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Updated Syria Briefing from Peter Ford: US Withdrawal, Safe Zones, Sanctions, Idlib, ISIS & Israel


The US forces base in Manbij, Syria (Image source: TRT World via Reuters)

The following situational briefing update has been provided by Peter Ford, Former British Ambassador to Syria:

US Withdrawal

Contrary to the expectations of many experts, President Trump has remained insistent on the withdrawal of approximately 2,000 US troops from North East Syria, although he has had to concede more time. The ‘conditioned’ withdrawal touted by his uber-hawkish National Security Adviser, John Bolton, appears to have shrunk just to ensuring that the Kurds in the YPG militia the US will be leaving behind are not slaughtered by the Turks. One of the other conditions, eradicating the final remnants of ISIS, appears to have been all but met by a final Coalition push, with ISIS down now to its last village, obviating the handing of the job to Turkey which was ludicrously proposed initially, while the other condition, ensuring that Iran does not benefit, appears to have been quietly

‘Safe zone’

Quite how the Kurdish issue will be settled remains up in the air. Not for much longer, however, if we parse correctly the statements made by Putin and Erdogan after their meeting in Moscow on 23 January.

As is often the case when the great men speak, what they do not say is as important as what they do say. Erdogan did not say, as he had done previously, that Turkey was going to police the proposed ‘safe zone’, 20 miles deep, cleared of the YPG. Rather he said that Turkey and Russia were in agreement on the establishment of such a zone. And the next day his Foreign Minister said that Turkey was open to arrangements being made involving ‘the US, Russia or others’. Putin on his side made clear that these significant ‘others’ were the Syrian government, whom he encouraged to speak to the Kurds. The day before the Putin-Erdogan meeting a Kurdish delegation was in Moscow, following earlier discussions in Damascus.

The eventual outcome, a return of Syrian security forces to the North East, is, in the view of this analyst, nailed on. The only question is when and under which conditions. The Kurds, reckoning on the Turks’ lack of appetite for a contested incursion and US dithering, are attempting to squeeze the last concession out of Damascus in terms of incorporation of the YPG into the Syrian security forces and some measures of local self-government, as well as use of the Kurdish language. Damascus, however, appears to hold the whip hand, conscious that as time goes on Trump will look as powerless over withdrawal as he does over the Mexican Wall if he does not act ‘and will if necessary call the Kurds’ bluff.

ISIS

It does indeed seem curtains for ISIS in Syria, at least as a territory-controlling caliphate. ISIS drew attention to themselves however with a suicide bomb attack in Manbij which left four Americans dead, prompting predictable cries from the foreign policy establishment in the US and Europe that it was folly to be leaving a ‘vacuum’ in Syria while there was still life in the twitching ISIS body. That experts deemed reputed could peddle this superficial analysis and be believed in the media is testimony to the blinkered thinking which dominates in the West. There will be no vacuum – the Syrian government has a good track record in the areas it has liberated of crushing ISIS, better in fact than the Americans for whom, as for their Kurdish allies, there are no-go areas of Arab villages in the areas they nominally control. These experts would do well to reflect on why ISIS are choosing this decisive moment to attack US forces, something they have curiously jailed to do for several months.

The hidden factor here is the incipient next phase in ISIS’s existence. It has gone underground, especially in Deir EzZor province which straddles the Euphrates. This is the equivalent of Iraq’s restless Anbar province which it borders. ISIS will not relish the prospect of Syrian Mukhabarat (security police) descending on Arab villages which have hitherto been no go areas to wake up ‘sleepers’. Expect more attacks on US forces.

Idlib

Putin and Erdogan also discussed Idlib, although the way forward here is less clear. Even the Turks cannot deny that in what is, to all intents and purposes, a Turkish and Western protectorate, the extreme jihadist Al Qaida-linked Tahrir Ash Sham (HTS) has run amok and now controls virtually the entirety of the area. This is the opposite of what was supposed to happen under the terms of the Russo-Turkish Sochi agreement which brought the September crisis to an end. Under Sochi the Turks were supposed to bring HTS to heel. Putin seemed to hint that military preparations would now move ahead for the Syrian government with Russian support to advance on Idlib, with Turkish acquiescence. The seamlines are already hot.

