Trump and Syria

by Robert Olson

It’s not likely that substantial changes will take place in Syria in the initial months after the Trump administration takes office. However, Russia, Iran, and Turkey will gather for talks in Astana, Kazakhstan on January 23, which suggests the possibility of some movement forward.

Russia, for instance, could take a position more unfavorable to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the coming months. During its latest actions in the battle for Al-Bab, Russia increased air support for Turkish-backed forces that now number around 5,000 fighters, one-fifth of them Turkish Special Operations troops. In a further irony of the battle, the U.S. joined Russia in providing air support.

Russia needs Turkey’s support for any kind of transition of power in Syria. Russia seems to be willing to allow Turkish-backed forces—the Free Syrian Army (FSA), jihadists, and Muslim Brotherhood militias—that were removed from Aleppo, to remain in Idlib province where they will be able to hold the PYD canton of Afrin in check and to allow some fighters to go to Al-Bab, Minbij, and to the outskirts of Raqqa.

Al-Bab has played an important role in Middle East history. In 1915-16 100,000 Armenians were incarcerated in a concentration camp there after escaping from the Ottoman genocide taking place in eastern and southeastern Turkey. Thousands died of starvation, disease, and violence. Some scholars of Turkish history are concerned that this history could repeat again in Syria—as well as in Turkey.

The U.S., Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime all agree on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Al-Bab, but the battle for Minbij is another matter.

The U.S. has not supported Turkey’s strategy because after the fall of Al-Bab, Turkish-backed forces would then move on to Minbij, which is controlled by YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF are made up of Arab tribal forces fighting with the YPG against IS. Turkey and the Assad regime would like to wipe out the YPG/SDP on the western side of the Euphrates, including the canton of Afrin—and the east side when propitious.

The U.S. does not want Turkish-backed and Syrian regime forces to capture Manbij. The PYD/YPG have made it clear that if this happens they will not participle in efforts to remove IS from Raqqa, which would certainly be a blow to Washington’s announced global policy priority of destroying radical Islamic terrorism.This development would also lengthen the time needed to destroy the capital of IS.

It also increases the possibility that the new Trump administration, with its bevy of former military generals, will seek stronger military actions to “kick the shit” out of IS. Such a development would benefit Ankara and its desire to destroy the PYD and YPG in Syria just as it has destroyed nearly all Kurdish political, societal, and civic institutions in Turkey.

The removal of the PYD/YPG and the PKK/Kurdistan Union of Cities (KCK), both of which are strongly represented in Syria, would facilitate negotiations for a transition of power in Syria in coming months but could also lead to even more militant resistance by Kurds in Syria and Turkey. The Assad regime would clearly like to expand its territory hold to the Euphrates. The regime might work out some agreement with opposition groups as to who would dominate the governance of this region.

Amberin Zaman, writing in Al-Monitor, suggests that under Trump, the U.S. could pursue current policies, at least for a while. Brett McGurk, the U.S. current envoy to the anti-IS coalition, might retain his post and Army Lt. General J. Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-IS Operation Inherent Resolve, also supports the policy of “training and equipping the Kurds.”

The PYD will not be at the Astana talks. Yet, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner, when asked whether the State Department would support the participation of the PYD in any of the meetings organized by the U.N.-led process, replied that “at some point, the PYD have to be part of this process.”

Turkey, however, won’t likely consent to PYD/YPG participation, given the powerful animus of Turkish President Erdogan and, increasingly, a majority of the Turks, toward the PKK/KCK and PYD/YPG, the growth of strident Turkish nationalism, and the government’s continuing dismantling of Kurdish civil institutions.

If the Trump administration coordinates its Syria policy more closely with Turkey and Russia, McGurk and Townsend might not last long in their positions.

Photo: Pro-Syrian government demonstration in Lebanon (by Bertil Vidit via Wikimedia Commons).

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.