During an online discussion panel hosted by the Hudson Institute, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, said the American deployment to the war-torn country was needed to keep up the pressure on enemies of the U.S.
“Our military presence, while small, is important for overall calculations. So, we urge Congress, the American people, the president to keep these forces on, but again – this isn't Afghanistan, this isn't Vietnam, this isn't a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians,” Jeffrey said, adding: “We are pursuing what we think is a smart policy."
Although U.S. President Donald Trump announced late last year that he had decided to withdraw American troops, around 600 of some 2,000 U.S. soldiers are still deployed in Syria alongside the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is an umbrella of the YPG, another armed wing of the outlawed PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The U.S. has kept saying that its presence in the devastated country has been to aid in the fight against Daesh since 2015.
The special envoy also added that the limited American presence had the very specific goal of eliminating Daesh by “supporting the military operations of other countries in various ways – Turkey, Israel – and focus on economic and diplomatic pressure.”
Moreover, Jeffrey said: “We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria because of, frankly, financial problems ... in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration’s sanctions policies against Iran. It’s having a real effect in Syria.”
Is the U.S. in Syria to ward off Russian and Iranian influence?
It is well-known that U.S. policy in Syria has been in no way clear, realistic or rational for almost a decade, perhaps ever since the beginning of the uprising. However, its presence in the devastated country never aimed to confront Russia or Iran. Quite the contrary: The U.S. cooperated with Iran during the so-called fight against Daesh, all the while allowing Russia to fill the void.
Although Washington has opposed the Bashar Assad regime since the beginning, on the ground, it has done anything but “keep the pressure on” Damascus or its allies, Moscow and Tehran. In the beginning, the U.S. may have declared its support of the Syrian opposition against Assad, former U.S. President Barack Obama spurring on its opponents by being the first world leader to declare “Bashar must go.” However, soon after, he abandoned them and started cooperating instead with the YPG/PKK terror organization. This shift in policy has since given the U.S. the highest responsibility for the never-ending war in Syria.
The U.S. has also put forth varying and ever-contradictory policies that have been fruitful to none of its allies, bar Israel. Contrary to Jeffrey’s remarks, what the U.S. has done in Syria by supporting the YPG/PKK has boosted an existential threat to its NATO ally Turkey. Bolstered by U.S. backing in 2015, the PKK thus decided to carry the Syrian war to neighboring Turkey, where it resumed terror attacks.
Despite Trump seeking to undo Obama’s every action while in office and thus signaling he would foster better relations with Turkey, he has done nothing to reverse his predecessor’s policies in the country. Despite having declared that Daesh had been defeated during his term, his administration continued to support the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, designated by the U.S as a terrorist organization.
Following Turkey’s ground operation in northern Syria against the PKK/YPG, the U.S. was forced to withdraw its soldiers to the south. In this way, the U.S. has pushed the terror organization, which has already been in contact with Damascus, to cooperate with Assad against Turkey. Although Trump said American troops in Syria were not withdrawn in order to “secure the oil fields,” more recently the underlying truth of the matter has come to light. And that truth is directly related to the YPG/PKK, once again.
A political platform for YPG
Whenever the survival of the YPG/PKK is at stake, it can rely on more than just the U.S. Today, both the U.S. and France are working on using the Kurdish National Council (KNC), or ENKS as it is abbreviated in Kurdish, in Syria as a cover to open a space in international platforms for the YPG/PKK, which previously tried and failed to found a PKK statelet in northern Syria.
The KNC is an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish opposition parties and is linked to the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the KNC was strongly supported by Syrian Kurds and gained way more international support than the PYD. However, when the YPG/PKK started to occupy northern Syria by violent force, it subverted KNC members’ activities, arresting many members and wiping out its armed elements.
The so-called SDF commander Ferhat Abdi Şahin, who goes by the code name Mazlum Kobane, and is known as the adoptive son of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, announced for the first time an intention to kick-off direct negotiations between the KNC and PYD in late Oct. 2019. It is reported that these talks were launched last month. Accordingly, the first direct talk was held in early April at a U.S. military base in Hasakah. Since the U.S. special adviser to the global coalition forces in Syria, William Roebuck, was reportedly there, it is obvious that these are taking place under U.S. supervision. It is also said that Roebuck had a couple of meetings with the KNC in the last few months to help bring them to the table.
