Geopolitical Equations in Eastern Euphrates, Challenges and potentialities

During eight year-conflict in Syria, political equations in Eastern Euphrates area has changed many times starting with the retreat of Assad’s Forces from large areas to set back to narrow security pockets scattered here and there, and then the expansion of military factions of the Syrian opposition which controlled large areas between Deir Ezour and Rakkah in 2013. Eastern Euphrates area soon became a focal point and a valuable target for main international powers led by the United States of America. Later, Syrian Democratic Forces captured the area with the support of the United States of America after these forces liberated many areas from Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS. Syrian Democratic Forces reproduced their local policies with Arabic-Kurdish consensus represented in Syria Democratic Council SDC.

Donald J. Trump’s latest decision to withdraw from Syria came up with many contradictions and complications. It caused bewilderment to military and political entities that are influential in Syria. Many expectations lead to a key question: Who is going to fill gap made by American withdrawal? This question will remain unanswered due to the involvement of Iran and Turkey as conflicting parties. Russia, on its side, closely watches the situation. Consequently, the area remains under the effect of geo-political and geo-military equations for which Syrians will pay again and again.

In the context of this study, there is an important question, not only about the economy of the area which is rich in natural sources like oil, gas and fertile land, but also in terms of the possibility of reflecting these geopolitical changes on the national case of the country. Can we benefit from the contradiction between the project of Russian and its allies Iran and Turkey as partners in Astana Accords, and the American project? Is there any possibility of rapprochement between Arabic and Kurdish entities in the area with their counterparts in other areas of Syria that can lead to temporary agreements in the context of the Syrian national project? Or, the area will remain imprisoned by these notorious equations?  

Introduction

Eastern Euphrates area, which includes three provinces, Deir Ezzour, Al Rakkah and Al Hasaka, has been the most important axis in the density of regional and international conflicts. Geopolitical equations have been fluctuating between a group of political and military alliances whether affiliated with Russia or the United States. These two alliances have got tools on the ground including Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups like Charkas and Turkmans. This started after the national compass had been deviated from the national project of establishing a modern state. The whole geography of Syria has changed into an arena for regional and international conflicts that might burst the whole region on the one hand, and terminate the national project which should presumably start with democratic change.

In a previous extensive study by Haramoun Study Center, the general Russian geopolitical strategy was identified with its theoretical reference, known as the “Fourth Political Theory” by Alexander Dugin. Dugin was inspired by “Katikhyoun Study Center”, which identified the political mechanisms for Russia to restore its international position through restoring its balance in its vital surrounding between Asia and Europe. It is worth mentioning that results of these studies are a political and intellectual endeavor. These geopolitical studies had been considered to be sinful for long time as they were the cause of the two catastrophic World Wars. They are based on advocating the expansionist racism at the expense of geographical and human diversity and the stabilities of small countries. This is what Dugin called “the minor spheres” under broad title “confronting American geopolitics in the modern age” as was justified by Russian racist policy in Syria which is the topic of this study in general and of Eastern Euphrates area in particular.        

According to what has been going on the ground in Syria for 8 years, and the geopolitical background and the current alliances, the Syrian crisis has become an international problem that all involved parties are trying to benefit from for their international positions in the light of American global dominance and Russia’s attempt to preserve a position at the expense of Syria and its national project. Eastern Euphrates is one of the most important and most complicated areas. What is going to happen in this area will have a great impact on what solutions are going to be like. It could be one of the most important indicators for the coming stage and its context. 

Distribution of geopolitical tracks

Nobody can predict the mechanisms of change in policies of the two super powers, the United States and Russia, in the region, especially that Vladimir Putin is trying hard to impose his country as a World supper power. Donald J. Trump, on his part, has got eminent financial sources. However, the most important indicator in the region is the rebuked frontlines between these two super powers as we mentioned above just like many other analysts who believe in the need for avoiding any confrontation between the two powers. This coincides with division of dominance worldwide and in the region. Hence, the bet on Eastern Euphrates is connected with wanted gains by regional powers like Turkey and Iran on the one hand and local powers like Kurds and Arabs on the other.  

