The Syrian Civil War has gone through several phases over the course of seven years and it now appears to be entering another one. Government forces have regained control over much of Syria with Russian air support and Iranian ground forces. Only Idlib and the territories east of the Euphrates river remain out of the hands of President Assad’s regime. With the U.S. planning an imminent withdrawal from Syria, things could soon shift again.
Control over Eastern Syria is important for the government in Damascus for political and economic reasons. President Assad has on numerous occasions stated his desire to establish control over the entire Syrian territory in order to strengthen the image of a strong and stable regime. Before the war, Syria produced 387,000 barrels per day of which 140,000 bpd were exported. Most of this oil came from Eastern Syria, which is now under the control of the U.S.-backed SDF. Currently, the Syrian oil industry is a shadow of its former self due to the civil war.
A weakened IS led to government forces progressing from the west, while the SDF expelled the Islamic fundamentalists from the north. The Euphrates river has become the natural border between the SDF and the Syrian military. After a serious incursion on February 7th, 2018, during which approximately 300 Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries died attacking U.S. and SDF forces on the eastern shores, it has become relatively calm in the region. Related: Saudis Tread On Thin Ice As Prices Slide
The success of the SDF is a direct consequence of cooperation with Washington. The U.S. is the guarantor of security through the presence of 2,000 special forces and continuous air support. Turkey, however, has been less pleased with this arrangement. The Kurdish YPG is the backbone of the SDF and is linked to the PKK which is the cause of major distress in Ankara.
The seemingly intractable position of the U.S. concerning support for the YPG is one of the reasons that relations between Washington and Ankara are at a historic low. Turkey fears that autonomy for the Syrian Kurds will embolden its own restive provinces. For the U.S., however, supporting the SDF is the only way to maintain a foothold in Syria and thwart Iranian and Russian intentions. In an apparent U-turn, President Trump is now considering pulling out all American troops within 60 to 100 days. In a tweet on Wednesday, he said: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency".
The withdrawal would be a major boon for Turkey, Iran, Russia, and what’s left of IS. A Turkish military build-up on the border with Syria in recent days is the first step of an offensive which Turkish President Erdogan has long been planning for. Ankara’s objective is to prevent the YPG from having a foothold on its border. With the U.S. gone, Turkish forces could engage with the YPG.
The Syrian government and its allies would also be beneficiaries of a U.S. withdrawal. If the American ‘shield’ goes, the SDF and YPG would face pressure from the north by Turkey and the West by government forces. For the YPG the threat from the north is existential meaning that the front on the Euphrates river could be abandoned or weakened. Related: IEA Chief: U.S. Oil Output To Near Saudi+Russian Production By 2025
The eastern shores are of paramount importance to Damascus and its economic future. The region contains most of the oil fields, which could provide income for reconstruction purposes. The withdrawal of the U.S. combined with pressure from Turkey, gives Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran a unique opportunity to regain control with minimum effort.
The YPG is currently undoubtedly weighing its options with regards to minimizing its losses. Assuming the U.S. is withdrawing, not much remains to contain Turkish forces to their side of the border. The Kurds are no match for the second biggest army of NATO regardless of the effectiveness of the YPG. However, a conflict in Northern Syria against a battle-hardened enemy could become expensive for Ankara. Moscow is in a position to take advantage of the situation by striking a deal with the Kurds.
There are two options: Syrian government forces will retake the eastern shores of the Euphrates with the promise not to engage further to the north where the YPG would fight a one-front battle against Turkey. Or Russia would act as a guarantor for the retreat of the YPG from the border areas with Turkey in exchange for the returning of the SDF territories to Damascus’s control. It seems the Kurds in Syria don't have much of a choice with pressure mounting from all sides.
By Vanand Meliksetian for Oilprice.com
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