Defense Secretary James Mattis announced on Oct. 2 that the number of US diplomats in Syria had doubled. No specific number was mentioned, but the move was motivated by the need to intensify the diplomatic effort, with “the military operations becoming less.” Under the label of “Syria,” the secretary was referring to more than a quarter of the country, with an estimated population of 1.5 million to two million people. This territory is controlled by the US-supported and Kurdish-dominated SDF and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). The United States embassy in Damascus has been closed since 2012. There are no plans to reopen it despite the fact that security there has improved.
Reuters cited anonymous sources to claim that the defense secretary “was referring to State Department employees, including diplomats and personnel involved in humanitarian assistance, and the increase was recent.” The Kurds see this as a positive move. They believe it is a sign that their cooperation with Washington goes beyond just the fight against the Islamic State. But in truth, adding diplomatic representation to its military presence means that the SDF-controlled territory — the largest chunk of Syria outside of state control — is now seen as an entity the US can interact with in Syria while giving Damascus the cold shoulder. The Kurds need US backing in order to hold on to the Arab-populated areas east of the Euphrates River, such as Raqqa, the former unofficial capital of ISIS.
The SDF does more than just control the land. It also sets up local governing authorities to rule it. On Sept. 6, 2018, the establishment of the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” was announced, linking all of the self-governing administrations in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) regions with non-DFNS civil councils. According to Kurdistan 24, “the new administration will be based in Ain Issa. It will be a coordination body linking the self-administrations of the Kurdish majority areas and the civil administrations in Arab majority areas that have their own civil councils.” The SDC-controlled administration is to rule the Euphrates region and the Jazira region, as well as the Arab-populated city of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, which was liberated by SDF from ISIS last year.
The Kurdish Afrin region is controlled by Turkey. In June, the US and Turkey agreed on a road map for the joint control of the Kurdish town of Manbij. The plan called for Turkish and American forces to jointly oversee stabilization operations in the area, as well as the eventual withdrawal of the Kurdish militia in Manbij. This prompted the Kurds to hold talks with Damascus. The SDC conducted several meetings with Syrian officials in July. But the talks ground to a halt after just a few rounds, without results.
The Council shifted its policy when Trump administration officials confirmed that the US-led coalition will stay in Syria until Iran leaves. Now the Kurdish-controlled areas are moving away from Damascus, implementing a policy of “decentralization.” Manbij is still held by the Kurds. On September 30, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accused the US of sabotaging the dialog between the government in Damascus and the SDC. Washington has not officially supported the plans for autonomy, avoiding any political pledges or promises, but in practice it encourages the separatist trends that are leading to Syria’s partition.
"We do get along great with the Kurds. Don't forget, that's their territory," Trump told a news conference at the United Nations General Assembly in late September. "We have to help them. I want to help them...They fought with us. They died with us." His words could be interpreted in various ways, but the idea is more or less clear — the US has to help the Kurds and the territory is seen as solely their property. It’s not the Kurdish-populated chunks of Syria that the president was talking about, but rather “their territory,” which includes areas with predominantly Arab populations that never belonged to Syrian Kurdistan. It does not matter. These are little, unimportant things that are undeserving of attention, because the Kurds are “not disposable allies” for the US, as the New York Times has emphasized.
The Kurds feel the winds of change blowing, as the US policy has pivoted toward staying in order to oppose Iran at any cost. They see signs of America’s renewed interest in the oil-rich region they control in northern and eastern Syria. “We feel (the Americans) are more committed now,” said Aldar Xelil, a top Kurdish politician. Washington needs allies and the Syrian Kurds are the only force they can bank on, even if Turkey does not like it. Their presence in Syria is an important aspect of their increased role in the Middle East, as an Arab NATO is expected to be announced soon.
There are around 40 million Kurds across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They are the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. The old dream of establishing a Greater Kurdistan has never died. Today, the Syrian Kurds have their own armed forces (the Peshmerga), established local authorities, control of Syria’s national oil deposits — the basis for the potential development of their economy — and some diplomatic representation abroad. In a nutshell, they have many of the trappings of an independent state, which could emerge on the world map “with a little help” from their American friends. Coupled with the almost-independent Kurdish region in Iraq, a league of semi-autonomous Kurdish states between the northeast regions of Syria and Iraq could seemingly become a factor in the politics of the Middle East.
The US doesn’t have much to lose. Turkey is angry anyway about having been placed under sanctions. One remembers the famous maps of the Middle East drawn up by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters and published in 2006 that mirrored key elements of his book Never Quit the Fight, featuring a “Free Kurdistan” that included additional territory taken from Syria as well as an Iraq that was depicted as a divided state. The top brass who define US foreign policy today have all read it, and their mindset has inevitably been influenced by the author’s ideas.
The name of the game is the partition of Syria, which is merely one element of a larger policy that is aimed at forcing a rollback of Iran in every location possible. With all other areas under Syrian control, it would be much harder to promote the process of detaching the SDF-held areas from the rest of the country. The US needs other hotbeds of activity distracting the Syrian government’s attention and weakening its position. Idlib must remain under rebel control. The pot must be kept boiling. It was reported that on Sept. 6, American helicopters evacuated ISIS militants from Syria's eastern Deir ez-Zor province (from the town of al-Shaafah, which is located near the Iraqi border). Let them fight in other places. This is the right time to add more fuel to the fire.
By and large, the fact that some parts of Syria are controlled by Turkey is also in keeping with the larger goal, as long as clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish formations are avoided. Of course, diplomatic efforts will be intensified in order to grant some legitimacy and international support to this policy of encouraging the partition of war-torn Syria. That’s why the State Department has landed its amphibious task force.