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POSTED AT 04:19 PM 30-12-2018

Northern Syria returning to govt control: Syrian forces fill gap left by US pull-out

Image Courtesy: Asia Times

Even as Palestinians grapple with more violence and forced population evictions by Israel, the US’ sudden withdrawal from Syria is drastically changing the geo-strategic map of that besieged country. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump is being blamed for his forcible shut-down of the government by delaying approval of the federal budget spending.

Literally within hours of US President’s shock announcement that he was withdrawing US troops, other key actors were jockeying for position in that embattled country.

The forces of the Syrian Kurdish insurgent movement that had been supported by US troops for their role in combatting the IS in Syria have now quickly jumped sides and cut a deal with their former enemy, the Syrian government.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG = Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) began operating as an armed separatist Kurdish group in the early 2000s fighting against the Syrian government to establish its own uncontrolled area in northern Syria.

The YPG is allied to the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) which is the Turkey-based Kurd movement striving to break their homeland away from Turkey. The dream of the Kurds is for their homeland region, currently carved up between the Kurd provinces in northern Iraq, in northern Syria, and, in Turkey and Iran, to be unified as a single nation-state.

Turkey had, long ago, branded the PKK and YPG as ‘terrorist’ groups in order to de-legitimise their claim for free nationhood and remains poised to push back Kurd forces away from the Syrian-Turkish border, now that the US is withdrawing.

The impending US departure from Syria opens up the whole area for new dynamics. In order to save themselves from Turkish military operations, the YPG and allied groups in Syria have now quickly shifted their allegiance from the US to an alliance within Syria.

By Friday, the government in Damascus was claiming that Syrian government forces had re-entered the small, Kurdish majority city of Manbij, thirty kilometres from the Turkish border. At the same time the Kurdish forces were toning down their combat posture in order not to attract Turkish military pressures.

Later reports indicated that the Syrian government forces were positioned along the margins of Manbij but, in accordance with previously agreed protocol, had not moved into the city.

Whether or not the Kurds are able to win some semblance of autonomy for their region from Damascus, they will ensure that the Syrian army will stand between them and the Turks, now that they have lost the US military umbrella. Syrian Kurd commanders were on Friday reported as publicly inviting the Syrian forces to return to Manbij.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that while Turkey will take on the US burden of fighting IS in Syria, once the IS remnants have been cleared, Turkey will not stay on in Manbij but will relinquish control to local civilian and political leaderships.

Russia, too, will be most pleased with the US withdrawal, leaving it as the sole world power with a presence in the region.

There are about 3,000 French troops also in northern Syrian working alongside the Americans in support of the Kurds. Trump’s suddenly announced withdrawal infuriated Paris for the lack of any forewarning – which could endanger the small French units in Syria. President Emmanuel Macron last Thursday criticised the suddenness of the American pull-out.

The Kurds and other Syrian rebel forces that had benefitted from the US presence now openly say they feel betrayed by America.

What worries the Washington establishment (not so much Donald Trump) is that the lack of American boots on the ground will be an open invitation to Iran to further extend its influence across the Levant. As long as Teheran maintains cordial relations with the Kurds (who in the past have fermented Kurdish secessionism western Iran), the Kurds will not mind Iranian passage through northern Iraq and northern Syria.

There is potential for Iran to reach the Mediterranean ports by this means. If things are allowed to stabilise – the full crushing of IS is needed for that – in the whole region, China may consider an extension of its Belt & Road initiative along the same route, giving it access to Europe through yet another route (other than the sea routes and the new trans-Siberian rail route).

Such ease of access will also help Iran expand its sponsorship of the Shia Amal movement in Lebanon, thereby gaining a toe-hold in Lebanon.

All these geo-strategic shifts will certainly worry Israel. Tel Aviv was also unhappy with the sudden announcement of withdrawal by Washington. Tel Aviv does not want another political vacuum as in Iraq, which would follow the overthrow of the Assad regime in Damascus. Neither does it want a strong and stable Assad regime.

Israel is happy for the situation in Syria to continue in its currently disastrous state forever, whatever the human costs.

But for US allies and beneficiaries, the Trump move in Syria is yet another indication of the unreliability of the Trump administration.

Not that Trump cares. He and his Republican Party colleagues are more concerned with their domestic political prospects in future presidential elections in 2020.

In fact, many in Washington feel that part of the motive for this dramatic US move in Syria is a feint by Trump to distract attention away from his domestic troubles involving criminal probes and the legislative deadlock with a newly Democratic Party controlled US Congress.

Latest opinion polls show a decline in Trump’s job approval to just 39 per cent. Over 56 per cent of Americans now say that Trump has not performed adequately in his job.

The drop in popularity ratings could likely have more serious political ramifications for Trump, though.

Already, the Republicans are getting tired of the constant drain on their own legitimacy with every revelation of more potential criminality by Trump.

If there is a moment when the popularity of Trump wanes so drastically that he no longer has a substantial voter base, that will be when Republican loyalties will begin to shift away from their blundering President to their party’s own political fortunes.

At that point, as Trump’s lawyers are uneasily aware, plans for impeachment of the President by the Opposition Democrats will begin to take form.

World & Asia with Lakshman Gunasekara