Today, two reports emerged within minutes of each other which indicate that under Donald Trump, the United States has fully shifted its policies in Syria away from arming and aiding Salafist/jihadist terrorist fighters and is now allying exclusively with Kurdish.
To a less extent, America is also politically allied with Russia in a limited capacity in south western Syria, something which is more significant due to the shift it represents rather than in terms of size or scope.
Here are the key events:
1. US media reports that Trump ends CIA arming of terrorists
The deeply anti-Trump Washington Post has reported the following,
“President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.
The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.
Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgement of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power”.
The report adds,
“Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin”.
While the Washington post calls this a win for Russia, in reality this will not directly effect Russia one way or another. It is however, a win for Syria.
By most reasonable accounts, the conflict in Syria could have ended far earlier if not for the CIA and other US actors arming, funding and training Salafist jihadist fighters in Syria (often referred to as moderate rebels by the western mainstream media).
As even the Washington Post admits, almost in a gloating fashion, arming such jihadists was a flagship policy of the United States under Barack Obama.
This will take a substantial deal of pressure off the Syrian Arab Army and their fight against remaining terrorists in Syria.
Ever since Trump took office, the general trajectory of US meddling in Syria shifted from arming jihadists to arming, funding and working in close military coordination with Kurdish forces.
Today’s revelation simply affirms what was long the apparent on the ground policy of the United States since February of 2017.
It is key to remember that even after this announcement, the US presence in Syria is still illegal according to international law.
2. FSA jihadists withdraw from front-line in Raqqa
Almost simultaneous to the Washington Post report, Al-Masdar which is generally the most reliable source of on the ground information in Syria, reported the following,
“The Quwwat al-Nukhba sub-group of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which fights within the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been dismissed from any and all front-line duties in the ongoing Raqqa operation.
About one week ago, word came out that the FSA-linked group was to give up its positions within Raqqa city and retreat to the SDF’s rear areas outside the urban center. However, contradictory reports then came in suggesting that a compromise was reached whereby the Arab faction could retain its positions within the city – this was supported by some photo evidence.
However, according to the latest reports, Quwwat al-Nukhba has officially withdrawn from all of its front-line positions within Raqqa city and handed them over to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Information on why the Arab militia has been booted out of the operation remains officially unclear. Nonetheless, some sources suggest that the group showed repeated incompetence during Raqqa battle, advancing quickly within the city but then withdrawing from all gains, abandoning them to ISIS, almost as soon as they were taken.
In any case, the United States – who has overall command of the SDF – represents the party that gave the order for the Arab FSA-linked faction to withdraw (perhaps at the behest of Kurdish recommendations).
This now means that the battle to capture Raqqa from ISIS has become an almost exclusively Kurdish operation”.
Raqqa is now officially a two-horse race between US backed Kurdish forces from the north and the Syrian Arab Army approaching from the west and from the south via Dier Ez-Zor, which is fast becoming a bigger hotspot of remaining ISIS fighters in Syria vis-a-vis Raqqa.
The upside of this for Syria is that the danger of a kind of semi-permanent style US funded Salafist insurgency is reduced to almost nil. This is especially true due to Syria’s strong central government vis-a-vis that of Iraq in the mid-2000s and into recent years.
With the US garrison in southern Syria located in At-Tanf now effectively cut off from the rest of the country via strong lines of control by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies, the US would have hit a logistical brick wall if it expended its resources continuing to arm increasingly encircled and materially ineffective jihadist groups like the FSA and its splinter groups and off-shoots.
This move also removes any scant Turkish influence from the race to Raqqa as the few FSA fighters participating in the surge represented the only people who are loyal to a group that is in great part, a Turkish proxy.
Thus, the American decision to force the withdrawal of the minor contingent of the FSA from front-line fighting in Raqqa is close to a de-facto admission that incorporating such jihadists into the final battle with the jihadists of ISIS would be an exercise in futility, one that Kurds themselves also likely oppose.
3. The Russia connection
At present, there is no overt linkage to these events and Donald Trump’s meeting at the G20 summit with Vladimir Putin. One can however, infer a conclusion that in order to work more effectively with Russia, the United States has dropped the last vestiges of support for jihadists such as the FSA, knowing that it would have reached a similar conclusion based on sheer logistics, even if Russia and the US did not strike a deal to mutually enforce the current ceasefire in south-western Syria along with Jordan.
In this sense, it is wise to remember that hyperbolic linkages of items 1 and 2 with the Trump-Putin meeting are at best circumstantial rather than causal–pragmatic rather than overtly strategic.
This still does not solve the crisis of what Kurdish forces might want as a result of their participation in the race for Raqqa, assuming they partly or wholly win the race.
Furthermore, if Kurds demand further concessions from Damascus including increased autonomy or even independence, many suspect that the United States will strongly back Kurdish demands rather than play the part of a neutral party. This would of course be opposed not only by Syria, Iraq and Iran but most strongly by Turkey which is a traditional US ally, although one which hardly sees eye-to-eye with the US on major Middle Eastern issues ranging from Qatar to Syria.
In this sense, the United States has chosen to infuriate Turkey further, make life slightly less difficult for Syria in terms of battle-field logistics, vaguely placate Russia and most importantly, declare an increased measure of loyalty to Kurds at the expense of the many anti-Kurdish actors in the region, including several technical US allies, namely both Turkey and Iraq.