Will Gulf countries fill the vacuum if the U.S. stops supporting the SDF?

by The Region    


As it concerns its relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States has made two diplomatic moves that bring into question just how long their tactical alliance will last. First, by signing the "Manbij roadmap agreement" with Ankara, Washington has made an explicit decision to side with Turkey over its key ally in the fight against IS in its effort to occupy the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Secondly, by Trump insisting that the United States would like to pull out forces from Syria soon, a widespread perception that the U.S. has abandoned the Syrian Democratic Forces has grown. Critics of U.S. foreign policy accuse the Trump administration of ignoring its own promises that it would support the efforts of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria to secure stabilization and, and that it has chosen instead the route of political expediency.

With the United States supporting Turkey in its effort to eradicate the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG), and with Trump retreating from the Syrian battlefield, who will fill the vacuum that the United States will leave? Some interesting political developments seem to indicate that Syrian Kurds are forced to either consider support from the gulf, most notably Saudi Arabia, or they must engage in negotiations with the Syrian government -- which regularly threatens to re-establish its control over Northern Syria. 

This week, Lindsey Graham -- a long time opponent of the Kurdish YPG --  visited the city of Manbij, which Turkey hopes to occupy in the near future. There he promised that he would tell Trump that "It's important that we stay here", even though the administration already agreed with Ankara that power would be vested eventually with Turkish forces and their FSA affiliates. But why? Not necessarily because he has had a change of heart, it is more likely that Graham's voice only highlights the internal tensions within Washington about Trumps decision to pull out of Syria. 

Graham, after all, was quite open in his condemnations of Trump after the president declared his intention to call back troops from Syria. "Mr. President," he said on CBS's Face the Nation, "It's not just about defeating ISIL. If you leave Syria in the hands of Russia and the Iranians, this war never ends and our friends in Israel are in a world of hurt." For Graham to make this announcement on the very media which Trump regularly derides, and particularly as a Republican, it shows that Washington doesn't have one coherent vision about its policy in Syria.

Disagreeing with the voice of the establishment that Graham represents, and aligning himself with another camp of the ruling establishment, Trump is adamant about leaving Syria. In his stead, as the Wall Street Journal reported on April, Arab countries will support the Syrian Democratic Forces -- a move which could risk implanting the Saudi-Iran rivalry onto the soil of the Syrian Civil War. The foreign minister for Saudi Arabia had expressed to the Wall Street Journal that it would play its part in filling a potential vacuum that would be left by the U.S, coalition.  Saudi Arabia, also formerly putting its weight alongside Qatar, behind Salafist Free Syrian Army factions, most likely finds itself suspicious of its former allies since they pose the risk of Qatari influence. This is only a further complication in an already bewildering war. 

The U.S., in other words, has outsourced its fight against Iran to Saudi Arabia. One only needs to look to Yemen to see the potential catastrophe that could arise from such a decision. The timing couldn't be worst. Just last month (June), across the border in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairoon Alliance struck a coalition deal with the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance. Through pro-Iranian militias, Iran has been able to expand its military footprint in Syria and Iraq. Both the SDF and the Iraqi military have, in the past, fought together against IS. But a Saudi presence on the border could threaten that also, and further, endanger this relationship, turning tactical allies into potential enemies. 

Due to the Trump administration's unwavering commitment to pull out, Saudi Arabia has told the abandoned Syrian Democratic Forces that it would be willing to provide them with support. With little to no support on the ground, it seems that the autonomous administration of northern Syria will be forced to accept this offer if negotiations with Damascus don't bear fruit.

Last April, Mazloum Abdi - a senior commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces -- spoke with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, relaying a meeting he had with the U.S. Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett Mcgurk. Mcgurk told him that the Arab countries would play the role that the U.S. formerly played if they were to withdraw. "We are working with the Coalition," he said, "We have no problem if Arab forces join the alliance and we will cooperate with them." In the beginning of June, allegations spread that Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian officials had visited Kobane, and expressed that they would extend support to the SDF on one condition: that they empower the Arab elements of their coalition even more. These allegations have neither been proven nor substantiated, but they would point to the complicated situation that the Syrian Democratic Forces find themselves in.

What is for certain is that the decision for the United States to first, decide a premature exit strategy from Syria and secondly, to choose to align with Turkey to avoid any potential conflicts has had a domino effect in the region. Such a contradictory foreign policy strategy will likely do little for its expressed aim of containing Iran, and do much more to open up new fronts to a seemingly never-ending civil war.