The United States is in a precarious position. Its NATO ally Turkey for the last couple of weeks has been pressuring Washington into a tough decision: ‘People’s protection Units’ (YPG) or ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). Ankara has placed enormous pressure on Washington to reconsider its support for ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) leading the Raqqa offensive, as it consists of fighting forces of the YPG, which Turkey considers an extension of a domestic “terrorist” organisation—‘The Kurdish Workers Party’ (PKK). Instead favouring FSA and ‘Turkish Armed Forces‘ (TSK) to take over the offensive, Ankara wants to push the Kurdish militia group fully out of Coalition’s efforts against ISIS (2).
Territory divide in Northern Syria. Red for SAA, Blue for FSA, Yellow for YPG, Black for ISIS.
Launching operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ in August of 2016, under the pretext of fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, TSK and FSA began a campaign to dislodge YPG from the region. Pushing first to Jarabulus and then onwards to al-Bab, TSK and FSA forces took land from ISIS—engaging in clashes with YPG as they went (3). During this time, SDF forces launched its own offensive in November—operation ‘Wrath of Euphrates’. Aiming to force ISIS from its second stronghold in Ar Raqqa, SDF strategically moved southwards and liberated large areas of land from ISIS militants(4).
Turkish Tanks heading towards FSA controlled areas in Operation Euphrates Shield.
YPJ and SDF fighters at announcement of Operation Wrath of Euphrates in November.
Plans for Raqqa froze in February, however, when Trump asked military officials to reassess—over a thirty-day period—the offensive(5). Ankara’s eyes set on Raqqa, negotiations between Washington and Ankara for FSA involvement became stagnant, as Turkey’s arrogance and stubbornness to deny compromise left its proposals for involvement dead in the water. Becoming more evident, that Ankara’s desire to extend its anti-PKK domestic policy into the realm of its foreign policy was not working in its favour(6).
Additionally, President Erdogan’s call for FSA to move onto Manbij after the capture of al-Bab, an area controlled by US-backed SDF and ‘Manbij Military Council‘ (MMC), increasingly greased Ankara’s grip of Washington(7). Leading military officials to push Turkey out of considerations for Raqqa, Ankara vows now to do what it can to take Manbij and move onto Raqqa—regardless of Washington(8). This increase in tensions in the region between Coalition forces is weighing heavy on US’ mind, as considerations over future of Raqqa’s post-ISIS state hang in the balance.
President Erdogan (Center) with AKP administration.
US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis.
Storming Western Manbij with TSK armour and troops, FSA engaged with YPG in a series of clashes south of Al Arimah region in the nearby villages of Tall Turin and Qahar(9). Well clashes on the field escalated, MMC took this time to default to Russia and negotiate a trade: In exchange for SAA governance of territory near Arimah region, MMC would have a buffer zone created between it and FSA(10, 11). During the announcement of this trade by MMC, US ‘Special Operation Forces‘ (SOF) moved into Manbij and Coalition officials quickly confirmed their commitment to SDF, as well as MMC(12).
Armoured vehicles of SOF enter Manbij.
Now that Ankara has its eyes wide shut on the Raqqa offensive, as it continues to deny negotiating with YPG and continues to believe that its FSA should lead, SDF continues its operation against ISIS. Advancing eastwards and cutting off road between Dier-ez Zor and Raqqa cities, SDF look to encircle the capital(13). Restricting blood flow to the serpent, SDF continue to wrap a noose around Raqqa and force ISIS into an ever-increasing stranglehold. By way of Pentagon providing oversight with airstrikes and armour, as well as with Washington fending off Ankara’s political bombardment, the road to Raqqa is clear(14).
SDF vehicles in eastern Raqqa.
