The situation in Syria after McGurk's resignation

BASEL HAJ JASEM * - BADER SLEEM **
Published

The U.S. Envoy to the Global Coalition Against Daesh Brett McGurk resigned earlier in December 2018 in a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. McGurk planned to leave his position in February 2019, but Trump's decision sped up his resignation. In a farewell tweet posted on Dec. 31 last year, he said that his colleagues are working under "extremely difficult circumstances to protect the interests" of his country.

Commenting on McGurk's resignation, President Donald Trump said in a fiery tweet, "Brett McGurk who I don't know was appointed by President Obama in 2015." He mockingly described him as a "grandstander" and slammed the media for making a fuss about "this nothing event."

McGurk played a vital role in formulating U.S. policies in northern Syria, especially its support for the People's Protection Units (YPG), the PKK's Syrian terrorist offshoot. Some nongovernmental organizations submitted a petition to a court in Izmir in December 2017, calling for the arrest of Brett McGurk on the charge of acting on behalf of a terrorist organization and providing it with weapons.

Talal Silo's statements

Talal Silo, a highly-ranked commander and former spokesperson of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a group dominated by the YPG – fled to Turkey in November 2017 and spoke to the Anadolu Agency (AA), giving details on how the U.S. provided arms to the PKK and its Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG. He further stated that Sahin Cilo, a former leader in the PKK's military wing, asked him to "draft a statement claiming that the PKK and SDF were not related" and that the "Americans wanted" to give the impression that the two groups weren't connected.

Asked about the influence of Brett McGurk, Silo reiterated that he "has been very effective since the beginning." He added that the liberation of Manbij was discussed with McGurk at "the Celebi base "and that "he [McGurk] was the one who suggested it."

Silo asserted that McGurk also suggested establishing a special military council for the city, mainly formed by Arabs "in order to convince the Turkish side." Thus, he wanted to create the perception that the city's own sons had saved Manbij. Silo also claimed that the Manbij Turkmen Units just "appeared" on the Manbij Military Council but on the ground, there was literally "nobody!"

"I even wrote made-up names on the council that were linked to me. It was done at McGurk's request," said Silo.

In another interview with Reuters, Silo recalled his account of the fall of the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was under Daesh's grasp. He claimed that thousands of militants left after a secret U.S. approved deal was reached. Silo explained: "An agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people and their families; "About 500 were fighters," who relocated to Deir el-Zour, where the Syrian regime took control.

Undoubtedly, the policies set up by McGurk had enraged Turkey to the extent that its Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in May 2017 that he wanted the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against Daesh removed from his post for supporting the PKK-affiliated groups.

Amnesty International stated in a report in 2015 that "a fact-finding mission to northern Syria has uncovered a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the Autonomous Administration led by the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD controlling the area."

The Amnesty International researchers "visited 14 towns and villages in al-Hasakah and Raqqa governorates in July and August 2015, to investigate the forced displacement of residents and demolition of homes in areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration." Satellite images that the organization obtained illustrated "the scale of the demolitions in Husseiniya village, in Tel Hamees countryside." The images also showed "225 buildings standing in June 2014, but only 14 remaining in June 2015 – a shocking reduction of 93.8%."

Population rates

International organizations and media outlets are overlooking the percentage of Arab and Kurdish populations living in Syria, especially east of the Euphrates. It is worth mentioning that most of the regions to the east of the Euphrates, namely from Tal Abyad and Saluk towards Ras al-Ayn, are predominantly composed of Arabs. The districts east of Tel Tamer extending toward Mount Abdulaziz in the southwestern al-Hasakah governorate, and villages south of the Qamishli province are all inhabited by Arabs too.

In al-Hasakah, Kurds represent a minority. The reports issued by international organizations show that the forced displacement of inhabitants and demolition of houses are taking place in geographical areas where no Kurds exist. A study carried out by The World Institute and published in July 2016 concluded that Kurds in Syria represent only around 5.31 percent of the population. Such a finding confirms the percentage that the U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura once mentioned during a press stake-out on June 29, 2016, following a U.N. Security Council meeting. When asked about the role of Kurds in the Geneva peace talks, de Mistura responded that they "represent at least 5 percent of the Syrian population," and that "they have a voice and they need to be heard;" de Mistura's allusion to the percentage of the Kurdish population in Syria flared up the social media platforms and pitted the Kurdish politicians against him at the time.

While the Syrian regime and opposition were focusing on the progress of the Geneva peace talks, the U.S.-led coalition announced in 2018 its intention to set up, with its Syrian militia allies, a new border force of 30,000 personnel deployed along the Turkish-Syrian and Syrian-Iraqi borders controlled by the SDF. Such a step angered Turkey which considered the force as aiming to "legitimize a terror organization."

Washington's partners in Syria

Washington has long considered the Kurds a winning card and a power it can rely upon in order to occupy the Arab region and halt Iran from reaching Syrian territory through Iraq. Practically speaking, Iran and its militias already cover the Syrian territory from Daraa to Aleppo to Deir el-Zour, and the U.S. has never attacked them. It was only Israel striking some Iranian targets in Syria, the latest of which took place on Dec. 25, 2018.

Some media display the Kurds as the second largest ethnic group living in Syria and compare their status to that of the Kurdish community residing in the northern Iraqi regions. However, there are big differences between the two cases. Kurds in Syria do not constitute more than 5 percent, as we earlier mentioned, and there are neither demographic nor geographical links among their main places of existence: Qamishli, Ayn al-Arab, Kobani and Afrin. Besides, they don't constitute a majority even in those areas.

The essential question we need to pose about the U.S.-Kurdish relationship, indeed the U.S.' relation not with the civilian Kurdish people – the majority of the regional Kurds – but a bunch of nonstate actors such as the YPG and PYD, at this stage is: Will the Trump administration turn the page of forcefully displacing Arabs east of the Euphrates after Brett McGurk's resignation? Will it put an end to its support for the separatists, whom former President Barack Obama nurtured and took as allies, hence threatening the territorial integrity of Syria and its neighboring countries? Time will tell.

* Researcher in Russian and Turkish affairs

** Journalist and former program presenter at Al-Jazeera Network

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