria and have been crucial to its success in the War on Terror, but the issue being focused on right now is their comparative lack of political will to more deeply embed their military forces in the country and inadvertently get drawn into either a quagmire and/or potential Great Power conflict with Turkey and/or the US (the latter two more than likely acting separately in this regard, not in conjunction with one another). If reflected upon, this means that Syria’s forthcoming military gains will probably remain slow and steady unless Russia and/or Iran change their mind, though all sides might come together to more adequately support an SAA liberation offensive towards the Euphrates. When it comes to liberating Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, however, the house-to-house urban combat which will likely ensue could keep any involved forces bogged down for months.
Considering that the Turks and Kurds are both converging on Raqqa and competing with one another for it, then it might end up being wisest for the SAA to advance towards Raqqa’s southern Euphrates border and hold off until its ready to throw its full weight behind liberating the city (i.e. after the already liberated territories are more fully secured and the troops are replenished). Instead of focusing on Daesh’s ‘capital’, the SAA might redirect the bulk of their focus on liberating Deir ez Zor and stemming the potential southern expansion of both the Turks and the Kurds. Additionally, there are already SAA units operating inside of the city and which could help with the forthcoming campaign. Freeing Deir ez Zor and holding the Turks and Kurds north of Al-Bab and east of the Euphrates might turn out to be the most pragmatic battle plan that Syria could employ right now, and while it would of course be ideal if every square inch of the country was liberated as soon as possible, this proposal is a lot more patiently realistic under the present circumstances.
Turkey on a Tightrope
Having explained the strategic imperatives of the SAA, it’s now time to turn towards talking about the Turks, which find they walking a narrow tightrope between the US and the Kurds. The author wrote an earlier analysis about “How Trump’s Trying To Win Back Turkey”, remarking on the documented observations of the new US administration’s rapprochement with Turkey to posit that Trump was ready to team up with Erdogan against the Kurds. Lo and behold, all of that might just have been a bunch of bluff coming from the world’s most consummate dealmaker, since reports have been piling in over the week about how the US is actually planning to work more closely with the Kurds instead of the Turks, much to Ankara’s supreme chagrin.
In a spree of articles, Sputnik reported that:
* the US set up a base in Manbij, a Kurdish-controlled city west of the Euphrates, in order to deter a Turkish attack;
* Turkey is considering kicking the US out of Incirlik and closing its airspace to American military flights if the Pentagon teams up with the PYD-YPG in liberating Raqqa;
* and that the US is indeed planning to continue its very close military cooperation with the Kurds (masquerading as the SDF), but willing to bring the Turks into the mix too (something which is unacceptable for Ankara).
These events signify that the US is leaning more towards the Kurds than the Turks, potentially wagering that Ankara will remain tied to Washington regardless of what happens but that its Kurdish proxies might be wiped out once and for all if it fully ‘abandons’ them or ‘sells them out’. The fallacy with this thinking, however, is that the US’ decisions conversely give Turkey more reasons than ever to continue waging war on the PYD-YPG Kurds, but that the costs of doing so will radically increase. Therefore, Turkey is now forced to broaden its proxy warfare in Syria to include partisan assistance in the “Rojava Civil War” which it hopes to spark together with KRG head Barzani.
The “Rojava Civil War”
Unbeknownst to all but the most studied observers or the regional locals themselves, the Kurds are a highly divided demographic separated by their different histories, languages, and political loyalties, and that there is no such thing as a homogenous “Kurdistan”. This is pertinent to northern Syria as well, because the politically active Kurds there can be generally classified as falling under one of two camps – TEV-DEM and ENKS. The first one includes the PYD-YPG and is in almost near-total control of Syrian “Kurdistan” (known as “Rojava”, or “West”, to those which support a transnational “Kurdistan”), while the latter involves the Syrian Kurdish National Council that’s sheltering in the Iraqi KRG, where it’s known as the Syrian Peshmerga. This group is just as closely tied to Barzani’s KDP as the PYD-YPG is to the PKK, which naturally invites the Turkish-KRG partnership to channel their joint efforts to supporting the Syrian Peshmerga’s struggle in TEV-DEM’s northern Syria.
