Jul 11,2018 – JORDAN TIMES
The Syrian Southern Front’s collapse was in the cards as soon as Syria’s army and air force backed by Russia consolidated their hold on Damascus suburbs and countryside and shifted their focus to the south. The southern front was never a match for regular military forces, because the front was not unified under a single command. Instead, the front consisted of a collection of 54 mainly local armed groups, loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which itself was a collection of disparate, often competing and warring factions.
While the front came to control about 70 per cent of Deraa province and several districts of Deraa city, this happened because Damascus had more urgent military tasks to perform: Regaining insurgent-held areas in Homs, Aleppo, Deir Al Zor and around Damascus. This short list reveals the government’s military priorities. While towns, villages and the capital’s urban areas to the west were high priority, Eastern Ghouta and the southern suburbs of Yarmouk and Hajar Al Aswad waited until the 1,000-day Daesh siege of Deir Al Zor was lifted and Daesh pockets along the Iraqi border were taken out.
Deraa, Sweida and Quneitra came after Eastern Ghouta and the southern suburbs because extending Damascus’s writ to the north poses far more serious problems, which will almost certainly have to be resolved through negotiations. The government has already established contacts with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have called for the return of government control to the 25-30 per cent of Syrian territory the Kurds hold, if this area is granted a large degree of autonomy under a federal system.
However, if the Kurds are to achieve a deal with Damascus, they must first cut loose from the US, which deployed 2,000 special operations troops and scores of contractors with the YPG as its fighters routed Daesh from its capital at Raqqa and from swathes of territory in Raqqa and Deir Al Zor provinces.
Ankara could be a spoiler in the north. Turkey has occupied the Kurdish district of Afrin in Aleppo province, as well as a triangle of territory around Jarablus and Al Bab. Turkey has also compelled the US to share control over Manbij, a strategic YPG-liberated town west of the Euphrates River, and to insist on the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters, who have held Manbij since 2016. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that Turkey must drive the YPG from the entire Turkish-Syrian border area in order to prevent Syria’s Kurds from linking up with restive Turkish Kurds in the southeast of the country.
While the YPG is the sole serious Syrian local paramilitary force, the Kurds do not have the manpower or weapons to fend off Turkey militarily. Therefore, there is no option but to do a deal with Ankara. The best bet for the Kurds would be Russia, as the US routinely capitulates to Turkey. Unfortunately, Russia also seeks to court Turkey to pull it away from Nato and the West. However, if Moscow is serious about restoring Syrian sovereignty, Putin will have to convince Erdogan to pull his forces out of the north and allow the Syrian army to retake the north-western province of Idlib and detain or expel the taqfiri fighters who occupy that province.
This could be a very difficult task. Turkey was put in charge of monitoring the ceasefire in Idlib and keeping the taqfiris and other armed groups in check. Instead, Turkey has recruited fighters for its surrogate FSA, which it has deployed in Turkish-occupied Syrian territory to the alarm of the inhabitants of these areas, which Erdogan wants to annex.
While the Obama administration was responsible for the US military involvement in Syria, Donald Trump has repeatedly said he favours full US troop, and presumably contractor, withdrawal by the end of this year. Defence Secretary James Mattis and his colleagues at the Pentagon disagree. But Trump is Trump and could decide the matter.
Indeed, he could very well do a deal on Syria when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. This meeting will take place at a time Russia’s partner, the Syrian government, is in a strong position. Its forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have regained control of much of southern Syria from the US-supported southern front/FSA. Damascus now holds more than 65 per cent of Syria’s territory and hopes to reach an arrangement with the Kurds to add their 25-30 per cent. They need Damascus’ political cover to protect them from Turkey, which regards the PYD/YPG as offshoots of the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party, which seeks to wrest autonomy or self rule for Turkey’s restive 18-20 per cent Kurdish minority.
It is far easier for Trump to cede Syria to Russia at a time Syria is already lost to the West, than grant Putin recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, dismiss Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict, lift sanctions on Russia or try to rehabilitate Russia on the international scene. If Trump attempts any of the last four tasks, he would be solidly opposed by the US political establishment, the opposition Democratic Party, Nato and the European Union. This is because it is widely believed Russia intervened in the 2016 US presidential election to ensure Trump’s success, making it difficult-to-impossible for Trump to deliver on these issues.