After Deal with Turks to Pull Back Kurdish Fighters from Manbij, Mattis Vows U.S. Will Keep Troops in Occupied Northeastern Syria Indefinitely During Political Negotiations
Mattis remarks came after the U.S. and Turkey reached a deal on the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG forces from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, with the NATO allies providing security for a local self-ruling council. Mattis speech also seemed to be a response to President Bashir al-Assad’s recent interview with Russia’s network RT calling for American troops to leave the country and for the SDF Kurds to reconcile with Damascus, saying “we must avoid leaving a vacuum in Syria that can be exploited by the Assad regime or its supporters.” Mattis statement drew a rebuke on Saturday from Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov, who reminded the Marine General that the surviving remnants of ISIS were in territory controlled by the Americans and Kurds, not pro-government forces. Since the Manbij agreement demonstrated Washington will not choose to champion their cause at Ankara's expense, and due to the need to extract revenues from oil fields under their control, the Kurds have entered negotiations with Damascus.
Assad Again Vows to Liberate All of Syrian Territory, Implying Turkish and American Occupiers Must Withdraw from Syria -- and Arab Tribes Are Backing Assad's Demand
Notwithstanding the government's willingness to negotiate with the Kurds, President Assad indicated in a new interview with journalist Hala Jaber that he sees liberating every inch of Syrian sovereign territory as a "our duty." Even with the apparently successful talks between the Russians and Israelis securing the non-interference of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the coming southern offensive, Assad's increasingly confident position puts him on a collision course with both the Turkish and Franco-American occupations of his country. In the same interview with the UK's Mail on Sunday, Assad blamed the U.S. not only for the rise of ISIS, but for the continued existence of the Daesh terrorist remnants, which are launching attacks from east of the Euphrates River the Americans have forbidden the SAA to cross. The 'moderate' jihadists and Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) are still shelling the government strongholds of Al-Fou’aa and Kafraya in Idlib province, but breaking the years long siege of those primarily Shi'a cities will likely to be the SAA's highest priority in mid-summer, once it has secured the southern borders with Israel and Jordan.
Assad's demand for the Americans, French and Turks to leave Syria came after representatives of seventy Arab tribes/clans met in the east Aleppo countryside at the start of the month, to express their opposition to Washington, Paris and Ankara's occupation forces. The meeting was largely ignored by Western media but covered extensively by pro-Damascus and Iranian outlets:
Even as the SAA assembled its 4th Armored Division and the Tiger Forces, as well as the Palestinian Liwa al Quds formation for the drive on Da'ara and Quneitra, U.S. and Israeli media accused Iranians of violating the agreement between Moscow and Tel Aviv, whereby no Iranian units would be permitted anywhere near the Golan Heights. Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Wall Street Journal both reported that Iranian and Hezbollah fighters were changing to Syrian Army insignia but still participating in the SAA push to the south. The intent of planting such stories in the Israeli and U.S. press appears to be justifying more Israeli Air Force strikes on the SAA under the pretext of fighting Iran. It's clear that, in spite of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's positive, business-like relationship with Vladimir Putin, some hardliners in Washington do not want to see the SAA achieve a swift success and re-establish the full line of contact with the IDF.
The Geopolitics Limiting the Potential for a Protracted American Occupation of Syria
What happens next in Syria, of course, depends in large part on the political situation outside of the country. President Donald Trump is taking a bull in the china shop approach to trade talks with the U.S. primary trans-Atlantic allies if not Japan. This is likely to increase the indifference if not hostility to any demands being placed on European allies to support reconstruction in Kurdish areas of Syria that could host a long term American occupation force. As indicated by Maj. Gen. Konashenkov's statements, the Russians are wise to Washington's game of using scattered pieces of ISIS as a pretext to continue occupying the Euphrates Valley, in the false hope of blocking the flow of Iranian-backed Shi'a fighters and materiel from Iraq to pro-Damascus forces.
Despite SecDef Mattis statement and the views of hardliners in his cabinet like National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump's primary instinct remains keeping the U.S. commitment to Syria limited, even if he won't be able to withdraw troops before the 2018 midterm elections. This translates into a strong Trump White House aversion to American casualties -- a weakness the pro-Assad tribes may attempt to exploit with limited ambushes and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on U.S. troops, testing the same tactics in Syria that drove U.S. occupation forces out of Iraq.
Continued Israeli clashes with Palestinians, mass protests in Jordan, the unstable situation inside the Saudi royal family, complete with rumors of a recent palace coup attempt against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the heavy casualties Houthi forces are reportedly inflicting on Saudi and UAE troops supporting the Hodeidah offensive along Yemen's Red Sea coast; these are all factors relevant to Syria. The Trump Administration wants stable but slightly higher oil prices to sustain its Saudi allies and U.S. fracking, while keeping more Iranian crude off the market through its threats to punish any European country that refines Persian hydrocarbons. Russia, the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan, plus Iran's neighbors Turkey and Iraq all stand to profit from busting the new American-demanded sanctions regime against Tehran. The Russian Analyst will have more thoughts on that subject, including W the Intelligence Insider's view that Iraq could reemerge as a major OPEC producer, in a forthcoming post.
To address the talk of a full Iranian pullout demanded by Israel, related to questions about where U.S., Russian, and Turkish policies are headed in Syria, Damascus based correspondent Elijah J. Magnier recently sat down with Southfront news. You may want to give the nearly hour long recording a listen here: