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The war-ravaged status quo in Syria continues, even as the region shifts with surprising realignments and outreach. Emblematic of this shift in the regional landscape – and the impact it is beginning to have in Syria – the Emiratis (and others) have signaled visits by senior officials of the United Arab Emirates to Ankara and Tehran in the coming days. After years of frozen relations and bitter rivalries, such meetings have prompted a sense of diplomatic vertigo. This has been reinforced by the Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus earlier in November, which was telegraphed by earlier diplomatic and commercial developments but nevertheless unexpected in its suddenness.
The changes, thus far, do not seem to presage any political solution for Syria but indirectly reflect an acknowledgement that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has prevailed, however bloodily and messily. The shifting regional landscape – emblematic of regimes retrenching from conflict, reassessing threats, and retooling their diplomatic and soft power arsenals – may also reflect the beginning of a hard-boiled Gulf assessment that Assad and his regime represent an opportunity or tool for leverage to counter burgeoning Iranian influence in the region. This reassessment is reinforced by long-standing Gulf concern that the status quo in Syria favors expanding Iranian influence there, as Assad has danced with the few partners who have stood by him. Eyeing this regional landscape and the tough status quo inside Syria is the United States’ long-standing partner in northeastern Syria in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces. He spoke by telephone recently with AGSIW Executive Vice President William Roebuck.
Despite recently articulated threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch military action into northeastern Syria, military action does not seem imminent, according to Mazloum, a well-placed observer whose forces control northeastern Syria. He told Roebuck November 12 that he took the threats seriously and that his forces “were taking the necessary precautions.” He also acknowledged some similarities to the period from September through early October 2019 that preceded previous Turkish military action against his forces – long partnered with U.S. special operations forces in the fight against ISIL in Syria. At the same time, he pointed to distinguishing features that in his view diminished the current threat.
He noted that both the United States and Russia had informed him they have told Turkey they oppose such action. Describing the U.S. message as “official assurances,” which he said specifically referenced previously threatened towns such as Kobane and Manbij, Mazloum viewed it as credible, while acknowledging the message was limited to northeastern Syria, while Erdogan’s threats had also included the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Tel Rifaat area in northwestern Syria. (YPG forces and the Women’s Protection Units form the command backbone of the mixed Kurdish-Arab SDF.) Similar assurances from the Russians reinforced Mazloum’s sense that Turkish military action was not in the cards this time around. He noted that the Russian assurances included a worrisome caveat that Moscow exerted no control over Syrian Islamist militia proxy forces Turkey had used in previous military action against Mazloum’s forces; he likewise referenced assurances the Russians had previously provided – and which ultimately proved worthless – regarding Turkish military action against the Afrin area, in the northwest, in 2018. “We will need to see action on the ground” to take the Russian assurances at face value, but he added that over the past two years, there had been good SDF-Russian ground force coordination in the northeast, and he saw no indication of any Russian-Turkish understandings that would permit a new Turkish-led military incursion into Syria.
Beyond such assurances, Mazloum in a November 9 interview pointed to what he described as “international agreements” reached separately with the United States and Russia in October 2019, after previous military action, that would help constrain Turkey this time. Mazloum also stressed to Roebuck that Erdogan had lost significant political strength inside Turkey since 2019, with the opposition Republican People’s Party for the first time voting against a recent authorization of Turkish forces to be in Syria and Iraq. Previously, according to Mazloum, it was only the pro- Kurdish party in Turkey (the Democratic People’s Party) that had opposed these deployments. Now the opposition to Erdogan is broader, insisted Mazloum, which would also act as a constraint on him.
Moving to other regional influences impacting Syria, Mazloum expressed mild disappointment regarding the November 9 visit of Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan to Damascus to meet with Assad. It was the first meeting between a senior Emirati official and the Syrian president since the Syrian civil war began. Other Gulf outreach to Damascus has slowly been gaining momentum since January, with, for example, unconfirmed reports of a senior Saudi intelligence official meeting counterparts in Damascus in May and the resumption of direct flights between Damascus and Dubai in July.