According to the current tracks in such a limited area in Syria, the area represents a geographical linkage between Iran and Turkey through Iraq, and under auspices of Russia in the face of an American strategic position which is intended to block this linkage. Strategic tracks are also attributed to richness in oil, gas and fertile land of the Eastern Euphrates area.

Ever since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, the United States of America has been keen on working through parallel lines in managing the Syrian crisis by leading from behind and limited direct intervention when needed. This American strategy might need an independent study and extensive research related to this strategy and its mechanisms in Syria and the Middle East after its stalemate in Iraq. This was illustrated in “The World as it is”, a book by Ben Rhodes, National Security Advisor during Barak Obama rule. In this book, Rhodes says that US policies have got nothing to do with the Arab Spring and it doesn’t have any influence on what is happening. Middle East, with its tribal structure is not liable for reform and democratic change.

Yet, the United States of America got down to deploying ten military bases in a limited geographical are to the east of Euphrates. This strategy dedicated Kurds as a sole power which established Syrian Democratic Forces. This new military entity later developed into Syria’s Democratic Council which is a political entity that focusses on administrative de-centralization and the possibility of governing the area with the help of the United States of America and in collaboration with Russia and Assad’s Regime. Many analysts and researchers considered this experience to be a beneficial step for Kurds and Syria in general. According to Middle East Institute, this experience ensures that Syria will never go back to centralized administration. The Middle East Institute says that the United States can help in reinforcing a federal ruling system all over Syria and a Kurdish autonomy in the North and Northeast of the country within a federal Union. This federal union will not only benefit the United States and Kurds, but also other ethnic components and will also hep in anticipating the return of dictatorship and central administration.   

However, these efforts have not succeeded in attaining the least conditions for stability especially with the possibility of suspension of US support following the withdrawal of US forces that was decided by Donald J. Trump end of 2018 and beginning of 2019.

Statements of US Administration have been contradictory; once they say it is an immediate withdrawal, another time they threaten to suspend withdrawal and establish buffer zones in the North of Syria. Once more, they associated it with the termination of Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS. According to Reuters, Donald J. Trump, said that the United States of America would withdraw over a long period of time. Once more the United States alluded to the possibility of withholding support to Kurds and a allowing buffer zone in the North of Syria. On other occasions, the American withdrawal was scheduled according to the termination of ISIS in the area. Donald J. Trump said that the United States of America would withdraw its forces from Syria over a long period of time. He also said that he had never allocated four-month plan for withdrawal.  

Today, the American contradictory signals and the potential absence of its forces perplexes the area in many directions. Syrian Democratic Council, for example, has found itself without support as it explicitly stated through Riad Darrar who said that Syrian Democratic Forces SDF can’t confront organized armies like the Turkish army which intends to enter Eastern Euphrates area after the American withdrawal. Darrar released this statement during a visit to Paris.  

Turkey tries to preserve its geopolitical position next to USA and Russia without getting involved in essential disputes with any of the two supper powers. The Turkish-American relationships have gone through hard times and many disputes following the military coup attempt in 2016 which is suspected to be plotted by US-supported Fatehallah Gulen. Another dispute was the Turkish coordination with Russia for the arrangements of geopolitical and military dominance in the North of Syria through successive Astana meetings which ended with Sochi agreement that was signed by Rajab Tayyab Erdogan and Vladimir Putin end of 2018. This latest agreement, which is related to the situation in Idlib and North Aleppo, succeeded in anticipating any invasion of the area by Assad’s Forces and their allied militias. The United States warmly welcomed the agreement and called upon all parties to stick to the agreement. In the meanwhile, the United States of America reached some agreements with Turkey about the situation in Munbej and the Kurdish existence in the city. A deal was made for providing Patriot Air Defense Systems to Turkey as an alternative to S 300 and S400 deal with Russia. The full coordination between USA and Turkey for the situation in Eastern Euphrates area and Munbej is still underway.        

Iran insists on getting a ground passage into the depth of Syria after the intensification of America-Russian agreement on expelling Iran from Syria. However, Iran is still oscillating around the Russian presence to benefit from it to utmost extent due to its penetration into Assad’s Forces. This penetration gives Iran the ability to maneuver to keep its ground forces as a supporter to Assad’s Forces. But these maneuvers are not enough to surpass the lines of international consensus. The dispute between Iran and Russia over dominance areas on the ground and the international consent makes the Russian turn a blind eye on the strikes against Iran’s forces in and south of Damascus by Israeli air forces.

Absence of the United States in Eastern Euphrates constitutes an opportunity for Iran to dominate a wide ground passage across Al Bukamal and Deir Ezzour as an application of the Russian geopolitical theory of connecting Asia and Europe through Astana Accords. This Accords has put Turkey and Iran together in Syria through the Russian umbrella. Katikhyoun Study Center put this bold title at the time of the battle for Al Bukamal in 2017 which was intended to connect Moscow to Beirut. Therefore, Al Bukamal was considered as a strategic point to which Assad’s Army had to reach in order to open a bolivar through Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This strategic bolivar can harness the American antagonism by military, economic and military means as it can develop a global economic activity that makes Moscow railway and metro reach Beirut through territories of the Russia’s allies. The so-called supportive forces and Iranian Militias have mobilized their forces very close to Munbej area in an attempt to keep alerted as to what is going to happen with the American withdrawal which can indulge all parties in a multiple war.

Russia disregarded all its dispute with Turkey following the shutdown of the Russian warplane at an early stage of the Russian military intervention in Syria. Nevertheless, Russia benefited from the dispute between Turkey and the United States so as to reinforce its policies in Syria according to theoretical reference for the establishment of Eurasia as Dugin put it. More and more Russia has been inclined to strengthen the agreement with Turkey through economic deals including tourism and gas pipelines agreement known as “Turk Stream”. This continued until Turkey was involved in Astana Accord beginning of 2017 following the well-known battles in Aleppo which reinforced Russia’s dominance together with Iran and Turkey. These three countries divided roles among themselves in Syria after opposition military factions were weakened.    

To face the potential American withdrawal and the space caused by this withdrawal and the possibility of imposing buffer zone, Russia started to de-activate the rapprochement between Turkey and the United States and resurrect Adana Accords signed in 1998 by Turkish and Syrian Governments. Adana Accords authorized Turkey to take military action inside Syrian border territories and chase PKK members. By virtue of Adana Accords, Syria surrendered Iskenderun Territory to Turkey who was granted legal justification to cross border to fight Kurds. The resurrection of this agreement was intended to open security or even military channel between Assad’s Regime and Turkey under the auspices of Russia.    

Geopolitical challenges facing the United States and Russia

Both USA and Russia have been trying hard to avoid direct confrontation through employing their regional affiliates in an attempt to fix their geopolitical and geo-military alliances. This situation has put Turkey in a critical situation after it adopted “Zero Problem Policy” with neighbors; a policy that contributed to Turkish economic and industrial prosperity accompanied with cultural and artistic activities. Istanbul was chosen as the capital of European culture in 2009. Turkey has recently returned to this thesis through the Russian gate to achieve the following goals:    

  • Undermining any Kurdish entity that threatens Turkey;
  • Getting rid of the burden of the Syrian refugees and working hard to transfer them to the border area on the Syrian side;
  • Engaging the Turkish military institution with problems outside Turkey to settle internal disputes resulting from the failed coup attempt;
  • Opening security and perhaps political channels with Assad’s Regime through the Russians for coordination related to the Kurds in the first place and then to Hayat Tahreer Al Sham in Idlib, and finally going to the final solution to the Syrian crisis based on UN resolution 2254 which was adopted in 2015;
  • Maintaining a no-hostility policy with Russia and the United States of America, and utilizing the important geographical position of Turkey in the area in preparation for a greater role after Iran is expelled from Syria.  

The geopolitical challenge lies in dividing roles in Eastern Euphrates area especially that both Iran and Turkey are keen on preventing any independent Kurdish entity in this area. Both countries are delaying their disputes over dominance deep inside Syria under full control of Russian. Yet, they keep an eye on the American key role in this strategic area.    

The most outstanding challenge is the Kurds’ ability to deal with the Syrian diversity despite all its contradictions. They are good at making local deals with Non-Kurds locals and with Assad’s Regime, or even the transitional government to come. Yet, the autonomy or at least decentralized administration remains a top demand by the Kurds. Therefore, they have got connections with all opposition entities. Rapprochement with the opposition is as important to them as rapprochement with Assad’s Regime. This interprets the contradictory statements given by Ilham Ahmad, Head of Syrian Democratic Council in which she stresses the importance of rapprochement with Assad’s Regime, whereas Riad Darrar made statement from Paris in which he called for openness with the opposition. “We can make one opposition entity with the opposition and negotiate in Geneva and take part in the political process” Darrar said. However, the Russian and American coordination will remain the main factor for Kurds cooperation with the opposition.  

Conclusion

Eastern Euphrates area seems to be the most complicated part of the Syrian crisis in terms of geopolitics. It is a dilemma with complicated political and military dimensions because of the many interventions and contradictions of parties involved. Each party tries to coordinated with another party with the existence of antagonism deep inside each party. Kurds, Assad’s Regime, sectarian militias, Syrian opposition factions have all come to a crossroad with different supporters, the United States and Turkey, whereas, Russia and Daesh keep watching the sequence of events. According to this complicated portrait of the current situation, there are many possible scenarios:

  • Remarkable conflict of interests related to dominance and control which means a possible regional war with changing alliances within a relatively short time;
  • Russia cools down all military issues through maneuvering over the buffer zone with the legitimacy of Adana Accords and pushing for a new conference on the Syrian issue in accordance with its political pattern which was established in Sochi.
  • Intensifying multi-party rapprochement, Syrian- Turkish and Syrian-Kurdish, and the termination of all possible negotiation tracks like UN Resolution No. 2254, and a military approach to the settlement in Idlib in collaboration between Russia, Turkey and Syrian Regime.
  • Reinforcing rapprochement between Syrian Regime and Kurdish opposition on the one hand and the Turkish, European and American sides on the other hand to push for general solution for the Syrian crisis in accordance with 2254 and the inclusion of decentralized administration that starts in Eastern Euphrates and then extends to other areas of Syria;

This accords with the Russian- American agreement with European support is dependent on role distribution in Syria with the exclusion of Iran after Russia gave up Al Bukamal passage in return for Aleppo – Idlib highway that can lead to areas in depth. This goes with the interests of Americas, Russians and Israelis.  

All options remain on the table waiting the signal of the United States of America to start their mechanisms in Syria and the Middle East in accordance with the “Deal of the Century” which is going to be revealed in the near future.

One question often comes to the mind of any Syrian: What if the current polarization is violated in terms of who is for and who is against, and all Syrian opposition factions and the Kurds come to a national consensus and national dialogue that will lead to national consensus?

This will certainly lead to:

  • Anticipation of any attempt by Daesh or Iran’s sectarian militias to fill the space and dominate the area all over again;
  • Termination of the concept of political gain through military power and avoidance of the consequences of the conflict on the area as a whole;
  • Adding an important leap towards a Syrian dialogue based on Syrian interests first and the necessity to move from the narrow local interests, whether ethnic or sectarian, to the national identity and the need for discussion of the democratic political change in Syria.

This political question remains the key issue for Syria as a whole even though Russia and the United States are the key players to determine the destiny of the country through their eminent power. Yet, Syrian can play a role in activating solutions to the problem and help one party get the upper hand. This true if we take the Turkish concern about Kurds and the northern border of Syria into consideration. We do need to keep in mind that Turkey wants to go back to “Zero Problems” policy which can help in putting an end to the stalemate in Syria in general and particularly Eastern Euphrates area which is rich in natural sources and its geopolitically important for Iran’s expansion in Syria. Iran’s presence in Syria has become the core problem for both Russia and the United States.


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