The US Government will deploy a group of special-ops forces to northern Syria to help the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the multi-ethnic opposition that the US has positively “vetted”, and is now willing to publicly arm and support.
The US liberal magazine Mother Jones cites a White House official “the leadership of these groups are vetted as individuals for human rights abuses and ties to terrorism” The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish Peoples’ Defence Units (YPG), linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). But by the YPG going under a different banner, both they and the US have more room to manoeuvre over support without provoking tension and opposition from Turkey or smaller Arab militias.
The US plans to deploy fewer than fifty soldiers. They will be based in Kurdish controlled territories. The situation remains chaotic. Airdrops of weapons to smaller groups have frequently gone missing. The YPG has reportedly had to intervene to redistribute arms and collect weapons. Those Arab forces that the US backs do not have the capacity or the experience to operate effectively.
The US has backed a number of so-called moderate forces since the original uprising began in Syria in 2011. These fronts and groups have fallen in and out of favour as well as dissolving or merging with jihadist groups. A force which is dominated by Kurds has an advantage for the US — it is largely secular. But the YPG has been focused on defending the autonomous province of Rojava in northern Syria and other Kurdish territories. It has been less focused on ending the Assad dictatorship or reclaiming Arab dominated areas of Syria. It is very unlikely to drive Daesh (Islamic State) from Syria.
In the meantime the US has increased its use of airstrikes, deploying fighter jets to Turkish airbases and increasing military aid to Jordan and Lebanon. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis remain ongoing, with the US Secretary of State John Kerry opening up the latest round of diplomatic talks to Iran. Other participants included Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The view of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that it would be a mistake for the UK to join airstrikes in Syria makes it increasingly unlikely that Cameron will bring a vote to the Commons on this issue.
The continuation and containment of the war now appears to be the main goal of the US and coalition forces. Neither side in Syria is absolutely dominant or likely to make vast territorial or political gains. This may mean there is time for a compromise to be worked out, but it also means prolonging the suffering and mass killing that has dominated Syria for the last four years. Russia Russian jets have largely avoided Kurdish-controlled areas and the increasing use of deconfliction talks has ensured that US and Russian airstrikes are not undertaken in the same areas.
If it turns out that Daesh is responsible for bringing down the Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula, that could shift the focus of the Russian airstrikes and commit Russia to become more deeply involved in the region. An estimated 7,000 fighters from the Russian Federation and former Soviet states are fighting for Daesh in Syria. Much like Cameron, Merkel and Hollande, Putin is concerned about returning fighters making attacks in Russia, particularly in Chechnya.
Russia has deployed more than fifty combat aircraft in Syria, along with an estimated 4,000 troops, technicians and advisers alongside troops that provide security and support to Russian bases and military hardware Putin’s strategy was that the Russian Air Force would bolster the weakened military forces under Bashar al-Assad, allowing Syrian forces to strengthen their hold on Syria and then to take on the Daesh strongholds in western Syria, using Syrian and allied ground forces.
Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, outlines two main options for Russia: “Russia can intensify the Syria operation, send more troops and volunteers to support Assad.” Or “fighting the Islamic State will become a priority rather than supporting Assad.”
The first option will continue to pose Russian intervention in opposition to western efforts but will be a continuation of their policy of backing the “legitimate” leader of Syria. The second option would bring Russia further into line with other airstrikes.