The stage is set in Northern Syria with competing actors vying for the leading role. The conflict began in March 2011 in Deraa and is now reaching the end of eight-year war. A final act appears to be coming soon to Syria, but it is unclear who will be left standing when the curtain falls.
The Battle Field
The Northern Syrian border from Idlib to Iraq is occupied by many different armed groups. Idlib is occupied by Jihadist groups who are using the civilian population as human shields. Going east you pass through areas occupied by Turkish military, and then into the large North East corner which is under the occupation of the Kurdish militia loyal to USA. To the South of this is the large Syrian Arab Army who are the largest ground force in Syria, and they have Syrian air forces, along with Russian air forces. The Syrian and Russia forces are united in a goal to recover all the territory in Syria and kept the Syrian borders free from occupation forces.
In 2011 Turkey and US joined forces on a regime change project in Syria. President Erdogan’s AKP ruling party follows a Muslim Brotherhood ideology (banned in Russia). The Syrian President al-Assad and the then ruling party, Al Ba’ath, stand on a secular form of government, and consider the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition and their armed wing the Free Syrian Army were all based on Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and the goal was to remove the existing secular government in Syria and replace it with an Islamist led government.
Istanbul, Turkey became the headquarters for the Syrian opposition whose leadership was almost exclusively Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey was used as the transit point of weapons and fighters that America supported in the attack on Syria beginning in 2011.
Pres. Erdogan faithfully fulfilled his role as a host to Jihadists arriving in Turkey from the four corners of the world, on their way to Syria through the Southern Turkish border. However, the Pres. Obama term ended and Pres. Trump came to power with a promise to get out of Syria. He first ordered a stop to the support and funding of the Free Syrian Army, which by then was non-existant, having been overrun by foreign Jihadists, Al Qaeda affiliates and finally ISIS (banned in Russia).
The CIA had been running the military operations out of their offices in Southern Turkey, but abruptly they were shut down. The Pentagon cultivated a relationship with Syrian Kurds, and used them as “boots on the ground”, to fight ISIS in the far North East of Syria. An express promise was dangled in front of the Kurds: if you fight for America in Syria, then in the end America will make sure you get your own homeland. Even though the region they were fighting in and occupying through military might, was not all Kurdish territory ethnically, they decided to turn their backs on Syria, and fight for the American “promised land”. For the Turks this was a completely unacceptable situation: their ally and partner (the US) in years of conflict over Syria started turning their backs on Turkey, which bolstered up a new version of the Free Syrian Army to fight against the Kurds militia. In fact, Turkey began fighting America’s proxy by its own proxy.
The American Goals
Retired Brig. Gen. Naim Baburoglu, a prominent Turkish commentator believes the US will remain in Syria until its goals are achieved: eliminating Iran from Syria to appease Israel; establishing a secure region for the Kurds of Syria; fracturing Syria into smaller states. Pres. Trump announced a total withdrawal from Syria, but later revised the numbers and timeline making the scenario vague and hard to grasp.
The Turkish Goals
President Erdogan wants to make sure the Syrian Kurds do not establish an autonomous region on his Southern border. Even though Turkey and US have been full NATO allies since 1952, they are diametrically opposed in Northern Syria. The two sides have no common ground. The relationship between Washington and Ankara has slipped so low as to prompt Trump Administration officials to contemplate significant reductions in the U.S. military presence in Turkey. Having suffered decades of deadly terrorism across Turkey by the Kurdish PKK, it is unconceivable to Pres. Erdogan why the Trump administration would throw an ally under the bus for an armed group of Syrian Kurds, who have direct ties to the PKK.
The Kurdish Goals
Syria is home to many ethnic groups, one of which is the Kurds, who are Syrian citizens. Kurds live all over Syria, and are present in most large cities, especially in Aleppo. They have kept their customs, holidays and language. The US military recruited the Syrian Kurds as armed mercenaries fighting for the US against ISIS (banned in Russia). The Syrian Kurds formed para-military units loyal to the Pentagon in the North Eastern border region of Syria. Propped up with training, weapons and salaries they faced ISIS on the battlefield, while US officials assured them they would not be forgotten for their loyalty to a foreign nation occupying their land. They were assured in the end they would have a Kurdish “homeland” from part of Syria. In the course of their battles against ISIS they were ethnically cleansing the areas they occupied: displacing and making homeless their non-Kurdish neighbors. Massacres were reported by Syrians at the hands of these Kurdish militias that the Pentagon has named Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish refer to them as the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group.
Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF, has stated they want a federated Syria: broken up into states, with one such state to be Kurdish controlled.
The convergence of three competing plans may begin soon in Syria. The Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on Feb. 28, 2019 that he could envision the end in sight. He was proposing the formation of a working group, made up of all the many players in Syria, to focus on a normalization process once the last remaining pockets of terrorism are eradicated in Syria, and he referred to Idlib. He said to journalists, “I think it will be over soon.”