US forces will stay in Syria: Negotiations with the Kurds will be complicated, as Syria prepares for an Idlib offensive

By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

Washington declared it won’t fully withdraw its troops from Syria but will leave “400 peace keeping forces”, making these soldiers an official occupation force since the last ISIS stronghold is about to be freed. This new situation leaves the US and European allies without any cloak of legality, since the pretext of counterterrorism is no longer plausible. The number of remaining forces is irrelevant because the US has never revealed an accurate count of the number of its troops deployed in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, even if the number of soldiers is small, these remaining US forces can call for air strikes and prevent any forces, including the Syrian army, from crossing the Euphrates—at any moment they can call on US units stationed nearby in Iraq. Moscow and its allies foresaw the US decision not to withdraw from the start. Russia, Iran and Syria never trusted Donald Trump’s announcement of full withdrawal from Syria.

Now that the dust has settled over the real US intention to remain in the Levant, Russia and its allies need to reconsider their plans. Negotiations between the Kurds and the government of Damascus will become more complicated and the relationship between Russia, Iran, and Turkey will be recalibrated. Tensions between the US and Turkey and between Russia, Turkey and Iran will impose themselves again in the Syrian arena.

The continuing presence of US troops at al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi borders and in north-eastern Syria makes it likely that the Kurds in al-Hasaka and Qamishli may not reach a clear deal with the Syrian government until the outcome of the US decision becomes clearer. 

Nevertheless, the situation of the Kurds is not enviable: they have fought against ISIS and have lost thousands of fighters in their fight to end the occupation of north-east Syria by terrorist groups. But that is not the end of their military role: the US still definitely need the Kurds as human shields for its remaining troops. 

However, Trump wants the participation of Turkey in the future 12000 square kilometre “buffer zone” he intends to create in territory controlled by Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes along the borders between Syria and Turkey. Simultaneously, Trump wants the Turks to protect their fiercest enemies, the “People Protection Units” (YPG), a Syrian branch of the PKK. 

Trump never explained how this contradictory situation could be achieved. A resolution must mean either full withdrawal of the YPG allowing Turkish regular forces (and their proxies) to take over, or Turkey refusal of the US plan. A couple of phone conversations between President Trump and President Erdogan triggered a large mobilisation of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies on the borders with Syria. This long due mobilisation is exhausting the Turkish army with no visible sign of what could be the following step.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the Russian leadership explained to Turkey that Moscow will not accept the presence of any Turkish troops in north-east Syria without the approval of the central government in Damascus. 

That also leads to another dilemma: notwithstanding direct Syrian-Turkish military level contacts, it is not evident that Damascus can accept talks with Ankara on any other level, particularly in the current state of affairs. Normally, this kind of communication is conducted indirectly through Russia. The lack of direct contacts and Damascus’ unwillingness to talk to Ankara will put further pressure on Russia and the US to achieve progress on the ground.

In the north west city and rural areas of Idlib, the situation is now clear: either the al-Qaeda jihadist group formerly called al-Nusra, currently Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, change their colours as the other jihadist group of “Ahrar al-Sham” has done, or the Syrian forces and their allies will attack and recover some territory. Although Ahrar al Sham are jihadists and include foreign fighters in their ranks, Russia and Turkey have agreed to accept their presence in the area. 

Sources on the ground say that Russian forces have been on full alert for the last several days on the Idlib front. Syrian allies based in Aleppo confirmed that six jihadists militants were shot and killed while trying to cross towards Aleppo. Russian air power has been intermittently bombing the jihadist forces, but not on an intensive basis. 

Turkey has shown its inability to remove jihadists from Idlib as agreed last September between Turkey and Russia. This is why the Syrian army and its allies are preparing a new round of attacks. The outskirts of the city of Aleppo are occasionally hit by mortars and home-made rockets fired by the jihadists. The Syrian army is shelling jihadist positions in the area: when spring comes, the liberation of Idlib is in the offing. 

The US has frequently threatened to intervene in defence of the jihadists in Idlib; in the past Trump himself threatened on many occasions to hit the Syrian army in case it were to move on Idlib. This time the situation is a bit different, as Russia is taking a more aggressive stand towards the US and may not allow the US to bomb its area of influence in Syria. It promises to be a hot summer in Syria.

The US establishment is in a quandary: the President wants to leave Syria while the establishment resists and delays his plans. Washington believes its foothold in Syria costs little, thanks to the local protection provided by its Kurdish proxies (YPG). Moreover, there are indications that the Iraqi government may ask US forces to leave the country. The Iraqi government and parliament are divided over this issue. The US establishment is preparing for this eventuality, exploring the possibility of reducing its presence in Iraq. If this becomes necessary it will entail a plan B, namely continued occupation of Syria; this will be a problem only if local resistance rises against the occupation forces.

ISIS is losing its last kilometres in Syria. Its infamous slogan “Baqiya wa tatamaddad” (remaining and expanding) now belongs in the dustbin of history. This slogan has evidently now been taken over by the US establishment, who mean to remain and perhaps expand their presence in Syria. From the White House, Trump can now shout: “Baqiya wa tatamaddad”.

Proof-read by: C.B.

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15 thoughts on “US forces will stay in Syria: Negotiations with the Kurds will be complicated, as Syria prepares for an Idlib offensive

  1. “…Tensions between the US and Turkey and between Russia, Turkey and Iran will impose themselves again in the Syrian arena.“

    Sure they did, and in what way, in the form of a political earthquake, hitting the most vulnerable link in the chain of resistance, Iran. Against the backdrop of Syria’s Assad warm welcome by President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei, accompanied in both meetings by Iran’s top political and military brass, including Quds Force Major General Soleimani, a simple Instagram post later confirmed authentic by a foreign ministry spokesman, announced the resignation of Iran’s foreign minister Zarif. He was not present during the ceremonies welcoming Assad.

