The United States has fought in Syria for more than six years, and has been involved in the country’s near-decade-long civil war for even longer. Now, ahead of a national election, the faction that helped the U.S. defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) expressed to Newsweek how President Donald Trump could move forward without leaving allies behind.
The path, they said, runs through Moscow and Damascus.
For the Syrian Democratic Forces, the largely Kurdish force allied with the Pentagon in the anti-ISIS fight, talk of a speedy U.S. exit elicits immediate concerns. The formidable yet lightly-armed militia faces an outright hostile insurgency backed by Turkey on one side and the hardline central government seeking to regain control of autonomous northeastern Syria on the other.
Stuck between the two, Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Riad Darar tells Newsweek he prefers a political solution involving the latter, but believes that such an outcome “will not be possible without an American signature on it.”
On the ground, however, it’s Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s major power partner, Russia, conducting the lion’s share of the diplomacy. Moscow’s inroads with the Syrian leader’s rivals are apparent both from its regular dealings with Ankara as well as talks with the Syrian Democratic Council, which is calling on both countries to come together for peace.
“There is no doubt that Moscow can contribute strongly to the search for a political solution with its influence on the regime in Damascus,” Darar said. “The Russian role is as influential as the American role, so we are counting on them to reach understandings that stop the crisis and end the war.”
But the onus, he said, is on Washington to offer its political support in settling the dispute with Damascus, just as the Pentagon offered its military backing in defeating ISIS.
“The American role is important,” Darar said. “Everyone is waiting for a real initiative, and the administration will not fail if it wants it. We believe there will be no solution unless America signs it, as it is a great guarantor, even if it leaves Syria to Russia, as we hear from American officials.”
Sinam Mohammed, who serves as the Syrian Democratic Council’s representative in Washington, also conveyed the importance of the U.S. role in Syria, while at the same time noting the establishment of close relations between the semi-autonomous Syrian administration she represents and Russia.
“My administration always has and always will seek the good offices of the United States to mediate between Syria’s parties and groups,” Mohammed told Newsweek .
“The American role is indispensable,” she added. “My administration has relations with all of the major powers and Russia is one key actor. If Moscow wants to shepherd peace talks among Syria’s key players including the SDC, we would welcome that role and will go toward it.”
Thomas McClure, a researcher at the northeast Syria-based Rojava Information Center, said these positions should come as no surprise.
“Diplomatic officials in North and East Syria have long asserted that their strategy is bilateral, relying on the surety provided by the U.S. presence to strengthen their hand in negotiations with Damascus, while simultaneously placing their long-term hopes in a reconciliation with Damascus,” he told Newsweek .
With Trump constantly discussing withdrawal, however, both Darar and Mohammed emphasized that they still sought a lasting U.S. military presence in the absence of any political solution. Assad has vowed to retake northeastern Syria by force if diplomacy continues to prove fruitless. An array of Turkey-backed opposition groups have proven even more aggressive, looking to neutralize Kurdish forces considered terrorist organizations by Ankara.
The northern Syria standoff turned deadly last October in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull troops away from scores of outposts across northern Syria and instead focus on securing control of oil and gas reserves further east. Turkey launched an incursion that sprung forward across the border, halted only by consecutive deals struck by the U.S. and Russia with Turkey, which has patrolled alongside both forces in the region.
As Newsweek reported at the time , Kurdish officials were caught completely off guard by the White House’s decision, and scrambled to make mutual security arrangements with Damascus in the immediate aftermath.
This part of Syria, hard-won by Syrian Democratic Forces assaults into enemy territory, has once again become a battleground as Turkey continues to weaponize opposition groups comprising a range of forces including former Islamist militants and ex-CIA-backed rebels. As a result, local Kurds like journalist Solin Mohammed Amin are particularly sensitive to the idea of a sudden U.S. exit.
“The American position on withdrawal makes us unable to predict what is going on inside the corridors of the White House, and the extent of its resolve on a position that preserves the safety of the people of the region,” Amin told Newsweek .
But the U.S. presence has its fair share of opponents as well.
Newsweek recently spoke to Syrian, Russian and Iranian officials, all of whom demanded an end to what they considered to be an illegal military occupation of a sovereign state. Of the three, Moscow was the only openly willing to work with Washington in finding a common solution for the country’s many woes.
“Russia is committed to continue dialogue on Syria-related issues with the U.S. officials both in the U.N. and bilaterally,” Russian embassy in Washington spokesperson Nikolay Lakhonin told Newsweek . “The goal of these contacts is to promote a political process based on UNSCR 2254.”
He said cooperation between the two countries “should not be politicized,” as it could address serious issues such as developing civil and economic infrastructure, demining and improving the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. In discussing ways to improve everyday life in Syria, Lakhonin also expressed hope that “at some point the U.S. Government will realize the disastrous effect of American sanctions against Syrians.”
Assad stands accused by Western powers of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons that Trump confirmed on Tuesday prompted him to consider assassinating the Syrian leader. The U.S. president said he did not regret holding back, however, and Russia still seeks to see Assad’s legitimacy restored.
Lakhonin conveyed hope that the U.S. would not attempt to disrupt efforts at reconciliation among Syrian parties.
“Moscow supports normalization of ties between Damascus and representatives of Northeastern Syria,” Lakhonin said, noting that Moscow hosted a Syrian Democratic Council delegation just late last month. “We expect that the U.S. administration will not hinder potential dialogue between central authorities and Northeastern political entities.”
But recent confrontations between U.S. and Russian forces on the roads of northeastern Syria do not bode well for cooperation.
Officially, the U.S. military goals in Syria remain limited to providing “high-level advising and enabling of our partner forces to defeat Daesh remnants and set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional regional stability,” according to the latest press release sent to Newsweek .
Additionally, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Commander Jessica McNulty recently shared that the U.S.-led coalition “does not coordinate or share intelligence with Russia in Syria.” They do, however, occasionally communicate.
“From time-to-time we are incidentally apprised of planned Russian strikes on ISIS targets West of the Euphrates River, as part of our routine de-confliction communications,” she added.
A State Department spokesperson laid out for Newsweek three U.S. policy objectives for Syria: “The enduring defeat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with UNSCR 2254, and the removal of all Iranian-supported forces.”
As backed by both Russia and the U.S. along with other major powers, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria. Iran too supports the U.N. resolution but its role is rejected by the U.S. due to the Islamic Republic’s enmity with Israel.
But Washington’s stance toward fellow Assad-backer Moscow is different.
“Russian military forces were in Syria prior to the beginning of the Syrian Conflict in 2011, and thus we do not advocate for the removal of those forces,” the spokesperson said.
Trump himself now has one goal in sight: winning his reelection this November. To do so, he’s looking to set himself apart from predecessors who launched protracted military campaigns abroad, even as he finds himself with the same problem in his own hands.
“These stupid people that have been running this operation for 30, 40 years, and they come out against me and all they did is stick us in these endless wars,” Trump told a Freeland, Michigan rally last week.
“We’re fighting for sand and blood, sand, and blood in Syria,” he said. “What do you get out of it? You get sand, you get blood, you get injuries, you get death.”
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