Damascus and its Kurds: America’s Syndrome!

Given that the U.S. presence is vital for the survival of the AANES, the prospect of withdrawal leaves the entire issue uncertain Akil Mahfouz writes in Athr Press.

While the Autonomous Administration and the SDF exert significant control in eastern Syria, the region faces persistent high levels of perceived threats. The presence of the United States, supporting the Autonomous Administration and opposing Turkey, contributes to this tension. There’s an American interest in forming militias from local tribes, potentially serving as a “partial replacement” along the Euphrates line and the Syria-Iraq border. Forecasts suggest a greater likelihood of violence than resolution in eastern Syria, intensifying tensions between the SDF and Arab tribes in the Euphrates line.

SDF Towards Secession from Syria: New Political and Social Contract for the Kurdish Administration

The U.S. tolerance of Turkish attacks against the SDF and the rising assaults on U.S. forces by local resistance or groups connected to Iran’s IRGC add to the uncertainty. This “American syndrome” creates vulnerability in the region, leaving it open to drastic and perilous transformations. The term “syndrome” is borrowed from psychological and social sciences, describing a complex set of interconnected symptoms that are challenging to address. The U.S. itself grapples with the “eastern Syria syndrome” or “eastern Euphrates syndrome,” reflecting the complexity of its involvement and the difficulty in finding a secure and sustainable approach—whether to stay or withdraw, continue or disengage, each option carrying its own constraints, consequences, threats, opportunities, and respective supporters and opponents.

Explanatory quote

The U.S. presence in eastern Syria serves as a key element in understanding the complex dynamics unfolding across various fronts in Syria and Iraq, as well as the broader region. It is challenging to interpret the ongoing developments in isolation from the influence of America and its multifaceted involvement, encompassing policies, interventions, alliances, and strategic interests, whether enacted directly or indirectly.
On one hand, America plays a pivotal role as a founding factor in shaping the situation in eastern Syria and the Jazira region. The existence, and indeed the sustained continuation, of the Autonomous Administration owe much to the presence of America. Without its involvement, the establishment of such an administration might not have been conceivable thus far.
On the other hand, the United States is a significant impediment to reaching settlements or finding solutions with Damascus and other key actors in the region. Moreover, it stands as a factor complicating efforts to contain the Autonomous Administration and dismantle the elements essential for its survival and ongoing stability. The American presence thus emerges as a critical variable influencing both the current state of affairs and the potential paths for resolution in the region.

SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi expressed apprehensions regarding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, emphasizing President Joe Biden’s commitment not to abandon their forces, as he purportedly did with the Afghans. General Frank McKenzie, Commander of U.S. Central Command, made an unannounced visit to personally reassure Mazloum Abdi amid regional concerns stemming from the events in Afghanistan. Abdi candidly acknowledged the widespread fear of facing a similar fate.

The obstruction of solutions or settlements between Damascus and the Autonomous Administration by the United States is a focal point in the Syrian government’s political discourse. This sentiment is deeply ingrained in the political landscape of Syria and finds consensus in non-Syrian political and strategic analyses. U.S. support has contributed to the establishment of a unilaterally declared “administration” unrecognized by Damascus, highlighting the historical collaboration between the Syrian government and the Kurdish movement (PYD) in Jazira during the initial stages of the crisis.

President Bashar al-Assad, however, has adopted a firm stance against recognizing the administration and even denied the existence of a Kurdish issue in Syria. In an interview with Russia Today, he asserted that the Kurds in Syria have a historical presence, with many having sought refuge from Turkish repression in the last century. While acknowledging the historical existence of Kurds in Syria, President Assad clarified that his position is not rooted in ethnic, racial, or regional biases. He emphasized that his concern lies with individuals, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish, who align themselves with the United States.

President Assad underscored the national aspect of the Kurdish issue, acknowledging the historical presence of the Kurdish nationality in Syria and emphasizing the patriotic nature of the majority. He pointed out that, like any other community, there are factions within the Kurdish population that align themselves with foreign interests, particularly the Americans. The core concern, according to PresidentAssad, is not a matter of the president or political opposition but revolves around preserving the unity of the Syrian homeland.

Existential condition

Much of the attention on developments in eastern Syria revolves around the American presence in the region, a focal point that is often deemed an “objective condition” crucial for the establishment and persistence of the Autonomous Administration. The significance lies in the fact that America:

It provides financial and technical assistance to the SDF, establishing a framework that enables the organization to exert control over energy resources. This support extends to both civilian and military initiatives. Additionally, it supplies the SDF with equipment, weapons, and training, while also streamlining and bolstering its international engagements, among other contributions.

It is currently establishing military bases and deploying additional troops and equipment across various locations in eastern Syria, particularly in the al-Tanf border area with Iraq. This strategic move is aimed at impeding the expansion of Syrian forces (alongside allied forces) and limiting their control over the geographical expanse of eastern Syria.
Damascus is hindered in its efforts to reclaim control over energy resources, particularly in the eastern Syrian region, as mentioned previously. Furthermore, it seeks to contain any actions perceived as threats by the United States and the SDF. This containment extends to limiting communication or interaction with Arab tribes and various societal structures, encompassing Arab, Kurdish, and other groups in the region.
It also exercises a form of control over Turkey’s actions towards the administration. While the United States permits Turkey to engage in more aggressive actions, including territorial incursions, it does so within the boundaries of American plans, priorities, and strategic interests in the region. The nuanced relationship between the United States and Turkey in the context of the island and Syria at large demands further investigation and careful scrutiny.

