Escalation tensions between Russia and US in Syrian war

The conflict in Syria shows an almost infinite range of groups, states and interests that have engaged themselves on the battlefields. Though an uneasy anti-IS coalition exists, the mutual interests diverge to such level that nobody knows what the country will have to endure when the Islamic State will be defeated.

Increasing tensions within anti-IS coalition
One of the possible new conflicts already emerged in the area of the last base of ISIS power in Syria, the oil-rich region around the city of Deir-ez-Zor. The Syrian army, under the protection of the Russians, approached the city from the west. In early September, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting of a coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs supported by the US, started "Operation Cizire Storm". This operation is meant to liberate the surroundings of Deir-ez-Zor and the Euphrate from the east.

During the liberation of Raqqa, the "capital" of IS, there was still a small informal body of consultation between the SDF and the Russian army. The Russians also supported the idea that the Kurds would be a part of the post-war peace talks. But mutual understanding apparently had changed when as of September 16 Russian fighter jets bombed positions of the SDF near Deir-Ez-Zor, causing a number of injuries.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the SDF militants would "have the same goals as the IS terrorists", because "Russian intelligence had no evidence of mutual conflicts", alluding to the impression the SDF had got off a safe passage through IS controlled area.

SDF presence in Deir-ez-Zor obviously is perceived as a platform for the US in a race to control the oilfields around this city. It can be assumed safely that the Russians are therefore prepared to raise tensions as an expression of a growing desire to support Assad and their own interests in consolidating key strategic positions. In fact, the Russians already have started to build a large military base near Deir-ez-Zor to secure these interests.

The SDF responded strongly to this Russian escalation. "If the Russian-Syrian attacks continue, we will use our legitimate right to self-defense and return in kind," several spokespersons (and this one) said.

Democratic federalism
Recently, Syrian-Turkish relations have improved, partly due to Moscow's mediating role. With the Kremlin closely tied to Assad, Turkey and Iran, Rojava – as the autonomous Kurdish region is called - actually does not seem to have a better alternative to the Americans. The question arises whether the Kurds and their allies therefore are just fools, used as an unresisting tool for the encroachment of American interests, as the mild version of the story goes in certain media outlets.

Perhaps there is also something to say in favor of the position that the Kurds only indulge in pragmatic self-management. During the Second World War, Stalin received weapons from the United States (like Great Britain under favorable lend-lease contracts), but no-one would have thought this made the Sovjet dictator a US puppet. Self preservation urges the Kurds not to be picky.

According to Rojava's office for the Benelux, "US intervention is not the same as a people's right to self-determination", which should have taught the US of their failing policies in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. "Our sovereignty has not been given to us. We build our own homeland according to our own tenets (...) Partnership between the US and Rojava extends just as far as the limits of existing agreements."

Basically, the autonomous area of Rojava, which consists of 3 cantons, is governed on the basis of a constitution that makes democratic federalism key tenet of the new society. In addition to a strong emphasis on equal rights for women and ethnic groups, core value is the creation of self-government through direct democracy at decentralized levels, especially in communities, towns and cities. The principle of federation, as boroughed from anarchist thought, is expressed in cooperation from below in federations of villages and cities, respectively in a federation of cantons and, on a higher level, as an autonomous region within the sovereign Syrian state.

Thats is something to support on its own merits. Second, in particular important for the Syrian conflict is that Rojava's constitution does not rule out Assad's regime and does not even claim its own "state", nor makes a call for "regime change". According to Rojava's office in the Benelux, "the creation of a federal and democratic system will take place in a sovereign Syria. We do not support a partition of Syria. But at the same time, we do not accept centralization." This seems to be a significantly more friendly position than that of the Iraqi Kurds, who recentlty organized a referendum to break away from Iraq.

According to pro-Assad and pro-Russian sources, the Kurdish pursuit would easily be adaptable to the New American Order, though, This US plan for the region would focus on the creation of more ¨Israels¨. Now that regime change in Syria is off the table, due to the Russian aid to Assad, it would be sufficient for the US to illegally occupy a part of Syria through its Kurdish satellites, to build their own presence on.

It is quite ludicrous to think that the US has brainwashed the Syrian Kurds and their allies to set up a federalist project that, according to the Washington Post, "writes an ideology that is directly in conflict with the United States policy." [9] But once chosen for an alliance with the US, Rojava and liberated territories are apparently seen as a ground for American presence in Syria. This presence is, of course, considered extremely undesirable by parties such as Assad, Iran, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Russia.

Turkish pressure
In the US media, support for the PYD (Syrian Kurdish party) is low, as aid to the Kurds would pose a risk for the coalition with Turkey, because of the influence that the PKK would exert in Rojava. In addition, as in the pro-Assad media, the Rojava social experiment is looked upon with suspicion and is labeled as if it is little more than a "communist one-party state with authoritarian tendencies".

The Turks, who perceive Kurdish nationalism as a much greater threat than salafist rebels or IS, try to tap into this thought. May this year President Erdogan went to Washington to plead for curbing the Kurdish danger and abandonment of the coalition (and had his bodyguards beat up some protestors to clarify his point).

American officials proved to be somewhat responsive. "We did not promise the YPG (Kurdish part of the SDF) anything," said a senior official daily after the Turkish visit. "We support the YPG because they are the only force on the ground that are ready to act in the short term. That's where it stops. "

The special relationship between NATO member Turkey and the US ensures that, in deeper contacts with Rojava, the US will make the region conform to American demands in exchange for limiting Turkish prosecution. At this moment the SDF troops enjoy the great advantage that the threat of attacks from the north and west has temporarily been waived. However, it is questionable whether in the long term they will be willing to dilute their social experiment and abandon their support for the PKK to meet American (or Russian) requirements. Another question is whether they will have a choice at all.

Future for Rojava?
Sound criticism of the coalition with the Americans is that the militias from Rojava may now be influenced by the US to enter battle fields where no Kurds live and have to be defended, such as Deir-ez-Zor. Possibly, the Kurds may want to collect as much leverage as possible to get a strong position at the negotiating table. Another explanation might be that their risk-prone march is a return for American support. For the war against IS it is, of course, a good thing they have conquered most of Raqqa, but further military expeditions in non-Kurdish areas also pose grave risks, as the latest Russian escalation shows.

With the US as an unreliable ally and the many enemies that the Kurdish democratic federalism encounters, Rojava's position does not look favorable. It seems the Kurds will have to come to terms with the Russians, though this would raise difficulties for the Kremlin. Assad, supported by the upcoming victory over the IS, has gained self-esteem and also has commitments to countries such as Iran and Turkey, who want to limit Kurdish aspirations to autonomy and US presence as much as possible.

In order to prevent a major conflict between Russia and the US, Rojava's aspirations will easily be sacrificed on the geopolitical chessboard. The expectation is that some autonomy may be maintained, but the price may eventually prove to be too high to protect the emerging progressive forces of the social revolution.

Hector Reban

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