By WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG
During an embedded trip with the US-led Coalition to northeast Syria last week, it was clear that the Coalition support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS is set to continue. This is despite the opposition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government, all of whom want the US-led Coalition forces to leave Syria. “And as long as there are Daash (ISIS) remnants in Iraq and in northeast Syria, we'll have the coalition pursue them,” OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto told Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) in Erbil, before a MECRA reporter flew to Syria by helicopter with the Coalition.
“We work by with and through our SDF partners in northeast Syria, we have approximately 900 US soldiers there. We continue to work with them so they can build that capacity to fight Daash (ISIS) independently. So there are partners, we work with them. We have our soldiers out there. Our mission has not changed in northeast Syria with the SDF. We continue to work by, with and through the SDF.” The Syrian Kurds, however, have not forgotten former president Donald Trump's green light for a Turkish invasion in October 2019. But it is expected that the new Biden administration will not green light new Turkish operations. The SDF Commander-in-Chief General Mazloum Abdi said recently in an interview with VOA that they hope the new Biden administration will correct the 'previous mistakes of the previous administration.’ "Within the context of Syria, a status must be accorded to this region that we liberated from ISIS in collaboration with the Coalition. The rights of Kurdish people, the rights of other people in our region must be protected by legal means, and the problem in Syria must be solved in a comprehensive way. We hope that Washington will pursue an effective policy on this issue," Abdi told VOA's Mutlu Civiroglu in an interview. But there is a fear among Kurdish officials in Syria that Russia could green light a new operation in the areas around Kobani and Afrin, similar to the Russian green light to the Afrin attack in January 2018. The Syrian Kurds are not willing to give up their autonomy to the Syrian government, and Russia has been increasingly irked by the continued US presence in the area, hoping Trump would withdraw all troops from Syria. US troops temporarily withdrew from several areas in Syria, but returned to the Hasakah and Deir al-Zour provinces in 2019. Russia has established points in all the areas that the US left, including near Kobani, where it has bases near Manbij, Ain Issa and Kobani city. Russia also has positions in the Hasakah province, such as in the town of Amude (in accordance with the Russian-Turkish ceasefire and border agreement deal). Before 2019, the US patrolled these areas and successfully defeated ISIS in both Raqqa and Manbij. Now in 2020-2021, the US is only focused on Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. This opens the possibility for Russia to allow a Turkish attack in areas with a previous US presence in case the SDF does not make concessions to the Syrian government. The Syrian regime and Russia are opposed to the continued US presence and have falsely accused the US of smuggling oil out of Syria. Talks over recent years between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus have failed to reach any agreement on autonomy: Assad demands a complete surrender, while the Syrian Kurds propose limited autonomy, and the integration of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into the Syrian army (with a continued autonomous status). Nevertheless, the SDF reached a deal with the regime in October 2019 to deploy Syrian troops on contact points with Turkish-backed forces, to stop the expansion of Turkish-backed groups. The SDF did not, however, cede any territory to Assad, and in fact tensions have recently increased between Kurdish-led forces and the Syrian regime near regime enclaves in the Hasakah province, and Kurdish enclaves in the Aleppo province. Both sides enforced embargos on each other's points in January. On February 21, the Russians temporarily withdrew from Ain Issa, but returned one day after. This comes after months of attacks by Turkish-backed groups on Ain Issa, and rumours that Turkey would want to cut off the roads to Kobani, a symbol for the fight against ISIS. Recently, there have been new rumours that Turkey could attack the town of Derik, near the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, amidst increased Turkish operations in the neighbouring Kurdistan region of Iraq. Turkey has been irked by the Kurdish success and alliance with the US-led Coalition against ISIS since the beginning of the fight in Kobani. Turkey has also imprisoned Kurdish politicians in Turkey for supporting the resistance in Kobani. Turkish president Erdogan thought Kobani would fall in October 2014, but it did not fall and the Syrian Kurds received international support and managed to expand the area under their control. Turkish president Erdogan reportedly recently said that he was proud of refusing a request by then US president Obama to support Syrian Kurds in Kobani against ISIS.