Situation map of Raqqa offensive. Link: http://syria.liveuamap.com/en/2017/6-march-sdf-have-cut-the-road-between-raqqa–deirezzor-cities
However, how long this road will be clear for in this hostile political environment is uncertain. Ankara’s determination to undermine offensive seems unwavering, as TSK and FSA continue to do battle with YPG near Manbij. In this contentious atmosphere, Washington has to ask itself an important question: How far will it go to keep its alliance with Ankara? I think the answer to this question will only become known in a post-ISIS Syria, which most likely will be in the next two years. Moreover, with Turkey increasingly becoming an Islamist dictatorship, US willingness to stop “radical Islamic terrorism” will be put to the test(15). I hope for the best, but am prepared for the worst, as the US should be.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool
For the last nine months, Erdogan has increased crackdowns on journalists and political dissidents, especially Kurdish ones. In November alone, Erdogan arrested dozens of Kurdish MP’s and ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ members in Southern Turkish districts, which are predominantly Kurdish(16). This hunger for power that Erdogan displays and the evident desire to target any organisation that is remotely Kurdish or connected to PKK is frightening. Demonstrating a napoleon complex with censoring of media, Erdogan and Turkey demonstrate to the International Community exactly why no self-proclaimed free person should view it favourably.
Moreover, Erdogan’s domestic policy against fighting PKK ‘terrorists’ has extended over two nations external of Turkey and has shaped Turkey’s foreign policy. In Iraq, Ankara’s oversight extends to the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) who is headed by President Barzani(17,18). Barzani and Prime Minister Yıldırım of Turkey have increased Turkish forces to KRG, training ‘Rojava-Peshmerga’ (Roj-pesh) and sending units to Sinjar in response to PKK. Occupied by a large Yazidi population, Roj-pesh units pushed recently into the area in an attempt to scare PKK out(19).
President Barzani (left) and President Erdogan (right) in Istanbul, in late February.
Denying this imposition from Turkish forces, ‘Sinjar Resistance Units’ (YBS) and locals armed themselves in response(20). A force created in conjunction with the PKK, the YBS was Yazidis response to ISIS’ massacre of its population in Sinjar in 2014. Now threatened by a new authoritarian force, Yazidis find themselves in the middle of a tough situation. This has not been easy, given that Roj-pesh fired upon YBS and civilians now flee a new battle area(21). One only hopes the Yazidis will find a place for their own, as it seems KDP deny them that now. (Kurdish Unity is something that I wish could be, as was in the days of fighting Saddam Hussein. However, tribalism runs deep.)
A family of Yazidis leave the Sinjar area. Displaced from Clashes between Roj-Pesh and YBS.
It is important to remember principles when analysing conflict, as it can become very easy to be a megaphone for a party. One principle that has guided me through is that of taking the side of the oppressed against tyranny and injustice. ‘Take the side of the victim; aid them in their struggle’. Those seeking to do justice and protect those facing tyranny should be supported. And those who depart from this are generally not to be trusted. However, even keeping to this principle is not always easy. But you have to try.
The Battle lines are drawn.
Current Situation map of Syrian conflict, March 6th.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson
It has happened.
After heavy bombardments and intense fighting, al-Bab has finally fallen to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). This comes after months of shelling from Turkish artillery on the city and fighting between FSA troops, under the oversight of Ankara, and ISIS militants—battling for an area that is 30 square kilometres(2). Dozens dead and wounded, ISIS withdrew from al-Bab and FSA managed to take the area before ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) forces could advance.
al-Bab is circled in red and was captured by FSA on 25th of February.
Storming the city with Turkish armour, troops of ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ (AaS) were amidst the ranks of FSA fighters that took al-Bab. These troops are among the many Islamist forces that are fighting in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield‘ that Turkey started in August of last year (3). Armed and extremely zealous, these fighters rushed into al-Bab and had no hesitation in claiming its ‘liberation’ (4).
Ahrar Al-Sham fighters pose in al-Bab after capturing it from ISIS. (c. Feb 26th, 2017)
However, the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist organisations such as ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) in the ranks of FSA, demonstrate a rather darker aspect of the current Syrian opposition; namely, its domination by Islamist factions(5). This domination is because of infighting amongst FSA that has been going on since 2012. Fights between Salafist and Jihadist factions (collectively Islamist factions) and “moderate” (secular) factions have forced FSA in splintering(6).