    From the translated version of Zarif’s resignation, it doesn’t look like it was a coincidence with Assad’s visit. His Instagram post rank of thinly veiled resentment and anger, clearly staged for maximum effect as it was posted soon after Assad’s visit was officially announced. In that context, it appears as if Zarif wanted to send a strong message to the Iranian establishment, and wanted it to be loud and clear. Was he sidelined from Assad’s visit? Did the hardliners campaign against him and Rouhani reached critical mass right before Assad’s visit? Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

    More importantly, does Zarif resignation mean the hardliners have taken the upper hand within Iran’s cloak and dagger political establishment? If Zarif was sidelined for Assad’s visit, what was the reason for it? What was so important to be discussed during Assad’s visit, that merited leaving Zarif out of the loop? War against Israel? Saudi Arabia? Idlib offensive? All of the above? Obviously a man of his stature and gravitas cannot be easily ignored, his absence bears heavy in decision-making centers of power.

    There is a lot of sabre rattling across the board coming from the Iranian military, with all branches competing to sound the fiercest. The latest naval exercises had a missile launch from a midget sub, an accomplishment the Iranians are proud of, both militarily and technologically. The landmark launch, however, also underlines the giant gap between the Iranian military and their main challenger, the US, which could if it wanted, obliterate Iran to oblivion. Iranian generals and admirals are loudly threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, if Iran’s oil is blocked from getting exported, a move that can only lead to total war with the US, its allies, and Iran’s enemies in the region.

    I look forward to Mr. Magnier take on Zarif’s resignation, and on Assad’s visit. As of closing this post, nothing indicates that Rouhani accepted the resignation, on the contrary, his office denied making it effective.

    Lone Wolf

  2. Very Interesting comment Peter. I didn’t know there is a government in northeastern Syria. Your expertise on Syria is worth comtemplating. Thank you.

  3. “making these soldiers an official occupation force” – ??? LOL, interesting propaganda. They’re there at the invitation of the self administration of northern and eastern Syria, i.e. the government. Try fact checking for a change.

  4. Elijah, The US is in Syria in violation of International Law, as it is in Iraq, undermining the Global Order as represented by the United Nations since WWII.
    After the British dropped out of bombing Syria after the 1st red line crossing, Obama went to the Republican Congress asking them to approve the US bombing Syria and the Republicans bailed.

    When ISIS started operating in Syria, that gave the US the excuse to bomb Syria illegally.
    If you recall, the MSM reported the US was constantly bombing ISIS in Syria.
    They must have missed, because ISIS was only getting stronger, on the verge of winning the US Syrian regime change of the Assad government brought out by the US within weeks of 9/11.

    It was only after the Russians and Iranians entered the Syrian WORLD WAR in 2015, was ISIS turned back, defeated and degraded, frustrating the 2001 US WAR PLAN for Syria..

    The Syrian government, Russia and Iran can deal with the remaining pockets of ISIS. The US is not needed. Like common thieves, they occupy Syria’s oil producing region, depriving the People of Syria the revenue to rebuild after the US instigated regime change.

    I would like to know if you see implications I do not see with the US withdrawal?

  5. Part of the problem in the nominally Christian Nations is there is so much to want, People have lost sight of what they need and discontent sets in.

  6. if learning anything is important…then we know that tRump never tells the truth about what he is going to do…usually it is the exact opposite…and never speaks at all of what he is actually doing.

    he claims the press is the enemy…but HE is the biggest leaker to the media.
    “i will drain the swamp”….while he works with the worst of them

    he learned from roy cohn how to manipulate people and he is good at that…as long as there are people with ambition who want..there will always be fools…

  7. Nothing related to integrity. Trump is inexpert in Foreign policy, weak in ME affairs and not difficult to be convinced to change his mind or alter his decisions. Not the first time. Besides, Syria is too complicated for him to understand the implication of US forces withdrawal.

  8. What is known is the US brought out War Plans to change the Middle East within weeks of 9/11. The 2001 US War plan called for changing the regimes in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and at THE END, Iran.

    Republican Bush did Iraq in 2003.
    Democrat Obama did Libya, and started the Syrian regime change phase of the 2001 US WAR PLAN in 2011.
    Trump has served NOTICE to the World he is following that same 2001 US WAR PLAN by going after Iran.
    Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal and starting the Economic War designed to destroy the Iranian Economy supporting it’s 80 MILLION People before resorting to bombs, is the process.

    With all the factors and factions described by Elijah in this article Today, this article was posted to my Blog within months of the start of the Syrian regime change phase of the 2001 US WAR PLAN in 2011. It’s title was/is prescient.

    February 27, 2012

  9. Very true…even the author of the piece falls for Trunp’s bullshit about wanting to withdraw US forces from Syria.

  10. Why do you say “Trump wants to leave Syria” when all the evidence indicates the opposite is true? If he, the president of the United States, wanted to pull US troops out of Syria…he would have done so. I wish people would stop protecting Trump’s non-existent integrity and see him for what he is: an American imperialist who speaks out of both sides of his mouth.

  11. SHOCKER!

    What will it take for every geopolitical commentator to realize that Trump is purely literally and nothing but SARCASTIC in all his acting and that all he does is just that – acting.

    In form Trump’s act is equally similar to Bush Jr who just played stupid. They’re sarcastic, and we – humanity – is their joke.

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