Visiting Turkey yesterday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said two important things:
- The fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is for the Syrian people to decide
- After liberation from ISIS Raqqa is to be governed by local forces
Taken together this means the US has folded in the war to topple the Syrian government but its war against ISIS is still expected to result in a weakened, partitioned Syria.
This is not actually new. That the US has given up on toppling Assad has been apparent for a while now, what with the heavy bombing of al-Qaeda rebels and the ongoing pause in bankrolling the ‘moderate rebels’.
Furthermore, as far back as November of last year, US generals were saying after ISIS Raqqa would be governed by its local proxies rather than Damascus.
What is new is that this has been now said at the highest level and told straight to Erdogan’s face.
The ironic thing is that the US itself is not necessarily highly invested in partitioning Syria but it simply doesn’t know what else to do.
It needs to defeat ISIS because its existence as an actual territorial state is a huge challenge to its prestige. However, given its own biases and those of its client Israel, it certainly is not interested in winning back territory for the pro-Iranian, pro-Russian and pro-Hezbollah Damascus. (Albeit it has no choice but to back an equally pro-Iranian Iraq.) All the more so since to much of America, Assad is literally Hitler.
So for the Americans, what to do with areas taken from ISIS is a real problem. Luckily for them the Kurds have an idea.
Syrian Kurds want the same deal Iraqi Kurds have. They want a strong, de facto independent Syrian Kurdistan with its own military and police but which nonetheless calls itself a part of Syria so as to make it harder for Turks to invade and sanction them. Since Kurds populate three separate enclaves which are not actually contiguous they also need this Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) to stretch over a great deal of Arab-majority land.
This is their primary goal. Their secondary goal is to find allies who like them do not want a return of the central government to northern and eastern Syria. For that purpose they have promoted not just the establishment of a Kurdish-dominated “federal” unit in northern Syria, but also the establishment of other, Arab-dominated, federal units elsewhere in Syria, particularly in the SDF-held east.
Tillerson’s words in Turkey mean that for a lack of a better alternative the US is now on board with the Kurdish ambition. You can expect that once clear of ISIS, Raqqa will begin to emerge as the capital of an Arab-majority “federal” unit aligned with the Kurds and backed by the US. How successful that will be is another question.
Ironically the biggest problem with this plan for the US (aside from the unclear enthusiasm of local Arabs) is neither the militarily deflated Assad, nor Syrian sovereignty which they’ve never respected anyway, but the rabid opposition of its major NATO ally Turkey.
Tillerson kept repeating in Turkey this was a “very difficult choice” to make. The US is aware going along with a Kurdish-proposed Ocalanist transformation of eastern Syria is going to enrage Ankara but it feels it has no other choice.
Perhaps that’s the silver lining here. Washington’s new path is bad for the territorial integrity of Middle Eastern states, but it’s also bad for the monster known as NATO.