Members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan
Once a centralised and organised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, and an opposition that I once previously supported, now has become a disorganised and splintered opposition(7). Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Sunni Islamist groups have come into the fray—gathering support over the years. Fuelled by a desire to replace Assad’s tyranny with the tyranny of Salafist jihadism, AQ affiliates fight against SAA and those who deny their ideology(8).
The butcher of Aleppo.
When Eastern Aleppo fell in December, many Syrians from moderate factions of FSA defected to Islamist factions. Desperate and afraid of reprisals from SAA, many either fled to Turkish protection or joined HTS and began fighting (9). Those still hanging on against both SAA and HTS, such as ‘Free Idlib Army’ (FIA), now fight on multiple fronts. Helpless and outmanned compared to jihadists(10).
This is convenient for both Russia and Assad, as Kremlin now has more justification to keep its airstrike campaign going in Syria. Kremlin and Damascus have claimed that airstrikes in prior months have only targeted ‘terrorists’(11). However, airstrikes have targeted more than just ‘terrorists’. Many hospitals, schools and civilian areas have faced barrel bombs, airstrikes and chemical weapons by both Russia and SAA forces (12,13). Thousands of civilians have died in Aleppo alone, during its siege.
Aleppo during siege in December.
An influx of jihadists in opposition ranks allows Kremlin now to move more swiftly in changing the narrative of Assad in Syria. Helping reclaim land for Assad is one thing, but to prevent further uprising and to secure Assad’s position as a ‘hero to the Syrian people’, Kremlin has started to increase propaganda around him and has pushed the narrative of ‘buffer to terrorists’ even more (14).
Moreover, by saying that all of the opposition that opposes Assad are Islamists, Russia forces west into a dichotomy: Assad or Islamists(15). In prior months, one could argue against opposition being entirely Islamists, but with current infighting and splintering amongst opposition, the propaganda view is starting to become more dominant.
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Turkish-backed Islamists, who now desire to further an advance to capture Manbij, did the capturing of al-Bab with a desired goal in mind. Unlike Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), as well as other Rojava forces (YPG and YPJ), these Islamists do not have liberty and democracy in mind. What they have in mind is the desire to create an Islamic State. When AaS’ fighters entered al-Bab, waving their index fingers in the air in the ‘Tawhid salute’ (oneness of god) and chanting Islamist slogans, the religious zeal was evident(16).
US forces and previous backers of FSA have halted their support, instead demanding that moderate factions regain control of opposition or risk being abandoned. This is very sad news, as many prior FSA supporters now watch the heart of Syrian revolution succumb to its wounds. With SAA tiger forces moving to cut off Euphrates Shield advancement, Turkish-backed Islamists and ‘Turkish armed forces’ (TSK) now scramble to continue offensive(17).
FSA fight in Aleppo region against SAA.
SAA forces reach the YPG held border near Manbij. SAA start advance against FSA.
Nevertheless, despite the erosion of FSA to Islamist domination, there is an unseen benefit in this conflict. That benefit comes from a possible securing of Rojava cantons in Northern Syria, especially Afrin Canton with Kobani canton. If FSA is bogged down battling SAA, then YPG may have chance to push against FSA and relink the cantons. In addition to this, if the cantons are linked and Rojava is secured, then it will give Rojava forces a better chance in negotiating the future of Syria.
However, before that can happen, YPG will have to defend Manbij from FSA advancement. President Erdogan has claimed the region to be in control of Arabs, implying that Kurdish militias are to abandon area or be forced out(18). YPG will refuse this and thus there will be future conflict to come.
New graduated YPG recruits in Afrin Canton, Northern Syria.
As for me, I watch these series of events on the sidelines.
Writing new observations in my journal.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson