Russia in its latest strikes in Syria has targeted several Islamic State positions after earlier being accused of hitting other targets including rebels supported by the United States.
The United States itself targets other groups than the Islamic State. It considers the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front a terrorist group to be targeted, angering rebel groups who regard it as a key player against Assad in many areas. However, Russia tends to accept the Assad view that all rebels are terrorists and legitimate targets.The United States has itself created a sharp contrast between its own priorities and those of the rebels and its allies such as Turkey and many Gulf States. The rebels together with these supporters have as their first priority defeating Assad and regime change. The U.S. and its Kurdish allies have a different agenda. The U.S. wants first and foremost to defeat the Islamic State. In order to do this it has supported the Kurds. The Kurds, however, want to extend the territory they hold, consolidate their power and eventually carve out an autonomous or even independent area in northern Syria. They are not interested in fighting Assad unless he attacks them and tries to take back territory they hold. The Kurds publicly welcomed the latest Russian air strikes and asked for weapons. Salih Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party, whose militia the YPG have closely co-ordinated their operations with the United States, said the YPG would fight alongside whoever fights the Islamic State. The fact that the Russians are supporting Assad does not concern the Kurds as it does the U.S. The Kurdish interests are first and foremost consolidating their power and extending their territory rather than fighting Assad. This strategy has been in place since early in the civil war as this article points out:Obama made it clear that he is not intending to increase US intervention in Syria even though Russian air strikes show increasing Russian support to prop up Assad:The Syrian situation is to a considerable degree a super-power chess board. The Kurds have been paying close attention to what is happening. The Kurds YPG and the US coordinated air strikes with ground action to break the siege of the city of Kobani. With the help of the US air cover the Kurds are estimated to have seized 6,800 square miles of territory in northern Syria in recent months.Turkey has noticed what is happening on the chessboard as well. Under US pressure it finally joined the battle against the Islamic State but also at the same time attacked the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq, violating a peace treaty and starting a campaign that threatens to create a civil war in parts of Turkey where the Kurds are a majority. Turkish president Erdogan is hoping to lead his party to a majority in upcoming elections. He is doing so by attacking the Kurds and fanning nationalist sentiment. While nationalist sentiment is rising so is the level of violence in Turkey and there is no guarantee that his strategy will even work. Obama may be right in that the conflict in Syria is not just a super-power chess game. It is a much more complicated conflict with many different external and internal players with vastly different agendas.
The Syrian Kurds tried to play a neutral role to control as much as territory as possible and benefited from the ongoing civil war in the rest of the country. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) managed to become the dominant actor on the ground due to the influx of experienced PKK fighters that trained Syrian Kurds, grassroots supporters, and organizational networks. Moreover, while Assad and his opponents fought each other for power in the rest of Syria, the PYD managed to cement its control over three Kurdish enclaves in the country’s north.Syrian security forces withdrew from parts of northern Syria back in the summer of 2012 allowing the Kurds to become the main power and military force in some regions.
“We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be bad strategy on our part.This is not some, you know, superpower chess board contest, and anybody who frames it in that way isn’t paying very close attention to what’s been happening on the chess board,”Insofar as the US supported moderate rebels and encouraged its allies to support other rebels while Russia supports Assad it is a proxy war. What has changed is that the US now has a priority of defeating the Islamic State. The US now has some interests that converge with those of Russia which supports Assad and the Kurds whose priority is certainly not attacking Assad.