NSNBC analyzed that Barzani’s recent visit to Turkey had a lot to do with this scenario, suggesting that Turkey and the KRG are planning to aid the Syrian Peshmerga against the PYD-YPG. Extrapolating further, this could signify the beginning of a “Rojava Civil War”, whereby the Syrian Peshmerga are framed as freedom fighters opposed to the violent oppression of the PYD-YPG. This angle isn’t too far off from the truth, since the pro-American/-“Israeli” PYD-YPG does in fact suppress the Syrian Peshmerga and even arbitrarily jails its supporters. If Turkey had to choose, it would much rather have the KRG-allied Syrian Peshmerga in control of the Kurdish stretch of northern Syria than the PKK-aligned PYD-YPG because it betters the odds that Ankara could control them by proxy, whether on its own or through Barzani’s KDP. If successful, then this would enable Turkey to achieve its desired goal of implementing a buffer zone in northern Syria under the auspices of an autonomous/”federalized” Kurdish entity friendly to Ankara’s interests.
The Second “Safe Zone”
In making the transition from the realm of conjecture to action, Turkey will have to find a way to insert exiled Syrian Peshmerga forces into northern Syria, and it’s at this point that the research needs to talk about the possibilities of a second “safe zone”. The reader should bear in mind that the author’s use of this term is different from what both Turkey and the US officially have in mind, which is a strictly enforced “no-fly” zone over a certain segment of territory. Rather, the author is using the word “safe zone” to cynically denote the Turkish-occupied part of northern Syria currently under the control of the FSA, but having gotten to that point because of direct Turkish military assistance through “Operation Euphrates Shield”. This campaign has certainly suffered its fair share of setbacks and is far from being the wild success that pro-Turkish media paint it as, but at the same time, it also hasn’t been the utter disaster that critical outlets claim either.
What’s important to understand about “Operation Euphrates Shield” is that it succeeded in preventing the unification of the PYD-YPG-occupied territory in northern Syria and has objectively created a sphere of direct influence for Turkey, however loosely controlled and poorly ‘administered’. The official Turkish narrative is that Ankara was helping ‘Turkomen’ and Arab “moderate opposition rebels” liberate and secure their ‘traditional territories’ from the Kurds and Daesh, and this depiction of events can very easily be transferred over to “Rojava” in ‘justifying’ the Turkish-provoked ‘civil war’ there.
For example, just like Ankara assisted the ‘Turkomen’ minority, it can also do the same thing with the Kurdish one, albeit giving partisan military support to the Syrian Peshmerga in order to defeat the PYD-YPG. Instead of combining “Operation Euphrates Shield” with the proposed campaign, it could instead start a brand new one by opening up a front east of the Euphrates and having the Turkish military directly support a Syrian Peshmerga vanguard force invading from the north (just like what happened with the previous operation, albeit with ‘Turkomen’ and Arab FSA instead).
This possible maneuver would serve two strategic objectives for the Turks: it would turn Kurds against Kurds and start a “Rojava Civil War”; and it would help open up the route to Raqqa in enable Turkish troops to push past Syrian “Kurdistan” in making a run on this geo-pivotal city. So long as the Syrian Peshmerga succeeds in forcing up a corridor for them, then the Turkish military could blitzkrieg through the desert and attempt to capture Raqqa before anyone else does. As compensation to Barzani for providing training and support to the Syrian Peshmerga all these years and during this crucial coming time, he’d be allowed by Erdogan to de-facto administer “Rojava” as an extension of the KRG, though relying on the KDP-proxy of the Kurdish National Council and of course provided that this territory is ultimately granted autonomy/”federalization” in the future (which is still far from certain for many reasons). In any case, this is so much easier said than done, and a plethora of problems are expected to arise in the event that Turkey makes military moves on “Rojava”, whether to clean out the PYD-YPG and/or establish a corridor to take it to Raqqa.
Blowback and Benefits
Recalling what was written above pertaining to the tricky American-Kurdish-Turkish triangle, it can be concluded that the US would prefer for its Kurdish and Turkish allies to abstain from fighting one another in the interests of working together to liberate Raqqa and diminish the prospects for a post-war united Syria. In a Machiavellian sense, however, Washington might also be betting that Turkey will bluntly disregard the Pentagon’s offer for multilateral cooperation with the Kurds and aggressively charge into the PYD-YPG territories, which would serve the purpose of weakening this former ally and emerging regional rival through a brutal proxy war and hoped-for quagmire. Along those lines, Turkey does seem to be interested in making a run on Raqqa regardless of whether this is approved by the US or not, which might ‘play the game’ by pretending to object to it on the grounds that it doesn’t want Ankara to crush the Kurds – though by doing or saying such things, whether openly or discretely, it would as expected engender that very same reaction which Washington is purporting to avoid.