It exercises a degree of control over the presence and strategic moves of other actors like Russia and Iran. The Euphrates line represents one of the initial agreed-upon demarcations between Russia and the United States in Syria. However, both parties extend their involvement beyond this line, each playing roles, engaging in interactions, and establishing contacts on both sides of the Euphrates. There may be attempts by either party to interfere in the other’s sphere of influence, resulting in occasional tensions. Nevertheless, there is a cautious approach to avoid undermining the core understandings that form the basis of their cooperation in this regard.

Existential threat

However, this existential reliance on U.S. support renders the administration’s situation precarious, marked by instability, frequent bombings, and the looming threat of collapse. This vulnerability is contingent upon the United States deciding, for any reason, to:

Withdrawal 

The potential withdrawal from eastern Syria and the Tanf region could result from reevaluations by the United States, considering factors that prompt a review of their stance toward the Autonomous Administration and broader U.S. policies in Syria. Alternatively, it might stem from constraints arising from resistance or threats faced by U.S. forces. The Autonomous Administration is apprehensive about this possibility. Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the SDF, expresses a preference for the Americans to commit to staying until a final political settlement is achieved in the Syrian conflict. Abdi anticipates that with a sustained U.S. military presence, there is a greater chance of securing official recognition for Kurdish autonomy. Additionally, he hopes for the inclusion of Arab-majority areas in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor governorates, which are currently under his control.

Empowering Turkey 

Alternatively, the United States might opt to empower Turkey to escalate attacks on the Autonomous Administration, potentially leading to further territorial occupation or the establishment of armed tribal structures aligned with U.S. interests. These tribal entities could serve as an “armed tribal barrier” between the territories controlled by the Autonomous Administration and those governed by the Syrian government. This influence could extend to regions where the SDF and pro-Turkish militants intersect, such as the outskirts of Aleppo and certain border areas along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Settlement 

Or, in the context of managing the Syrian crisis, compromises might be achieved, resulting in Damascus reclaiming control over portions of eastern Syria. While this remains a possibility, it remains elusive given the current circumstances. Therefore, the underlying condition is reminiscent of an existential condition characterized by self-management. However, it is inherently imperfect,turbulent, and uncertain, as reiterated. This condition parallels the same circumstances that:

It inhibits the Autonomous Administration from extending its reach beyond the areas under its control to encompass other regions of Syria. Despite this limitation, the SDF continues to promote its initiative as one designed for the entirety of Syria. This is evident in various measures, such as the designation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the organizational and administrative decisions declared by the Autonomous Administration, explicitly affirming that the SDF project is intended for the future of Syria as a whole.
It also hinders the administration from establishing a stable control within its designated areas, notably in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and rural Aleppo. Tensions have flared up between the SDF and Arab tribes in the Deir ez-Zor countryside since October 2023, with the conflict having subsided but not fully concluded. There is a likelihood of escalating confrontations in the future if the necessary objective conditions materialize.
Certainly, the mentioned condition, frequently emphasized, obstructs a potential resolution or settlement with Damascus. The United States consistently reinforces its alliance with the SDF and assures protection for the Autonomous Administrationproject. This serves to bolster the SDF’s sense of security and strength in relation to Damascus, further solidifying the barriers between the two sides.

Double syndrome!

The essence of the “syndrome” here lies in the paradoxical nature where the conditions for existence and survival mirror those for collapse and annihilation. Managing the situation proves challenging for the involved parties—whether to engage in confrontation or seek a solution or settlement has been a persistent dilemma over the years.

In the Jazira region, forces from various parties coexist or converge, with patrols from Syrian, Russian, American, and Turkish forces, alongside military formations and militants affiliated with different entities. While occasional tensions and attacks occur, major or impactful military confrontations are avoided. No party wishes to enter direct confrontations with unpredictable outcomes, shaping the balance of power and the prevailing understandings.

Paradoxically, the concept of the “syndrome” extends to Washington itself, as decision-makers grapple with conflicting directions—whether to stay or withdraw, increase or mitigate military and political intervention. Periodic reviews and assessments of policies in the Syrian Peninsula, along with threat-opportunity evaluations, are announced by the administration.

While the likelihood of the U.S. presence enduring persists, factors or motives for withdrawal remain present and could intensify, especially if resistance forces emerge or if there are considerations to reduce support for the Autonomous Administration.

The American intervention in eastern Syria and the Syrian event at large stands as a crucial determinant shaping developments in Syria and the region. The Autonomous Administration’s pursuit of an alternative authority poses a threat to the established societal and state structures in Syria, potentially leading to prolonged crises or a soft division akin to northern Iraq, despite notable differences.

Given that the U.S. presence is vital for the survival of the Autonomous Administration, the prospect of American withdrawal leaves the entire issue of the Administration uncertain, causing concern and apprehension for those involved in the Administration and the SDF. The withdrawal itself stands as the primary objective for Syria and its allies, albeit under conditions that have proven challenging to meet thus far.

While much discussion revolves around the situation between Damascus and its Kurds, it is essential to consider the root of the problem in the context of Syrian society and the state. The current status quo has mostly led to unintended consequences, initially, but the assessments and stakes of the PYD have evolved, leading to the declaration of self-administration. If the emergency situation were to become permanent, it would pose a threat not only to Syria’s Kurds but also to both Kurds and Arabs, impacting the entirety of Syria.

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