Even though the talks were publicized by YPG/PKK sympathizers in several reports and articles as an attempt to unify Kurdish ranks in Syria, it is clear that this is an attempt to legitimize a terror organization in the international arena. The PYD has been depicted as the sole representative of the Kurds for years by its representatives.
In addition, the talks clearly aim to pave the way for the PYD to join the U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva between the Assad regime and the opposition, which started in late 2019. While the KNC has a place at the table in Geneva, the PYD’s presence has been prevented by Turkey despite the efforts of the likes of the U.S., France and Russia.
A warning from Turkey
Ankara last week commented on these efforts for the first time, with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirming an attempt to unify the PYD and KNC late Friday, stating that Turkey had warned the KNC in February not to reach a deal with the YPG/PKK.
“I told them that they should not make deals with the PKK/YPG. We used to have talks with and support them (KNC). In February, each of them told me how the PKK/YPG had killed their relatives and jailed their close friends or family members – some are still being detained. They said they did not and would not unite with this terrorist organization,” Çavuşoğlu said.
With regard to this U.S. supervision, Çavuşoğlu stated that Russia had previously insisted on the YPG/PKK’s participation in Syria’s political structure before the U.S. had complete control of the YPG. “However, we told them that there is no difference between the PYD and the PKK,” Çavuşoğlu added.
Meanwhile, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency (AA) reported that the U.S. and France had asked the KNC to resign from membership of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Accordingly, if the KNC leaves the coalition, the umbrella group of the Syrian opposition will lose its capacity to represent Syrian Kurds. However, establishing a new structure aiming to supposedly unify Syrian Kurdish parties and to represent Kurds in the international community is just an attempt to save the terror group and integrate it into the Syrian political system.
Will KNC choose right path?
Although the KNC has refuted allegations that it would resign from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, it is reported that the PYD and the KNC have agreed on several issues on the agenda. According to the pro-regime and pro-PKK website Al Monitor: “After holding at least four meetings as part of the negotiations, the two sides agreed on the following: Syria will be a federal, democratic and pluralistic state; the current regime is an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that uses violence against its opponents; the Kurdish areas consist of an integrated political and geographical unit.” The KNC has not denied this claim yet.
Is the KNC seeking a federal structure in Syria in the future? Furthermore, for how long will the PYD, which got the greatest support from Damascus to occupy northern Syria in 2012-2013, represent an opponent to the regime? Does the KNC believe and trust the PYD? It appears that there are a lot of questions that the KNC has to reply to.
On the other hand, according to a statement released this week, 25 Syrian Kurdish political parties and movements, including the terror organization PYD, formed a political umbrella in Qamishli on Monday to unite the Kurdish ranks under the name “Kurdish National Unity Parties.”
The KNC is not among those parties; however, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) is allied with the KNC. The KDPS serves as the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzani family in Iraq. It is no secret that the Barzani family has been working on unifying Kurdish political groups in Syria, but also the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, Masrour Barzani, the son of Masood Barzani, is known for his sympathy toward YPG/PKK. AA reported that the U.S. and France commissioned the president of the KRG, Nechirvan Barzani, to implement the unifying plan.
There is no doubt that Turkey will never overlook a unification plan between the KNC and PYD. If the KNC falls into the trap left by the PKK/YPG and its backers and tries to pave the way for the terror organization to be present in Geneva, Ankara will all that is necessary to block this. Everyone knows that any open cooperation with the PKK/YPG means hostility towards Turkey. Besides, KNC should not forget that the U.S. left even the YPG in the lurch when Turkey launched its ground operation in northern Syria. In short, the KNC should calculate the disadvantages of allying with an enemy of Turkey instead of the advantages on offer from the U.S. and France.
Going back to the point made by U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffrey, one has to stop and wonder as to who exactly are the “enemies of the U.S.” that the Americans insist on keeping the pressure on in Syria.
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