To clarify in any case of the readers are confused at this point, the US would ideally want the Kurds and Turks to cooperate in taking Raqqa in order to further the RAND Corporation’s plan for partitioning Syria into spheres of influence and enabling the “international peacekeepers” to take control of the areas surrounding Daesh’s ‘capital’. Failing that, however, and understanding that the SAA isn’t powerful enough on its own without additional Russian and Iranian support to liberate the city (which is unlikely to materialize in an on-the-ground sense), the US’ strategic recourse is to bog Turkey down in northern Syria with a Kurdish proxy war.
Erdogan might be unable to avoid this possibility to a large extent, though he might try to make things comparatively easier for his military by dividing his Kurdish foes through fomenting a “Rojava Civil War” together with Barzani. If the tide somewhat happens to suddenly shift against the pro-American PYD-YPG, then Washington might finally ‘abandon’ this group to the trash bin of history by dropping them in favor of re-pivoting back towards the Turks, which will probably not reject these overtures despite all of the proxy hostility that the US has waged against them up until that point.
To wrap up the discussion about potential blowback, the Turks will likely have a difficult time cutting through Syrian “Kurdistan” – with or without the “Rojava Civil War” – and this will also slow down the SDF’s capture of Raqqa, though not without certain cynical strategic benefits for the US. On the other hand, the “Rojava Civil War” could play much more powerfully to Syria’s ultimate benefit, which would represent the greatest blowback against American grand efforts in northern Syria.
Damascus is going to have difficulty in getting the PYD-YPG to peacefully disarm after the War of Terror on Syria is finally over and Daesh is defeated, so it plays to its advantage if this group is fractured from within by intra-Kurdish violence. The Syrian Peshmerga isn’t a friend of the country’s democratically elected and legitimate government, but it’s not considered to be as radically anti-government as the PYD-YPG.
Nevertheless, the Syrian Peshmerga are in favor of autonomy/”federalization”, which would endow Barzani with a transnational sub-state realm through which to wield his KDP influence and also grant Erdogan part of his cherished ‘buffer zone’ in northern Syria (the other portion being the ‘Turkomen’/Arab zone carved out between the Kurdish ‘cantons’ during ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’). If Syria had to choose between bad and worse, it would probably opt for having the Syrian Peshmerga in control of northern Syria as opposed to the PYD-YPG, though obviously preferring to totally liberate the entire country sometime in the future.
The Syrian Peshmerga are heavily influenced by Turkey, which is one of the Tripartite members (alongside Russia and Iran) and guarantor of the recent ceasefire in the country, unlike the PYD-YPG that are backed by the US, which has been thus far largely excluded from the latest conflict resolution developments. This fact in and of itself improves the odds that Moscow could leverage its influence with Ankara via the Russian-Turkish Strategic Partnership in order to encourage Erdogan to agree to a negotiated settlement which satisfies all parties, though understanding of course that all deals by their very nature involve some sort of concessions by every side in order to reach a consensual agreement. It’s unclear at this time exactly what Russia might have in mind in this respect, but it probably has something to do with what might be (key word) the deliberately vague ‘decentralization’ pronouncements included in the Russian-written ‘draft constitution’ for Syria.
The odds of Turkey acquiring a long-term sphere of influence in northern Syria – both in the ‘Turkomen’/Arab zones of “Operation Euphrates Shield” and potentially even in any forthcoming Syrian Peshmerga liberated territories from the PYD-YPG – would greatly increase if Ankara strikes a deal with Moscow to formally cooperate on a joint anti-Daesh campaign, since Erdogan might ask for President Putin’s acceptance of these implied demands in exchange for giving Russia the glory of ‘poaching’ a NATO country from the US and widening Moscow’s anti-terrorist coalition at Washington’s humiliating expense.
The author isn’t asserting that Russia would ever agree to this without Syria’s permission, but just that in the unfortunate event that it does, that it would confirm his previous observation in a tangentially related piece that the world might be moving towards the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” model, whether for better (in terms of the ‘bigger global picture’) or for worse (as it relates to perceived infringements of sovereignty against small- and medium-sized countries like Syria).
