Syria: Russian helping hand

Trump claims victory for the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish forces from the border with Turkey, but Moscow apparently guaranteed their withdrawal following Putin’s talks with Erdogan.

Published : Nov 29, 2019 07:00 IST

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia after their talks in Sochi, Russia, on October 22.

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia after their talks in Sochi, Russia, on October 22.

The much-advertised Turkishonslaught along the border with Syria in mid October ended just a few days after it began. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had threatened fire and fury against the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces and promised to stop his army’s advance only after establishing a 30-kilometre safe zone along the border with north-eastern Syria. As things have turned out, the Turks have had to settle for much less. At the same time, the Turkish government has achieved its primary goal of making the YPG withdraw its forces from the border. The goal was not achieved through force of arms but with a helping hand from Russia.

The Donald Trump administration, under increasing criticism from its own supporters and the United States Congress on the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, tried to placate his growing number of critics by despatching Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with the Turkish President urgently. To bolster his fading tough guy image, Trump wrote an insulting letter to his Turkish counterpart in the second week of October asking him to order a ceasefire and stop being “a tough guy” and “a fool”. Erdogan’s close aides claim he threw the letter in the dustbin. But he did meet with the senior envoys Trump had despatched to the Turkish capital.

Before meeting them, the Turkish government seems to have done a back-room deal with the Kremlin, under which Moscow guaranteed the withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish forces from the border. So, without giving up on any of his demands, Erdogan ordered a ceasefire after his meeting with the U.S. delegation led by Pence. The Trump administration immediately announced that it was lifting the draconian sanctions it had imposed on its ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) just a week earlier.

Trump’s justification

Trump kept on justifying his decision to withdraw troops from Syria saying that the U.S. should not intervene in the fight as “it was not our border”, adding that the Kurds were “no angels” themselves. It is another matter that it was under pressure from the “deep state” that he claims to detest so much that he reversed course and said that the U.S. would after all continue keeping troops in Syria “to safeguard the oil”.

The “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), consisting of Arab militias and Syrian army deserters, armed, trained and financed by the U.S. and its Gulf allies, is now assisting the Turkish army inside Syria. Most of the atrocities committed during the Turkish offensive into north-east Syria were attributed to the FSA. A senior U.S. diplomat told the American media that Turkish-backed fighters had “committed war crimes”. The FSA and the YPG, both former allies of the U.S. in the bid to overthrow the government in Damascus, are now fighting each other.

After his meeting with the U.S. leaders, Erdogan flew to Sochi in Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. On October 22, the two leaders announced a deal under which Turkish and Russian soldiers would jointly patrol parts of the border region that the Turkish army had gained control over. The Kurds had already struck a deal with Moscow and Damascus and agreed to withdraw beyond 30 km from the Turkish border. The Turkish army is in control of the area in between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain. Erdogan had boasted of creating a Turkish-controlled buffer zone along the entire length of the 440-km border in north-eastern Syria and settle the area with two million refugees who had fled from different parts of Syria at the height of the civil war.

The Russian and Syrian armies will enter the areas to the east and west of these towns. Turkish forces will patrol along only one-third of the border. Effectively, most of north-eastern Syria has reverted to the sovereignty of the Syrian state after more than seven years. The agreement signed in Sochi allows the Syrian government to reassert control over the territory that was governed by the Kurds with U.S. military support. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed that he will not rest until every inch of Syrian land is liberated.

The U.S. military establishment hopes to retain a toehold in Syria and Iraq despite the tide of the civil war turning against its proxies in the region. The Iraqi government has denied permission to U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria to be relocated on a long-term basis on Iraqi territory. Baghdad has made it clear that they must be shifted out of Iraq at the earliest. In order to ensure that Trump’s latest missive on “keeping the oil” is being taken seriously, the Pentagon is planning to deploy around 900 troops in Deir al Sour, the oil-rich area in the south. Some 500 personnel will be tasked with protecting Syria’s oil fields that are spread in a geographically large area. North-east Syria has 90 per cent of Syria’s proven oil reserves. It produces 70 per cent of the country’s grain output. The Americans have still not given up on their dreams of regime change in Damascus. The U.S. thinks that depriving Syria of access to its energy and food sources will help achieve this illusory goal.