According to Mazloum, the SDF in years past had been able to quietly build relations with key Gulf capitals. For example, Thamer al-Sabhan, then the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, visited northeast Syria twice from 2017-19, meeting with senior SDF officials as well as Arab tribal leaders. However, as Gulf countries have started reestablishing diplomatic relations and other connections with the Assad regime (the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018), “that has impacted negatively on our relations with the Gulf,” Mazloum acknowledged. Avoiding directly criticizing the visit, Mazloum did note it had bolstered the Syrian regime and its current unhelpful position on a political solution for the war-ravaged country. Ideally, in his view, such visits would occur as part of a leveraging effect to move Assad toward a more flexible position. Nonetheless, Mazloum expressed skepticism that the Emirati visit was a harbinger for a broader regional embrace of Assad. The regime would garner some short-term benefit but be unable to build on it toward broader reintegration in the region.
Regarding the SDF’s relations with the Assad regime, he described them as professional and focused on solving problems. He noted the two sides had “forced relations” in key areas in northeast Syria (such as legacy regime toeholds including “security square” in Qamishli) as well as in Kurdish-predominant areas in the northwest. On again, off again negotiations with the regime over the SDF’s autonomy demands – for both Kurdish and Arab-majority areas – had long since become moribund, due to regime lack of interest, but contacts between the two sides continued.
Returning to U.S. policy in Syria, Mazloum urged U.S. policymakers to use the U.S. military presence in the northeast as leverage for a political solution for Syria and not tie it merely to the ongoing – still important – fight against ISIL. Specifically, he called on the United States to announce publicly that U.S. forces would only be withdrawn when there is a political solution for Syria. At present, the regime, Iranians, and Russians believed they could “wait out the Americans,” convinced the forces would be withdrawn when the fight against ISIL reached critical mass, regardless of the broader situation in Syria. He acknowledged initial fears that the Afghanistan withdrawal could signal a broader pullout in the region, including from northeastern Syria, but subsequent U.S. assurances and the steady presence of U.S. special forces had reassured people.
Mazloum praised the efforts of the U.S. government’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team and expressed appreciation for the stabilization assistance the United States had provided for the northeast since late 2017 to help communities recover and allow people to return to their homes. However, given the scale of destruction many communities had suffered, much more help was required to rebuild or refurbish schools, health clinics, hospitals, and irrigation infrastructure as well as repair the electrical grid and water systems. Because the Assad regime used propaganda to try to undermine the SDF’s control of the northeast, he called on the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the State Department to work more closely with the local administrative structure his affiliated organizations had established to provide essential services and security. Closer U.S. coordination could help counter regime propaganda efforts attacking the legitimacy and credibility of SDF control of northeastern Syria.
Regarding what he described as a dire economic situation in the northeast, he urged the Biden administration to grant a “general exception to Caesar sanctions,” imposed in mid-2020 based on U.S. legislation passed in late 2019. Mazloum said one of his key deputies, Elham Ahmed, head of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, had received a positive hearing for this request during a September Washington visit. Ethan Goldrich, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, with responsibility for the Levant and Syria engagement, reportedly returned the visit November 13, meeting in northeast Syria with Mazloum and Ahmed, along with local officials in the administrative authorities. Mazloum said the sanctions were preventing investment and foreign capital from flowing into the northeast. He also expressed concern about a weaker than normal wheat harvest in the northeast that would severely impact food security in the coming months.
Mazloum ticked off details of the continuing fight his forces were taking to the remnants of ISIL. He insisted ISIL remained a threat, more so outside the northeast, in areas the Syrian regime nominally controlled, where ISIL was able to seize and control territory, finance itself with ransom, and recruit and train fighters. The same resurgence would be evident in the northeast in the absence of the joint SDF-U.S. efforts, he insisted. At present, ISIL operates in the northeast underground in sleeper cells. He expressed concern about the 10,000 (and growing) ISIL fighters his forces had incarcerated in makeshift prisons, calling it a “critical situation” that he knew ISIL hoped to exploit with prison breaks. He similarly expressed concern about security at al-Hol Camp, where tens of thousands of ISIL-affiliated family members (wives and children) were housed in tents with other displaced persons and refugees.
Despite his professed confidence that Assad would be unable to build on the Emirati foreign minister’s visit for a broader embrace in the region, further Gulf and regional normalizing of the regime seems to be the trajectory. If that is the case, Mazloum’s heretofore delicate dance on the diplomatic and security ledge in Syria, managing threat and limited opportunity, is likely to become even trickier to sustain.
is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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