Syria: how long will the US troops stay?

Russian position in Syria has become more important due to the murder of Iranian general Soleimani, is an assumption about Putin’s surprise visit to Damascus

Source: Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images

The author of the article is Thomas Pany. Thomas Pany studied political science with Kurt Sontheimer at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, plus modern history and Semitic studies. The original article has been published in Telepolis. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.

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An Iranian attack on military bases in Iraq also points to US vulnerabilities in Syria. The US presence is important for the Kurds. There are currently indications of a new negotiation schedule with the Syrian government.

Russia’s position in Syria has become more important due to the murder of Iranian general Soleimani, is an assumption about Putin’s surprise visit to Damascus. The visit was framed with the Christmas celebration of the Orthodox Christians, but the connection with the US beheading attack against the coordinator of the Iranian foreign forces and their allies is obvious.

Putin and al-Assad met in the Syrian capital in a building set up for the command of the Russian army, where the two, according to the Syrian news agency Sana, were among themselves and with the staff on the “recent developments” spoke in the region.

As usual, nothing is said about the exact content of the conversation; it simply means that the “terrorists in Idlib” and northern Syria as well as the role of Turkey were issues. The Russian President headed from Damascus to Ankara, where he will also talk to Erdogan about Syria and interests in Libya today. Putin is expected in Israel in two weeks.

There, too, it will probably not only be about the original reason for the visit – the commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp – but, as at many meetings before, the role of Russia in mediating, which is now in the escalation between the conflict between the U.S. and Iran between getting new weight again.

A lot could change for the Kurds in northern Syria

The Kurds in northern Syria could also change a lot, as has been speculated since the fatal drone attack on Soleimani. It has been the goal of Iran to push the United States out of the Middle East since then. If the United States actually withdraws from Iraq – for which no definitive decisions have yet been made – the U.S. troops could no longer stay in Syria, it is assumed. Reports of Iranian attacks on US positions in Iraq support the prospect that US troops are now facing increased resistance.

The extent to which this will affect US positions in Syria remains to be seen. For Kurdish-led SDFs that are allied with the United States, some of it depends on how long the United States stays in Northeast Syria. The US presence is also a bargaining chip in negotiations with the leadership in Damascus, especially since important oil fields, which the US troops control together with the SDF, are involved.

For a long time there was nothing left to read about negotiations between representatives of the Kurdish self-government in northern Syria and the government in Damascus. It was felt that their progress was thwarted by the US government’s intention to stay in Syria “to watch out for the oil”.

Currently, however, the Kurdish news site Anha reports that a Russian delegation, led by an unnamed military commander, tried to find new ways to negotiate with the Syrian government in “marathon sessions” during the Christmas days. The Russian delegation first traveled to Damascus to negotiate with government officials on December 25 and 26, and in the evening of the 26th went to northern Syria to discuss the proposals in Qamishli with representatives of the Kurdish government.

The “road map”: Syria is no longer like it was before 2011

The Kurdish news site highlights three points: the discussion about the future of seven local administrations, which make up around 20 percent of the Syrian territory, second, the future role and status of the SDF and the Asayesch security forces; as a third – and as “most important” point – Anha mentions the principle that current Syria in 2020 will no longer be the same as Syria before 2011.

“If the regime continues with its security approach and enforces a military solution, the entire region will remain in an endless war that is catastrophic for all sides,” it is said literally. The wording and highlighting of the three points indicate that the Anha report could possibly ask its own sources about the meetings. This is not unimportant because the report, which mentions a total of ten points as proposals for a road map between Damascus and the self-government, relies on information from the Saudi Arabian newspaper Asharq al-Aswat.

The newspaper belongs to the media power of the house of Saud, so caution is advisable, since its publications are not without political intentions. No effort is being made in Saudi Arabia to make the Syrian government look strong. The Asharq al-Aswat article, based on undisclosed sources, reports on the ten-point road map, the points of which Anha then specifically lists. Apart from these two media, however, no one has reported on the negotiation proposals to date.

Should these be confirmed, there would be some surprises: for example, the inclusion of Kurdish representatives in the constitutional committee. So far, Erdogan has prevented this. Representatives of the “Kurdish political movement Kurds” are said to be represented in the Syrian government. As a concrete negotiating point, it is also stated that the Syrian army should not be present in Kurdish schools and training centers.

In addition, the agreements concern the surveillance of the border with Turkey, which, like the agreement between Russia and Turkey largely regulates, is to be taken over by Syrian forces. The timetable speaks of the zone between Semalka and Manbij and the border with Iraq near Albukamal. What is striking here is the demand that the SDF should ensure that trade flows are not disturbed up to this transition. This has not been the case so far and has to do with a different US interest.

Other demands are more general, such as that a dialogue should be established between self-government in northern Syria and the Syrian government and that military and economic committees should be created. Such non-binding directional statements are a clear sign that the negotiations are still in their infancy. It will only become clear to what extent the Kurds can maintain a considerable degree of independence. At the moment it looks as if the Syrian state is dependent on it. But the situation can change quickly

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