Syria, war inside and out

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By: Julián Aguirre / Source: / The Dawn News / August 27, 2016. In the military terrain there is a name that stands out: Aleppo. Placed in North-East Syria and with nearly two million inhabitants before the war, this city used to be the commercial and industrial center of the country.

Today, it’s the scenario of one of the bloodiest battles amidst this conflict and whatever its result is, it will affect the course of this story, which began in 2011. Aleppo is divided, with the Eastern part under rebel control and the Western part ruled by the government. In addition, there a district under autonomous Kurdish control.Siria-Alepo-Turquìa

At the end of July, forces loyal to the government of President Bashar Al-Assad (with military support from Russia and Iran) cut the last road of supplies that rebels had that connected the city with the outside world. Aleppo’s fall would leave the government in a tremendously advantageous position in the negotiating table.

Upon seeing this existential threat, two great rebel coalitions (Fatah Halab and Jaish al Fatah) left aside their internal differences to mobilize a great part of their strengths (over 10 thousand combatants) in an all-in battle to break up the siege. The rebel arc is formed by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist factions linked to al-Qaeda and other hard-line organizations, which is conflicting with the support that the West provides to this so-called “moderate opposition”.

By the middle of August, they managed to open up a corridor that links with the South West of the city, thereby dividing the government’s positions in two. But still, the result of this “mother of all battles” is far from being reached.

The enemy of my enemy

Meanwhile, in the North-Eastern city of Hasakah, a chain of events occurred, with imprevisible consequences. The control of the city was divided between the forces of the Syrian government and those of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish armed organization linked to the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Years ago, this was an agreement that benefitted both parts: the Kurds consolidated the administrative and military autonomy of the country over the three cantons in the North of the Country where its population is concentrated; meanwhile, the government could rearrange its forces in the points where they needed it the most, cooling down a front of conflict.

The coexistence was full of tensions but last Sunday a series of clashes turned into a street battle with an unprecedented intensity over the city’s control. Days after, the Syrian Air Force bombed Kurdish positions, while Russian officers try to bring the parts together on the negotiating table. Moscow (as Washington) maintains varying degrees of cooperation with the PYD; the Kremlin has been a strong promoter of including the Kurdish forces in any political solution, something that Turkey and several factions of the Syrian opposition resist.

Two factors contributed to the rise in tensions: firstly, the decision of the local Kurdish administration to declare the “Northern Syrian Federation”, which was read as a step towards establishing a de facto independence of the region they control; secondly, the presence of the US special forces in Syria to allegedly support the fights against the Islamic State.

These US operations have been a common resource of Obama’s exterior policy in the last years to avoid committing to big campaigns. Nearly 300 members of the US special forces have taken part in the operations led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (an alliance formed in 2015 between the Kurdish YPG and the local Arab militias), and the latest result of this has been the liberation of Manbij, an important city in the Syrian North in the Daesh’s supply route across the border with Turkey.

From this tacit cooperation, Kurds have gained more and more visibility outside the country as actors in the conflict, also a substantial military support, and as for Washington it finds in them a more effective ally than the armed Syrian opposition.

Damage control and turning the page on

The situation in Northern Syria gave a new spin when last Wednesday military forces crossed the border to attack positions both of the Islamic State and the YPG. The Turkish government has maintained strong differences with the West surrounding the Kurdish question. Not only they consider the PYD-YPG to be a terrorist organization, but the existence of an independent Kurdish entity along their Southern border has been one of the “lines” that the Turkish government doesn’t want them to cross.

On August 20, Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, affirmed that Assad could be a member of an interim government during the transition of the conflict. He also said that the Syrian government “has understood that the structure the Kurds are trying to form has become a threat to Syria too”.

This opens up a new line of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus. The scenario after the July 15 coup attempt was accompanied by a revision of Erdogan’s foreign policy. On August 17, Vice Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus acknowledged to the press that “a great part of what has happened in Turkey is the result of the situation in Syria and our policy towards Syria”.

In the past month, Ankara has seeked to mend its relations with Israel, Russia and Iran, which used to be regional allies before the relationship got tense in the past few years. This move is partly due to strong differences with its allies in NATO and the increasing violence in the country.

On August 26, the Secretary of State of the US, John Kerry, will meet with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to reach the signing of an agreement on Syria. At this point, no analysis overlooks the fact that the Syrian analysis is not contained within the margins of a civil war. The political and military result of this conflict will define the power balance and the shape that the region will have in the near future.

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