With or without the US, Syria will be a proxy for a much bigger geopolitical war

The key reason for an American presence in Syria was the containment of Iran

TOPSHOT - Turkish-backed Syrian fighters train in a camp in the Aleppo countryside, northern Syria, on December 16, 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his US counterpart Donald Trump agreed Friday to "more effective coordination" between their countries' operations in Syria, after Ankara threatened to launch a new offensive in the war-torn nation. / AFP / Aref Tammawi
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Syria’s northern frontier, a sprawling 800km border it shares with Turkey, is growing restless once again, portending more violence and conflict. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent commandos to the border over the weekend and vowed a fresh operation against Kurdish militants backed by Washington in the coming days. A phone call to US President Donald Trump yielded little for those who had hoped that the crisis might be defused.

The threats were followed on Sunday by a car bomb attack in Afrin, the Kurdish-majority enclave now under Turkish control. Eight people were killed and dozens injured, most of them reportedly civilians.

The violence threatens to undermine a fragile peace, risks a confrontation between two Nato members, will further complicate a future peace deal and could undermine the fight against ISIS. But it also raises an uncomfortable question – what will happen now the US has announced a withdrawal from Syria and what will be the American role in a future peace deal?

Earlier this week, US special envoy to Syria James Jeffrey told the Atlantic Council: “It’s not regime change. We’re not trying to get rid of Assad.” In the strongest sign that the US has begrudgingly accepted Bashar Al Assad as part of the future make-up of Syria, he added the western world wanted to see a reformed regime – albeit one that would never pass muster in Europe.

Meanwhile Russia, Iran and Turkey failed to come to an agreement on a 150-member constitutional committee for Syria, which they hope to get endorsed by the UN.

The current tense stand-off in the north of the country has been a looming prospect for years. The US has primarily relied on the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish-dominated militia, to conduct its battle on the ground against ISIS. Ankara has repeatedly protested against this alliance, saying the YPG is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the group behind Turkey's own decades-long Kurdish insurgency. The issue poisoned the well of the relationship between the two Nato allies, already strained by America's refusal to act on Turkish calls for a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Turkey ultimately came to an arrangement with the US that included a proviso barring the Kurdish militias from controlling territory west of the Euphrates river. This condition was set aside when the YPG crossed the river and took control of the town of Manbij from ISIS.

Turkey launched a military operation in 2016 to oust ISIS from areas on its border but also to halt Kurdish expansion, a move that ultimately led to a protectorate under de facto Turkish control in northern Syria. So why has the Turkish-Kurdish conflict reared its head again? Part of the explanation has to do with politics in Ankara. Mr Erdogan faces municipal elections in the spring of next year and nationalist rhetoric has chimed strongly with voters in Turkey. A military victory could counterbalance voter anger at the economic turmoil and currency volatility of the last few months.

It would also fulfil a campaign promise by the Turkish president, who had vowed to “liberate” more land in Syria, which in turn would allow for the return of more Syrian refugees to their country. The imperative to repatriate three million displaced Syrians is probably the only thing Turks of all political stripes can agree on.

Which brings us to the current US policy in Syria: Washington, through its Kurdish allies, holds large swathes of eastern and northeastern Syria and has deployed about 2,000 troops to the country as part of its anti-ISIS coalition. A final push against the extremist group’s redoubts along the Iraqi-Syrian border had been under way.

After a declaration by Mr Trump earlier this year that he intended to pull out his troops, the US had looked set to stay for the long haul – until yesterday's unexpected announcement in which he seemed to surprise his own staff with a U-turn. A US presence would have given it leverage in future Syrian peace talks, whenever they happen – although the likelihood of them taking place between all interested parties seemed increasingly remote. But the key reason for an American presence in Syria was the containment of Iran, a goal shared by its Gulf allies, although there were differing opinions on how to do so. Tehran has succeeded, along with Moscow, in its goal of preserving the Assad regime, mobilising an array of sectarian militias like Hezbollah for the purpose. In any case, as of last night, America's long-term commitment is in serious doubt.

The announcement that the US president is planning a complete withdrawal of American troops was yet another reminder of the chaotic nature of the administration's Middle East policymaking. Such an announcement risks emboldening ISIS at a moment when they are close to defeat while alienating its allies on the ground, who will now feel more exposed to Turkish retaliation. It will likely accelerate a reconciliation between the Kurds and the Assad regime, leaving locals vulnerable to the latter's return and totalitarian persecution, or the threat of ISIS looming in the shadows. It is anyone's guess whether it will go forward, but if it does, Washington also cedes any influence it has over the outcome of peace talks in the war-torn country.

So the post-war order in Syria will likely be shaped by the rivalry between Mr Al Assad’s two key allies. Russia prefers to deal with central state administrations while Iran projects its power through weak states that are symbiotic with its militias. Any American presence was likely to weaken Tehran’s hand but also risked perpetuating the Syrian war because it codified the reality of the international nature of the conflict.

Syria is already torn by geopolitical interests and the competing ambitions of regional and global powers. The country remains a theatre for those power struggles, even without the continued presence of American troops.

Turkish-Kurdish tensions ultimately won’t lead to a direct military clash between two Nato allies on Syrian soil.

But it is high time that the world powers operating in Syria think of the conflict’s endgame and craft a strategy for how to get there, rather than prolonging the suffering of Syrian people and casting in stone the dismemberment of their country.