Political negotiations

One thing is clear. The Idlib issue is not going to be resolved by any political negotiations between the warring parties. The Western powers who cling to the comforting fiction that there can only be a political end to the Syrian conflict have no answers where Idlib is concerned.

The new UN envoy for Syria, Gerd Pederson, appears to be feeling his way, slowly, as well he might. Currently the Geneva process is in baulk over US, French and British blocking of a slate of candidates for inclusion in the Constitutional Committee which is supposed to come up eventually with a new constitution which will pave the way for UN-supervised elections with the participation, as the Western powers and Turkey would have it, of millions of Assad-hating refugees.

This mirage might appear harmless. However it is constantly cited by the Western powers to justify their conduct of war on Syria by other means than the military methods which are now all but exhausted.

Sanctions

How have the EU and the US responded to the prospect of normalisation in Syria? With more sanctions of course.

The EU has slapped sanctions on Syrian businessmen participating in a flagship property development scheme in Damascus deemed tantamount to assisting the ‘regime’. This scheme is emblematic of the many private investment projects now popping up, many of them involving Arab investors. Obviously the EU could not tolerate such progress, it not being enough to hamstring economic recovery with the existing deeply harmful battery of sanctions. The stated reason is that the Syrian government is not facilitating political progress towards the above mentioned mirage of elections rigged to produce a government of Western stooges. If the masterminds of EU diplomacy sincerely believe that such sanctions will make Assad bow the knee after eight years of vicious conflict have failed to do so, then we must fear for their sanity.

The US House of Representatives, with White House support, has chimed in with a Syria sanctions bill aimed at punishing any person or business which participates in any government linked project. This could have extra-territorial effect, dampening the interest of outside investors in Syria recovery projects. Again this highlights the hypocrisy of Western legislators who profess humanitarian concern but who are careless of inflicting economic suffering on a population already on its uppers after eight years of conflict, fuelled by Western support for armed groups, as long as they can strike a virtue-signalling blow against the ‘regime’. This is what a diplomacy of vindictiveness looks like.

The practitioners of this diplomacy have had some success with US and UK diplomats scouring Arab countries to pressure them into delaying normalisation of relations with Syria until the mirage has been reached. It appears that a consensus on Syria’s readmission to the Arab League as early as March is not likely to be found. Damascus will shrug this off. It is only delaying the inevitable. Arab countries who feel threatened by both Iran and fundamentalism can see that they are going to have to learn to live with Syria and that using contacts with Damascus to dilute Iran’s influence and share intelligence are very much in their interest.

Israel

Perennial party pooper Israel has attempted to spoil Assad’s successes by relaunching after a pause airborne attacks, ostensibly against Iranian targets. This is odd in that even US intelligence, cited by Trump, apparently more attentive to intelligence briefings than his detractors would have you believe, has reported that Iran has been withdrawing forces. The most recent blatant day time raid elicited a rare reprisal from Damascus, a missile which was shot down over the Syrian occupied Golan (not even Israel itself). Cue massive display of shock by the media, which had signally ignored the literally thousands of Israeli bombs dropped on Syria over the last two years. Naturally Syria and Russia’s attempt to secure some expression of concern from the Security Council failed, unprovoked aggression by Israel apparently not being inconsistent with the ‘rules based system’ constantly enjoined by the West on others.

Israel should however beware of hubris. Syria’s new Russian supplied SAM 300 air defence system is scheduled to become operational in March.

Author Peter Ford is the former British Ambassador to Syria (2003-2006) and Bahrain (1999-2002).

This briefing was originally published at the Global Network for Syria\

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