President Donald Trump on May 9 announced approval of a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the anti-ISIS coalition led by the Rojava Kurds. The aid—including heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and engineering equipment—will boost the prowess of the People's Protection Units (YPG), territorial defense militia of the Rojava autonomous zone and the central pillar of the SDF. "The Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with enabling support from US and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future," said a Pentagon statement. The move is being taken over strenuous Turkish objections to arming the Syrian Kurds, and will certainly be a contentious point when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Trump in Washington next week. (ANF, NYT, May 9)
Recent comments by the Assad regime's ambassador to Russia, Riyad Haddad, appear to indicate that Damascus and Moscow are preparing to cut loose the Rojava Kurds, who they have heretofore been attempting to cultivate as proxies. At issue, predictably, is the Kurdish demand for regional autonomy and a federal solution for Syria. "The Kurds are an integral part of the Syrian people, they have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the Syrian people," Haddad said in comments before the Russian Federation Council, quoted by Kremlin state media outlet Sputnik. "I would like to stress that many Kurds are actually strongly opposing any form of division, either a federation, or cantons, or other forms. That is why we keep on saying that Syria is capable and ready to settle the crisis alone, without interference from the outside." Of course the invocation of non-interference is hilariously ironic in light of massive Russian military intervention in Syria. And the "many Kurds" who supposedly oppose autonomy are conveninently left unnamed.
Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik is crowing about the referendum results in Georgia's separatist enclave of South Ossetia, which has just voted to change its name to "Alania"—technically, the hybrid name of "Republic of South Ossetia—State of Alania." As Civil Georgia website explains, the political logic here is that it is a move toward union with the adjoining Russian province of North Ossetia-Alania. Pravda openly boasts in a headline: "South Ossetia wants to join Russia like Crimea." Kyiv Post informs us that Ukraine is not recognizing the "pseudo-elections in South Ossetia." NATO is also rejecting the "illegitimate elections and referendum in Georgia’s occupied territories." The US State Department likewise issued a statement condemnining the "illegitimate elections and referenda in Georgia's occupied territories." So it is pretty clear how the autonomist aspirations of the Ossetians (however legitimate) have been successfully exploited in the Great Game.
The UK Supreme Court confirmed on Nov. 18 that Scotland and Wales may intervene in an upcoming hearing that will determine whether Prime Minister Theresa May has the power to take the UK out of the EU without a parliamentary vote. Earlier this month the High Court ruled that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows for the UK's exit from the EU, can only be triggered by a vote of the British Parliament. The UK government immediately appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, with Scotland and Wales demanding intervention soon after. While the two countries had their lawyers attend the previous hearing, they will now be allowed to argue how triggering Article 50 without their parliaments' consent will infringe upon their governments' rights and powers. The UK government continues to argue that it has exclusive control over foreign affairs and legal treaties. The three parties will argue their stances at the hearing scheduled for early December.
It's clear that President Obama had set a goal to take both Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS before leaving office, and bequeath these victories to his successor Hillary Clinton. But both of these battles hold the potential both for humanitarian disaster and a violent aftermath as Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites contend for liberated territory. Now all this will instead be bequeathed to Donald Trump—with no savvy about the region, and a blatant appetite for destruction. This dramatically escalates the potential for disaster. It is pretty clear Trump intends to divide Syria with Putin the way Hitler divided Poland with Stalin. The US will take Raqqa and the east; Russia will establish a reduced Assad state as a protectorate around Damascus and Latakia in the west. Whether the US will be able to control its sphere amid social collapse and sectarian maelstrom is another matter.
An Oct. 23 AFP story relates how Syria's Kurds are restoring ancient names to "Arabized" towns in the country's north (where the regime has collapsed an a Kurdish-led autonomous administration holds power). Writer Delil Souleiman reports from a small town in the "official" governorate of Hasakeh known for decades as Shajra but now once again by the older Kurdish name of Joldara. Said one elderly resident: "Joldara in Kurdish means a plain covered in trees. This was the name of the village before it was Arabized by the Syrian government in 1962 and changed to Shajra," which means tree in Arabic. Joldara is one of hundreds such towns where new road-signs have been raised by the autonomous administration, with the Kurdish names in both Latin and Arabic script.
We've repeatedly pointed out the sinister side of Great Power cooperation in Syria: previous ceasefires and "peace deals" have only meant an escalation of the conflict—most recently, the siege of Aleppo and other regime gains. So the utmost cynicism is called for in viewing the pact announced Sept. 10 between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. Another fictional "ceasefire" is to take effect in two days, dependent on compliance by Bashar Assad's Russian-backed forces and "US-supported" rebel groups (although we question how "US-supported" they really are). If the truce holds for a week, the US and Russia will actually begin coordinating on air-strikes. "We believe the plan as it is set forth—if implemented, if followed—has the ability to provide a turning point, a moment of change," Kerry said, according to AP. But a "turning point" toward what?
The Turkish intervention in northern Syria has set off open war between Free Syrian Army factions and the Rojava Kurds—which will only serve the interests of ISIS and Assad. Portrayed as an offensive against ISIS, the intervention has at least equally targeted the Kurds—the most effective anti-ISIS in Syria. Turkey, long accused of conniving with ISIS to weaken the Kurds, is now making a bid for its own "buffer zone" in north Syria, reducing or completely usurping the Rojava autonomous zone. The US is now torn between its NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) it has been backing against ISIS. US Central Command on Aug. 30 claimed it hads secured a "loose agreement" for a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces. This was immediately refuted by Ankara, with cabinet minister Omer Celik saying flatly: "We do not accept in any circumstances a 'compromise or a ceasefire reached between Turkey and Kurdish elements." (MEE, Aug. 31)