With the YKG now aligned with the Syrian government once again, it will be even more difficult for the U.S. to illegally hold on to Syria’s oil. “We want to keep the oil,” Trump recently told his Cabinet. “Maybe we’ll have one of our big companies go in and do the job properly.” U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper was slightly more discreet in his statements, saying that the U.S. troops were being deployed near the oil fields to secure them from the Daesh (Islamic State) and “other forces”. “Other forces” is, of course, the code word for the Syrian state and the people to whom the oil rightfully belongs.

U.S. forces have killed hundreds of Syrian troops in the past when they attempted to regain access to their oil fields. Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the U.S. Military Chiefs of Staff Committee, has reiterated that the U.S. will retain control of Syria’s oil fields. The Kurdish YPG, despite aligning with the Syrian government, continues to profit from the illegal sale of oil. The Russian Defence Ministry has said that the U.S. military is helping in the smuggling of oil out of the country.

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the U.S. of “bypassing” its own sanctions on Syria to take oil worth “$30 million” out of the country every month. The spokesperson said that the international community had a right to question the U.S.’ misappropriation of Syria’s oil wealth on the pretext of fighting the Daesh. The Daesh, according to military experts, is now only capable of staging isolated suicide attacks and is no longer a credible military threat. A Democratic Senator, Tim Kaine, said that risking the lives of U.S. soldiers to protect oil rigs in Syria “is not only reckless, but is not legally authorised”. Under international law, seizing Syria’s oil resources constitutes a serious war crime.

In a sarcastic comment, Assad said Trump was the “best” U.S. President he had dealt with. “Not because his policies are good, but because he’s the most transparent President.” He said the previous U.S. Presidents were “a group of criminals” representing the military industrial complex and other powerful lobbies. Trump, on the other hand, he said, openly stated the reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria, that is, for “keeping the oil”. Assad said that Trump, unlike his predecessors, was a “transparent foe”.

President Assad has said that the agreement reached in Sochi on the buffer zone is a “temporary” one and that Turkish forces will have to withdraw completely from Syrian territory. The Syrian Army, which entered the areas that were previously under the control of the YPG, was welcomed by the Kurds as well as the Arab populations. Assad said that his government was in constant touch with influential sections of the Kurdish population in the north-east of the country. At the same time, Assad said there would be no compromise with separatist forces who want a large area of Syria as part of an “independent Greater Kurdistan”.

He praised the role played by Russia in defusing the tensions in north-eastern Syria and preventing the NATO game plan for creating an internationally supervised “safe zone” along the border with Turkey. Such a plan would have allowed Ankara to seize control over Syrian territory. The Syrian President has stressed that the Turkish army’s stay in some parts of Syrian territory along the border will only be temporary. He said that if the Turks refused to leave then the only option was a full-scale war. According to the Syrian President, the extremists in Idlib province in north-western Syria fighting under various banners were “actually part of the Turkish army”.

The Syrian President, however, has been careful to not criticise the growing closeness between Putin and Erdogan. Assad said that the agreement between the two in Sochi, which led to a ceasefire in north-eastern Syria, was a tactical one that helped the country to once again re-establish sovereignty over a huge swathe of territory. “We, the Russians and the Iranians are involved in the same military and political battle,” Assad recently told a group of visiting journalists.

Rewriting the Constitution

Concurrently, important steps are being taken by the government in consultation with the opposition to rewrite the country’s Constitution. In the last week of October, the government and the opposition met for the first time in more than eight years in Geneva. As many as 150 delegates representing the government, opposition parties and civil society who are members of the Constitution drafting committee met in the United Nations office in the Swiss city. A revised Constitution will have to be approved in a vote by the Syrian people.

The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, stressed that the entire process, including multiparty elections that are supposed to follow “will have to be Syrian led and Syrian owned”.

The Syrian government’s representative, Ahmad Kuzbari, said that his delegation was willing to change the 2012 Constitution if that would bring positive changes to the Syrian people. He pledged that the government would act with sincerity “but we will work to preserve the unity, integrity and sovereignty of our state, free of any foreign interference”.

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