Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

The United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive. (AFP)
Updated 15 October 2019

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.


Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.

Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

Updated 25 sec ago

Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

  • Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey shows lack of clarity about the implications of a Democratic election win
  • Skeptics of the Iran nuclear deal want Biden to dump his Obama-era baggage and adopt a hard line on Tehran

BEIRUT: Barack Obama, the former US president, left the Middle East in far worse shape than when he assumed office in 2009, according to about 53 percent of respondents in a pan-Arab poll conducted by YouGov for Arab News.
With this in mind, you might expect Arabs to broadly favor Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 3.
Yet the Arab News/YouGov survey found Biden would be better for the region with 40 percent, against 12 percent who said Trump would be good for the region. That said, some 49 percent said neither candidate would be good for the Arab world.
However, as Obama’s vice president, some observers wonder whether a victorious Biden would simply pick up where his old boss left off. This is a particular concern for those who want to see a tough US stance on Iran.
Indeed, it was during Obama’s second term that the US signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for abandoning its ambitions to
build a bomb.

Trump, who is up for re-election, withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, reimposing a raft of crippling sanctions on Iran. With European signatories fighting to salvage the landmark accord, Biden could conceivably turn back the clock.
Some 35 percent of Arabs polled in the Arab News/YouGov survey said they believe the US withdrawal from the JCPOA had a negative impact on the Middle East. Residents of Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were most likely to say the withdrawal and increased sanctions have made the region safer.
“There’s no question that the Iran nuclear deal failed to block the Iranian regime’s path to nuclear weapons,” said Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
“Indeed, the regime took the billions the JCPOA provided and propped up the criminal regime in Syria, armed and funded the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, the terrorist Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.”
For Safavi and his NCRI colleagues, the only effective policy is one that exerts “maximum pressure” on the regime in Tehran and “holds it to account for its countless human rights violations.”
It appears his skepticism is widely shared. Now critics of the JCPOA want to know whether Biden is prepared to dispense with his Obama-era baggage. “Iran is the key issue in understanding much of the Arab world’s bad aftertaste of the Obama administration,” David Romano, a Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, told Arab News.
“They know that the Obama-Biden administration gave Iran a free pass on all kinds of nefarious activities in the region in order to coax them into the nuclear agreement.”
Mindful of Tehran’s perceived malfeasance, about 58 percent of Arabs polled want Biden to distance himself from Obama’s hands-off approach to Iran and instead tackle the problem head-on.
Simultaneously, Arabs want the US to maintain its tough stance on Iran, even if they are divided over what strategy Washington should employ, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey.

READ: The methodology behind the Arab News/YouGov Pan-Arab Survey

Respondents in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which are willy-nilly intimately tied to Iran, were especially in favor of a tough line. Asked what strategy the next US president should take in future dealings with Iran, a large proportion — 53 percent in Iraq, 49 percent in Saudi Arabia and 54 percent in Yemen — favored maintaining strict sanctions and a war-like posture.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, says it is understandable that many in the region view the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency with some unease.
“A reversion to any form of acceptance of the Iranian regime’s regional policy or sending ‘plane loads of cash’ to Tehran risks undermining peace in the Middle East,” he told Arab News. “Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this narrative.”
While the Arab world overall is split on the potential impact of the killing in January by the US of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force, the geographic differences highlighted by the Arab News/YouGov survey are perhaps
more significant.
People living in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were very supportive, with respectively 71, percent, 68 percent and 57 percent viewing it as a positive move for the region. In contrast, 59 percent of respondents in Lebanon and 62 percent in Qatar said it was a negative move for the region.
“The poll accurately assesses the interests of Arab states,” said Dr. John Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consultancy.
That said, one factor the Arab world must not underestimate, according to Hulsman, is the depth of the desire among American leaders of all political stripes to find an exit from the Middle East and pivot elsewhere.
“Oddly enough, despite Obama and Trump being the two least likely people in the world to share any commonalities at all, they do have a similar view of the Middle East, and that is ‘let’s get out,’” he told Arab News.
“We have had presidencies destroyed (over the US presence in the region) and there is no benefit to staying in. We have overestimated the importance of the region. All the risk and reward, all the future global growth — that all lies in Asia now.”
For Hulsman, the real challenge for whoever wins the election is how to disengage from the region while retaining some semblance
of stability.
Significantly, Iran figures high on the list of what Arabs think are the greatest threats facing the US, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey. It occupied third place, after white nationalism
and China.
Despite their concerns about Iran’s malign influence in their own neighborhood, why did not more than 9 percent feel Tehran poses a bigger threat to Washington than China? “It shows that the typical Arab is not convinced that the US is on his side when it comes to Iran,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington DC-based Arab Center, told Arab News.
Although Biden has branded Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran a failure, there are scant clues as to what line he might take should he assume office, leaving Arab leaders guessing.
This uncertainty is reflected in the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey, with the largest proportion of Arab respondents rejecting both Trump and Biden. For critics such as Safavi, it makes little difference who wins unless the US is prepared to come down hard.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the election, the experience of the past four decades has made it palpably clear that no amount of political and economic concessions will result in change in the behavior of the theocracy that
has ruled Iran with an iron fist,” Safavi said.

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor