Potential Scenarios for Control of the Eastern Euphrates Region
As the fighting in southern Syria comes to an end, the Syrian regime and its allies appear to be shifting their attention to the region east of the Euphrates, which – together with Idlib –remains beyond the control of the Al-Assad regime.
Actors east of the Euphrates
1: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm – the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) – is the prime component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and now controls the entire region east of the Euphrates. The PYD is ideologically, politically and militarily linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
2: The Syrian regime seeks to control the region as part of its strategy to regain complete control of Syria with the help of Russia, Iran and its affiliated militias.
3: Turkey regards domination by any Kurdish party over any region close to its borders as a threat to its national security and is attempting to deny the PYD control over the area east of the Euphrates.
4: The United States aims through its military presence in the east of the Euphrates region to help Kurdish factions as part of its strategy to fight terrorism and ISIS. Washington also seeks to weaken Iran’s influence in Syria and cut off the strategic corridor which Tehran is attempting to establish through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
From Daraa in the south to Raqqa in the east
It is highly likely that the region to the east of the Euphrates region – beginning with Raqqa –will be the next destination for the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies. Most of Raqqa remains under the control of the PYG, represented by the QSD, which has taken control of the region with the help of Arab tribes and the support lent by Washington when US–Turkish relations were strong. This relationship has cooled since, and the US now is closer to reaching understandings with Turkey and Russia on the future of Syria as a whole – a process viewed with much suspicion by the Kurds.
Given the relative strengths of the actors in the region and their strategic interests, the Kurds understand that US relations with Turkey will be given priority. This calculation inspired the recent communication between the Kurds and the Al-Assad regime (a meeting in Damascus on July 26, 2018). The Kurds believe that by reaching an understanding with the regime – with Russia acting as guarantor – they may yet prevent Ankara from pushing into their territories in northern Syria.
The following factors contribute to the likelihood that the Syrian regime will pursue this opportunity in order to regain control over areas currently under the control of the QSD.
First and foremost are the obstacles to Kurdish rule in the region. Thousands of ISIS fighters are awaiting a Kurdish–Arab clash that will facilitate their resurgence. The Kurds also fear a sudden US withdrawal from the region, leaving them to face their fate alone. Turkey could take advantage of such a move to push into the Kurdish region, especially given events in Afrin, the road map reached by Ankara and Washington on Manbij, and Washington’s abandonment of opposition factions in southern Syria in exchange for a Russian commitment to keep Iran-affiliated militias away from Israel’s borders.
Potential scenarios in the eastern Euphrates
Scenario 1: Syrian regime troops restore control over the region in coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This scenario appears probable for two reasons. First, the Kurds are fully aware that current global and regional understandings on Syria have the potential to destroy any Kurdish political and military presence in areas under their control – as was the case in Afrin. Therefore, they may believe that reaching an agreement with the Syrian regime – even if it does not offer self-autonomy – remains preferable to establishing the conditions for Turkey to launch a military campaign against them (again, as in the case of Afrin). The second reason is the successful efforts of the Syrian regime to establish global and regional consensus allowing the regime’s forces to restore control over the majority of the country – as evidenced in the past few months in Ghouta and southern parts of the country.
Should this first scenario materialize, it will deliver a severe blow to the Democratic Union Party and the PKK, as it would necessarily mean that the party has all but abandoned a political agenda that thousands of ethnic Kurds have sacrificed their lives to defend. It would also generate bitterness among the Kurdish population in general against the US for abandoning them having used them to advance its agenda. Moreover, this move will enhance the regime’s capability to reestablish authority over the entire country without any concessions to domestic and regional opposition.
Scenario 2: The US and Turkey reach an agreement akin to the Manbij deal. This scenario is less likely, as the US has little appetite for maintaining its military positions east of the Euphrates if a peace settlement is reached and terrorist organizations have been rooted out in the country. However, this does not prevent Washington from trying to frustrate any Turkish endeavor to eliminate the Kurdish political project at any price. It may therefore encourage the US to push for a deal between its Kurdish allies and Turkey similar to that established in Manbij.
Should this scenario unfold, it will undermine the regime’s capability to restore full control over the entire country, leaving vast swathes of land beyond its control. Second, this scenario will offer the PKK – through the Democratic Union Party – a measure of legitimacy and international recognition. This may even lead to a resumption of the faltered peace process between Ankara and the PKK. Should such a political understanding among the Kurds and with the Arabs be reached in the region it would represent a prime example for other regions and political forces in Syria to follow, creating a significant dilemma for the Syrian regime.
Scenario 3: open conflict between the Assad regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces. This is perhaps the least probable scenario, as the current balance of power favors the Syrian regime while the Kurds lack any form of regional support. However, it remains a possibility, given the importance of the issue of dominance over the eastern Euphrates region for both sides. Should the US signal its support for the Kurds in any potential confrontation with the Syrian regime, this scenario would become more plausible. It would also become more likely if Turkey chose to provide the Syrian regime with significant political and military support.
Should this scenario develop, it would lead to a unique and significant confrontation between the US and other regional actors, as the Syrian regime would align itself with Iran and Turkey against a party backed by the US. Of course, this would place Syrian opposition groups in a confusing position; while their Turkish-backed forces fought against the Syrian regime and the SDF, the regime in Damascus would be simultaneously receiving political support from Ankara. This scenario would necessarily alter the dynamics of the civil war – particularly that between the ethnic Kurds and Arabs – and would probably be encouraged by the Syrian regime and Iran, which enjoys strong influence among the Arab tribes in this region.