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The Battle for Syrian Kurdistan - a Delegation at the Elysee Palace, Mr Erdogan on the Offensive and Mr Trump as a Potential Deserter

BLOG - 5 April 2018

The French President received on 29 March at the Elysee Palace a delegation of Syrian Kurdish soldiers and representatives of civil institutions linked to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The latter is an alliance of Kurds and Arabs, largely dominated by the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Party), which composed the coalition’s land force against the Islamic State.

It is not the first time that Syrian Kurdish fighters are received at the Elysee Palace, but unlike a previous episode under the presidency of Mr Hollande, Kurds were this time part of a delegation which included Arabs and in which civilians were side by side with soldiers.

"Our political goal: the stabilization of the area liberated from ​​Daesh through a local governance, which would be beyond the reach of the Damascus regime." 

Was this Emmanuel Macron’s way to respond to the criticisms formulated by his predecessor in an interview with Le Monde 15 days earlier? François Hollande argued that France was guilty of not standing alongside its Syrian Kurdish allies, victims of the Turkish army’s successful attack in the Afrin region. In France, denouncing the West’s betrayal of the Kurds is usually received with applause. After the meeting on 29 March, the Syrian Kurds’ office in Paris reported that the President had announced his intention to strengthen France’s military presence in Manbij, the next city to be controlled by the SDF, located further West and not far from the Euphrates, and which Erdogan intends to conquer soon.

Of course, the French Presidency hastily denied this claim. Our presence in North-East Syria relies on the deployment of special forces, which it is customary not to report publicly. One can believe the French Presidency’s statement when it indicates that Mr Macron’s intention, when receiving this delegation, was to thank the Syrian Democratic Forces for their contribution to the fight against Daesh. According to the Presidency’s statement, the aim was also to ensure "SDF of France’s support, especially in the stabilization of the security zone in North-East Syria, within the framework of an inclusive and balanced governance, to prevent any resurgence of Daesh until a political solution to the Syrian conflict is found". Of course, it is a way of beating around the bush, but it does nonetheless convey several messages regarding our political goal - i.e. the stabilization of the area liberated from ​​Daesh through a local governance, which would be beyond the reach of the Damascus regime - and the legal basis of our presence (preventing Daesh from returning).

"The Turkish offensive in Northern Syria is a success, and is thoroughly used by Mr Erdogan in his campaign for next year's elections."

Of course, the Elysee Palace meeting was also the occasion to send  messages to Turkey. In the official statement, one can find a formula recalling France’s fight against the PKK (a terrorist organization of which, according to Ankara, the Syrian PYD is only a branch) and the wish that "a dialogue can be established between the SDF and Turkey, thanks to support of France and of the international community". These language precautions did not prevent Erdogan and his associates from lashing out against France and Mr Macron, whom they accuse of "making a pact with terrorism". Much of the anti-French propaganda developing in Turkey against French policy seems unbearable, even though one might come to wonder whether the chosen method (this meeting at the Elysee Palace and this statement) was indeed the best way to promote a mediation between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey.

The Turkish authorities’ overreaction is only an indication amongst many others of a phenomenon to which we must pay the greatest attention: the Turkish offensive in Northern Syria is a success, and is thoroughly used by Mr Erdogan in his campaign for next year's elections. It illustrates a new pact between the President, the army and the nationalist extreme right. By his side in Syria, for the moment at least, is Russia; facing him, alongside the SDF, are the United States and their allies, who are present militarily on the banks of the Euphrates. Mr Erdogan threatens to lead his troops to the Iraqi border. How far does he actually intend to go?

"On 4 April, a White House release indicated that the US and its allies will stay as long as Daesh is not completely defeated."

The question is all the more acute given that, ever since Mr. Tillerson was sidelined, communication between Ankara and Washington was almost shut down. Fortunately, a high-level Turkish delegation joined the US capital. However, another much bigger development - a kind of thunderclap one might even say - just occurred. During an election rally in Ohio that same Thursday 29 March, President Trump suddenly declared that the United States was going to withdraw from Syria “very soon”. "Let the other people take care of it now", he claimed. Yet what "other people" is he referring to exactly? Commentators are wondering: could it be Putin, which would make sense given Mr Trump's long-standing inclination, the Saudi ally, who should be contributing more, or Mr Erdogan, with whom reconciliation could finally be sealed, regardless of the Kurds. In any case, Mr Trump has already changed his mind again. On 4 April, a White House release indicated that the US and its allies will stay as long as Daesh is not completely defeated. According to a tweet by Ambassador Gérard Araud, the French envoy to Washington, a phone call between President Trump and President Macron came to the same conclusion.

It goes without saying that if Mr Trump's obvious reluctance to stay the course in Syria was to be followed by actions, the area liberated from Daesh in Syria would become a battleground between Turkey and the Kurds, then between Turkey and the regime, Iran would have the opportunity to expand its "Shia corridor" between Tehran and the Mediterranean, Daesh would benefit from optimal conditions for its resurgence and... a French President would be caught for the second time by the reversal of a US President on a very significant military operation in the Syrian conflict. For the time being, the Turkish attack on Afrin and the hesitations of Western allies of SDF have already led the PYD to clear the fronts against Daesh, in the areas that the terrorist organization still holds.

 

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