The ongoing negotiation and military conflicts over Ain Issa underline the importance of eastern Syria for all the players involved in the Syrian crisis. Influence in this region has come to be calculated in metres. Given Russia which aspires to achieve a breakthrough in a region of an important economic and strategic importance, Turkey which aspires to enhance its influence in the Syrian map, and the US which considers the eastern Syria regions of a critical importance in managing its policies towards the Syrian issue, this region, which is located outside what is known as "Useful Syria", is an important site in the strategies of local players, considering the important economic and political returns from controlling it.
Why Ain Issa?
Ain Issa is of strategic importance because of its proximity to the M4 Highway. It connects the governorates of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east with the city of Aleppo in the north. Through a network of main roads, it also connects the east of the Euphrates to its west. It gives the party that controls it militarily the ability to control the communication and logistical support routes between the areas of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) and Manbij in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, in addition to the regions of the Syrian Jazira and the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
Turkey accuses the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD) of using Ain Issa as a springboard for carrying out operations aimed at destabilising the areas of Operation Peace Spring, and of allowing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces to use Ain Issa to threaten Turkish national security, demanding the withdrawal of the QSD forces from the city.
The QSD refuses to withdraw on the grounds that the region falls outside the areas over which an understanding was reached between Turkey and Russia in the agreement signed between them in Sochi on 22 October 2019. It demands that Russia fulfill its obligations and prevent the Turks from overrunning the region. However, Russia rejects this commitment and stipulates handing over Ain Issa to the Syrian regime forces, which has been refused by QSD to date. The QSD proposes the model of Manbij and Tal Rifaat agreements, where points for the regime and Russian forces are located at the entrances to the two cities. However, Russia rejects this proposal and demands that the QSD hand over the administrative services inside Ain Issa to the Syrian regime.
The Russian Defence Ministry announced that it has reached an agreement with the QSD to withdraw from Ain Issa and hand it over to the regime and Russian forces, in agreement with the Turkish side, in order to preserve the stability of the region. However, the QSD denied reaching such an agreement, confirming the continuation of the map of control in Ain Issa and its surroundings unchanged.
Attitudes and strategies of players
1. The Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD)
The QSD is facing an embarrassing situation as a result of its awareness of the seriousness of the current stage. Its main ally, the US, is currently busy with the process of the transfer of power from one administration to another, which left the QSD stuck between Turkey and Russia which are seeking to change the situation in the areas east of the Euphrates to strengthen their positions in Syria in anticipation of the arrival of the Biden administration, given that they sense the possibility that it may harden its stances towards them on the Syrian issue.
While the QSD faces difficult choices, namely engaging in an uncertain confrontation with Turkey and the Syrian factions that support it, and handing over Ain Issa to Russia and the regime, with the subsequent effect thereof in both cases on its positions of influence in Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) and Manbij, it is seeking to prolong negotiations with the Russian side as much as possible, and to keep the fire lines outside the city until it reaches a deal that would prevent the factions and the Turkish army from attacking. QSD's hopes for an effective US role in Ain Issa have been renewed after the visit of the commander of the US forces in the Middle East General Frank McKenzie to the Al-Hasakah Governorate, in northeastern Syria, and his meeting with the leader of the QSD Mazloum Abdi.
Turkey believes that conditions are right to expand the buffer zone in eastern Syria, dismantle the Kurdish entity at its border, and abort the Kurdish Autonomous Administration project. In addition to the preoccupation of the US with the details of the transfer of power, Turkey seeks to benefit from its rapprochement with Russia, which has been reinforced by European and US sanctions on both.
Turkey seeks to show its position as a form of self-defence against the "terrorism" it is exposed to by the PKK, as well as being a popular demand by the Arab tribes in the region that held a conference of their own in Azaz and demanded the expulsion of the QSD from the areas with an Arab majority.
However, Turkey finds itself obliged to take into account the balances in the east of the Euphrates, in a region on which it shares control with the Russian and US forces. It is also wary of receiving the Biden administration with a dangerous controversial issue. Therefore, despite the large troops mobilised at the gates of Ain Issa, it is still looking for a political and field atmosphere and facts that would open the way for it in eastern Syria, as was the case on the eve of Operation Peace Spring.
Russia presents itself in the conflict between QSD and Turkey as a mediator who has nothing to do with this conflict. It proposes to QSD to hand over the city of Ain Issa to the Syrian regime forces because this would deter Turkey and refute its pretexts. Russia's main goal is well known, namely to strengthen its presence in the heart of the eastern Euphrates region in the light of a frantic conflict with the US over the areas of influence in that region. Russia sees the Turkish threat as an opportunity to seize Ain Issa on the pretext of protecting its residents from displacement and protecting QSD against Turkey.
Russia is practising an open policy of blackmail towards the QSD through its insistence on taking over the city or leaving it to face the option of Afrin, namely refraining from intervention to counter the Turkish forces and leaving the city in case the QSD does not comply with Russia’s demands.
Russia clearly cannot take military action against the QSD because that may bring it into conflict with the US forces in the areas east of the Euphrates, which would complicate its relations with the Biden administration in the stage ahead.
The US involvement in the negotiating process
The US position was based on its view of the tensions around Ain Issa as being of an interim rather than a strategic nature. In other words, they would not change the demarcation lines that were established after the Turkish Operation Peace Spring. This position was reinforced by the fact that there were no US forces in Ain Issa and its surroundings.
However, the exaggerated Russian interest in the region, and the fear that Ain Issa would be the beginning of the fall of many areas into the hands of the Russians in collusion with Turkey, prompted the US to change its position. This was expressed by the commander of the US forces in the Middle East Frank McKenzie by his visit to Hasaka, and his meeting with the commander of the QSD forces Mazloum Abdi, a move that carried a message from Washington to the effect that talks with Russia should be halted because they conflict with Washington's policy and its modus operandi with regard to the Syrian issue.
The complexities occurring around Ain Issa and the large number of players involved in the crisis reflect the difficulty of the position faced by those parties in determining the future of the eastern Euphrates regions. Until now, none of the parties involved in the conflict has been able to change the status quo in that region in its own favour, which makes the idea of carrying out any military action in this environment very difficult for everyone.
Perhaps this is what makes it more likely that the situation will remain unchanged until the picture of the new US administration’s policy towards the region becomes clear, without discarding the possibility of an adventure by Turkey or the Syrian regime, especially in the light of the absence of a declared and explicit US policy regarding Ain Issa.
EPC | 22 Sep 2021
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