Above photo: FSA fighters of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, or Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, led by Abu Isa, stationed on the frontlines, 50 kilometers from Raqqa. (Photo by Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
In order to simplify the Syrian theater of proxy wars, it can be divided into three separate and distinct zones: that are, the Syrian government-controlled areas, the regions administered by the Syrian Kurds and the areas that have been occupied by the Syrian opposition.
Excluding Idlib Governorate which has been occupied by the Syrian opposition, all the major population centers along the western Mediterranean coast are controlled by the Syrian government: that include, Damascus, Homs, Hamah, Latakia and Aleppo, while the oil-rich Deir al-Zor has been contested between the regime and the Islamic State.
The regions that are administered by the Syrian Kurds include Qamishli and al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, Kobani along the Turkish border and a canton in northwestern Syria, Afrin.
Excluding the western Mediterranean coast and the adjoining major urban centers controlled by the Syrian government and the Kurdish-controlled areas in the north of Syria along the borders with Iraq and Turkey, the Syrian opposition-controlled areas can be further subdivided into three separate zones of influence:
Firstly, the northern and northwestern zone along the Syria-Turkey border, in and around Aleppo and Idlib, which is under the influence of Turkey and Qatar. Both these countries share the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and provide money, training and arms to Sunni Arab militant organizations, such as al-Tawhid Brigade, Zenki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham in the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey in collaboration with CIA’s MOM (a Turkish acronym for military operations center).
Secondly, the southern zone of influence along the Syria-Jordan border, in Daraa and Quneitra and as far away as Homs and Damascus. It is controlled by the Salafist Saudi-Jordanian camp and they provide money, weapons and training to the Salafi-Wahhabi militant groups, such as al-Nusra Front and the Southern Front of the so-called “moderate” Free Syria Army (FSA) in Daraa and Quneitra, and Jaysh al-Islam in the suburbs of Damascus. Their military strategy is directed by a Military Operations Center (MOC) and training camps located in the border regions of Jordan.
Here, let me clarify that this distinction is overlapping and heuristic, at best, because al-Nusra’s jihadists have taken part in battles as far away as Idlib and Aleppo, and pockets of opposition-held areas can be found even in the regime-controlled cities, including in the capital, Damascus.
And thirdly, the eastern zone of influence along the Syria-Iraq border, in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which has been controlled by a relatively maverick Iraq-based jihadist outfit, the Islamic State, though it had received funding and weapons from Turkey and the Gulf Arab States before it turned rogue and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014.
Thus, leaving the Mediterranean coast and Syria’s border with Lebanon, the Baathist and Shi’a-dominated Syrian regime has been surrounded from all three sides by hostile Sunni forces: Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood in the north, Jordan and the Salafists of the Gulf Arab States in the south and the Sunni Arab-majority regions of Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in the east.
More to the point, the ethnic and sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a Arabs and the Kurds. Although after the declaration of war against a faction of Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, the US has also lent its support to the Shi’a-led government in Iraq, but the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq are not the trustworthy allies of the United States because they are under the influence of Iran.
Therefore, the US was left with no other choice but to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria after a group of Sunni Arab jihadists overstepped their mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014, from where, the United States had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
The so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which have recently mounted an offensive against the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, are nothing more than Kurdish militias with a sprinkling of mercenary Arab tribesmen in order to make them appear more representative and inclusive in outlook.
As far as the regional parties to the Syrian civil war are concerned, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Arab States may not have serious reservations against the close cooperation between the United States and the Kurds in Syria, because the Gulf Arab States tend to look at the regional conflicts from the lens of the Iranian Shi’a threat. Turkey, on the other hand, has been more wary of the separatist Kurdish tendencies in its northeast rather than the Iranian threat, as such.
Being a NATO member with second largest army, any radical departure from the longstanding policy of providing unequivocal support to the American policy in the region by the political establishment of Turkey is unlikely. But after this perfidy of lending their support to the Kurds by the Americans against the Turkish proxies in Syria, it is quite plausible that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Turkey might try to strike a balance in its relations between the US and Russia.
Regarding the Kurdish factor in the Syrian civil war, it would be pertinent to mention here that unlike the pro-US, Iraqi Kurds led by Masoud Barzani, the Syrian PYD/YPG Kurds as well as the Syrian government have also been ideologically aligned, because both are socialists and have traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence.
Moreover, as I have already described that the Syrian civil war is a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a Arab regime and the Syrian Kurds, and the net beneficiaries of this conflict have been the Syrian Kurds who have expanded their area of control by aligning themselves first with the Syrian regime against the Sunni Arab militants since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to August 2014, when the US policy in Syria was regime change and the CIA was indiscriminately training and arming the Sunni Arab militants against the Shi’a-dominated regime in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan with the help of Washington’s regional allies: Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, all of which belong to the Sunni denomination.
In August 2014, however, the US declared a war against one faction of the Sunni Arab militants, i.e. the Islamic State, when the latter overran Mosul and Anbar in early 2014, and the Obama Administration made a volte-face on its previous regime change policy and started conducting air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.
After that reversal of policy by Washington, the Syrian Kurds took advantage of the opportunity and struck an alliance with the US against the Islamic State at Masoud Barzani’s bidding, thus further buttressing their position against the Sunni Arab militants as well as the Syrian government.
More to the point, however, for the first three years of the Syrian civil war from August 2011 to August 2014, an informal pact existed between the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds against the onslaught of the Sunni Arab militants, until the Kurds broke off that arrangement to become the centerpiece of Washington’s policy in the region.
In accordance with the aforementioned pact, the Syrian government informally acknowledged Kurdish autonomy; and in return, the Kurdish militias jointly defended the areas in northeastern Syria, specifically al-Hasakah, alongside the Syrian government troops against the advancing Sunni Arab militant groups, particularly the Islamic State.
Finally, everyone has their own axe to grind in Syria. There are no permanent allies or foes in international politics; only interests are permanent. It’s all about maintaining the balance of power; but whenever the US throws its weight behind a faction, it invariably disrupts the delicate equilibrium.
The allies of the US then tend to assume that they are negotiating from a position of strength with the weight of a global power behind them; and under the mistaken assumption, they overreach themselves and encroach upon the rights of their regional adversaries.
This is exactly what has happened in Iraq and Syria. After securing the Kurdish-majority areas, the US-backed Kurdish Peshmerga has overrun Arab-majority regions, including the oil-rich Kirkuk; and similarly, the Syrian Democratic Forces (or the Kurdish YPG militias) have seized several Arab-majority towns and villages in Syria and have now mounted an offensive against the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, with the help of US air and ground support.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petroimperialism.