The Moscow-Ankara dialogue symbolizes an attempt to remove the United States from the equation. The United States has not played an active role in the Geneva Process for a year, and has not been at the Astana talks, or in Sochi. That puts U.S. partners in eastern Syria out in the cold in any future agreement. The only hope for the SDF may be that the YPG’s political wing, the PYD, has an office in Moscow and has been invited to meet with the Russians. If it goes with the Russians, then the United States will be out of partners in Syria, except for its limited presence with Jordan, which is where it has rolled back the former CIA-backed program to support the rebels.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey-Qatar Nexus
In the wake of the Sochi summit, and Turkey’s decision to send soldiers to defend Qatar in June, there is an emerging nexus between Turkey, Russia, Iran and Qatar. Turkey and Qatar initially were key supporters of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad and backed the rebels for years. Russia and Iran were Assad’s main allies. On the surface, it would appear that these four states are adversaries. However, the last year has brought them closer.
Iran and Turkey both opposed the Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum on September 25. Qatar has traditionally acted independently of the Gulf Cooperation Council and clashed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the programming on Al-Jazeera. Turkey and Qatar both supported the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt until he was overthrown in 2013. Iran and Qatar both support Hamas and Iran has provided Qatar key aid since the blockade led by Saudi Arabia. Turkey, angered by the U.S. relations with the SDF, also increasingly feels Moscow is the address to go to when discussing Syria.
For the United States, this four-country nexus is a highly difficult issue given that Trump wants to build an anti-Iran coalition that would include Turkey, Iraq and Qatar. The United States finds it hard to be effective when it is essentially relying on Riyadh and Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent Amman and Cairo, to deal with the region.
Kurdish Partners and Iraq and Syria
During the war against ISIS, Kurdish forces became key allies of the United States against the extremists. The KRG’s Peshmerga helped the coalition along one thousand kilometers of frontlines in northern Iraq and the Kurds were armed and trained by coalition partners. They also received financial support.
In Syria, Kurds also were the backbone of the fight against ISIS, eventually overrunning the ISIS capital of Raqqa. However, in both cases the United States has struggled to balance its pragmatic alliance with the Kurds with its historic alliance with Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurdish leadership in eastern Syria and northern Iraq are also very different and come from two political traditions among the Kurds.
After Baghdad decided to reoccupy Kirkuk in October with the tacit support for the United States and Iran, the Kurdistan region was plunged into political crisis. KRG president Masoud Barzani resigned and Kurdish politicians from the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan traded accusations of failing to defend the region. Now, with coalition and U.S. mediation, things have quieted down and the Kurds are discussing issues with Baghdad. Still, the United States faces a key crossroads at some point in Iraq over the involvement of the Iranian-backed Shia militias, or Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU), in the Iraqi security forces. If the United States is serious about rolling back Iran, it can’t also be seen to partner with these units. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the PMU should go home in October, and Abadi responded that they were a key part of defending Iraq.
The U.S. relations with the Kurds are also bound to come to a head in Syria as both the Syrian regime and Turkey make demands on what comes next. The regime wants the whole country back. The Geneva Process and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 call for free and fair elections, but there are not likely to be fair elections under Assad and there can’t be elections while the country is divided into numerous groups running different areas. Tillerson has said the Assad family has no future in Syria, so it isn’t clear how U.S. policy can countenance Assad rolling into eastern Syria. If the United States is seen to abandon its Kurdish allies, either in Syria or Iraq, it will lead to a loss in credibility.
An Entangled Region
The Middle East is more entangled than ever before. Each small conflict has strings attached to other players and conflicts. This is especially true after ISIS. As ISIS is no longer a major force on the ground and returns to being a terror or insurgent group, the unifying shadow it cast over the region ends and a new era emerges. A holistic U.S. policy must grasp this new era. Even though Washington likely has fatigue over decades of conflict in places like Iraq, a false move now can lead to another round of fighting.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a PhD from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.