None of these outcomes would be beneficial for Syria, yet they’re still far enough in the future as to be far from certain for the time being, and therefore theoretically capable of being offset. Therefore, when referencing the most beneficial gains that Syria could acquire from a “Rojava Civil War”, it should be highlighted that this plainly gives the SAA the military opportunity to make enormous strides towards Raqqa and Deir ez Zor while its Turkish and Kurdish competitors are mired in conflict with one another. Instead of focusing on either of these two locations, the Turks and Kurds will naturally be concentrating more on responding to and defeating the other, which creates space for Syria to sprint towards these cities and perhaps even begin conducting liberation operations there if it’s prepared to do so.
There are still so many interconnected and dynamic variables which could suddenly converge or diverge in impeding this strategy, however, so it shouldn’t be assumed to automatically be the benefit which it might appear at first glance, especially if Damascus doesn’t immediately seize the initiative to attain it (whether due to distraction or unpreparedness, both of which are understandable given the demanding conditions that it’s presently under).
As it’s been trending towards over the past couple of months, the War of Terror on Syria is decisively entering into its final stages, though not without a bunch of twists and turns which might succeed in prolonging the country’s suffering in order to advance the geostrategic objectives of some of its rivals. Looking forward into the near-future, these are the four main situational variables that observers should keenly keep their eyes on if they want an indication about what’s to come:
* Will the US choose Turkey or the Kurds? It has to be one or the other since Ankara refuses to work with the PYD-YPG (and thereby indirectly ‘legitimizing’ a group which it classifies as a PKK terrorist offshoot), while the Kurds themselves have very serious reservations about the presence of conventional Turkish or proxy FSA forces in “Rojava” and have promised to wage a guerrilla insurgency against them if they invade;
* If the US picks the Kurds, will this lead to Turkey and Russia finally entering into a formal anti-terrorist partnership, and what effect would this have on accelerating the peace process and influencing Syria’s post-conflict administrative-political internal composition (i.e. whether Russia will ‘cut a deal’ with Turkey to allow for pro-Ankara autonomous/”federalized” border entities)? Should the US side with the Turks and leave Russia out of the multilateral Raqqa liberation campaign framework, how will this impact on the fragile Tripartite, and in which ways could Moscow play the ‘Kurdish card’ in attempting to regain its lost influence?
* How successful will the possible coalition combinations of US-Kurds; US-Turks; Turks-Russians; US-Turks-Russians; and Turks-Russians-Syrians be in liberating Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, and will these partnerships outlast the campaign and prove themselves to be more enduringly strategic or fall apart and reveal themselves to have been more temporarily convenient? What obstacles could emerge to divide each of the coalitions and lead to possible changes between them, other than the first bulleted point of the US choosing between the Kurds and Turks and possibly pushing the ‘rejected’ partner closer to Russia?
* Lastly, will Erdogan and Barzani engineer a “Rojava Civil War”, and if so, how effective will it be in defeating the PYD-YPG or inadvertently bogging Turkey down in northern Syria? How can the SAA capitalize off of its rivals’ possible setbacks in furthering the liberation of Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, as well as in regaining more relative control over the post-conflict settlement and preventing the country’s political fracturing?
There’s admittedly a lot going on in the Syrian battlespace nowadays, and even more so if one includes Iraq into the mix (which suspiciously bombed terrorist targets in Syria right after US Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit and just before Saudi Foreign Minister Jubeir’s), so the reader is forgiven if they’re feeling confused and overwhelmed by everything that’s happened over the past week in “Syraq”. The two most crucial events, however, are arguably the re-liberation of Palmyra and Barzani’s trip to Turkey in possibly plotting the “Rojava Civil War”, both of which will have strong reverberations on the current state of affairs in Syria and have the potential to lead to pivotal breakthroughs, whether for better or for worse.
The coming month will be absolutely instrumental in determining whether either side takes the initiative to make any decisive moves in their strategic directions, such as whether the SAA will advance towards Raqqa and/or Deir ez Zor or if Turkey and its proxy allies will break through the ‘Kurdish cordon’ (whether on its own or in the midst of a “Rojava Civil War”) in doing the same. Either action, let alone both, would totally change the situation on the ground in Syria and bring the war closer to its last act, though not without substantial Great Power posturing in response from all of the involved countries during this final phase, but which might unwittingly complicate the conflict even further and create a more dangerously challenging quandary.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.