Major General Kevin Copsey, the British Deputy Commander of the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq and Syria, told MECRA during the visit in Syria that “the Coalition has been here for effectively three administrations, the one that got sworn in on the sixth of January (Biden), the one before that (Trump), and one before that (Obama)." Although the Biden administration hasn't finished appointing his staff for Syria yet, Major General Kevin Copsey underlined that there "will still be an enduring commitment to defeat Daash (ISIS)." However, he said the Coalition mandate remains focused on ISIS and not other threats, such as the militia groups, that could 'distract the Coalition' from the fight against ISIS.
According to a US CENTCOM assessment quoted in a recent Pentagon Inspector- General report, the SDF was forced to pull some of the SDF focus towards the area Turkish forces were operating in, and away from anti-ISIS operations due to ongoing attacks by Turkish-backed forces near Ain Issa. Although Russia and US made separate ceasefire deals with Ankara to stop the fighting, attacks by Turkish-backed groups in Ain al Issa and Tal Tamr continue. Erdogan also fears that Biden will give more support to the SDF than did the Trump Administration. The Pentagon report noted that Turkey in October threatened to attack northeast Syria, but there were no signs for a Turkish major operation in the area. Nevertheless, there was increased shelling and attacks in November and December, but the SDF repelled the advances.
Major General Copsey also observed that it is for politicians to try to deal with attempts by other countries (such as Turkey) "to restrain their actions as much as possible to allow us to defeat ISIS, and thereby provide a security for both the Kurds in northeast Syria and also the Iraqis and Kurds as well." This earlier failed under the Trump administration that allowed Turkey to occupy Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in October 2019 and tried to withdraw forces from Syria. Trump promised during his campaign in 2016, to bring US forces home. But it's expected the Biden administration will not repeat the policies of Obama and Trump to pull out forces from the region. After all, Obama's withdrawal from Iraq was one of the reasons that ISIS was able to rise in Iraq, and there is thus a clear need for a continued NATO and Coalition presence. In the meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been increasingly irked by the continued US troop presence in Syria. In August 2020, there was a tense encounter between Russian forces and US-led Coalition forces, in which US forces personnel were lightly injured. The Russians want to remove US forces from northern Syria, and especially near the strategic Samalka (Fishkhabur) border gate, that is the link between the Kurdish-led self-administration in Syria and the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. In response, the US deployed Bradley fighting vehicles in September 2020 " to ensure freedom of movement of US soldiers and SDF in northeast Syria,” the Coalition spokesperson said. He said, the Coalition continued discussions with the Russian military to deconflict tensions.
“We work very hard to deconflict our activities with the Russians,” Major General Copsey told MECRA. “We don't coordinate our activities, we do not collaborate our activities because we are here to purely support Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in the defeat of ISIS.” However, he said since the event in September, there has been no more issues with the Russians.
Coalition soldiers during a patrol near Fishkhabur and Derik inside Syria, said that they haven’t seen any attempts by the Russians to challenge the Coalition presence there. However, the Feb 21 incident, in which the Russians temporarily withdrew from Ain Issa, shows that instead of pressuring US forces, they can use the threat of a Turkish operation against the SDF. “All of the cities at the border are under threats, but particularly when it comes to Kobani, even the Russians tell us from time to time that there is the danger that the Turks will attack you again,” Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, said during an online event in May last year.
While the SDF worries about potential Turkish threats and regime pressure, the Coalition is most concerned about the al-Hol camp that host over 60,000 individuals, including foreign ISIS families. The camp has seen a large number of assassinations of Iraqis and Syrians in the camp in recent months. “Unless the international community comes together to agree, some form of durable solutions for al Hol, alongside the Autonomous Administration and the government of Iraq, then I do fear that there will be a breeding ground for the next violent extremist organization that will come out from it,” Major General Copsey said. “The Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces have been great defeating Daash (ISIS) today, but we need to deny Daash (ISIS) tomorrow and that tomorrow is being bred within al-Hol,” he concluded.
The author is the co-author of The Kurds of Northern Syria, a journalist and analyst, with an MA Conflict Studies and Kurdish Studies.