US forces have rolled into northern Syria to keep the peace between two allies that have fought each other for a week, further complicating Washington’s battle against Islamic State and underscoring a messy regional struggle for influence across what remains of the ravaged north.
Armoured trucks conspicuously flying large US flags arrived on Tuesday in a cluster of villages west of the town of Manbij, where the Euphrates river has demarcated Kurdish-backed forces to the east, whom Washington supports, and Arab-backed forces directed by Turkey, farther west.
Despite Turkey and the US being allies in the war against Isis, neither side has settled on the makeup of the proxy force that will eventually retake Raqqa, the extremist group’s last major bastion in Syria. In the meantime, the armies of four nations – Turkey, Russia, Syria and now the US – are staking claims to dictate terms.
Though still in their early days, talks between Turkey and Russia are focusing on the remnants of the Syrian army – potentially alongside the Arab-backed units it supports – being a core part of the ground force. Turkish-backed Arabs and US-backed Kurds have clashed sporadically for the past week, and deep distrust between the two has dogged the Isis fight. The US has so far not wavered from its backing of Syrian Kurds, viewed as an enemy by Turkey, and a headache by Russia.
The US on Wednesday stepped up its deployment of troops to Syria to 900 soldiers and Marines, some of whom will use artillery guns against Raqqa.
For the first time in the Syrian war, the battle for influence on the ground is now being shaped mainly on a political front. Russia and Turkey, allies for much of the past year, this week invited Syrian forces to return to the same forsaken patch near the Turkish border where the American troops are now present.
The move is being seen by Syrian rebels as a final nail in dwindling Turkish efforts to support their cause. The fall of Aleppo, throughout which Ankara remained silent, and shift from fighting pro-regime forces to a sole focus on Isis has convinced rebel leaders that the fight for the north is lost. The pivot is also forging a political realignment that is shaping a new regional order, substantially influenced by Turkey and Iran, and underwritten by Russia.
Opposition groups say a new Turkish message has been sent: a mutual enemy of both the regime and rebels should now instead be a collective target. Across northern Syria, the realisation has dawned on exhausted rebel groups. “Our cause is now lost,” said Saeed Sheikh, a five-year veteran of the rebellion. “Without Turkey and Qatar, we are nowhere. And the reality is it has been like that since before [the fall of] Aleppo.”
From mid-2012, the hub of the opposition fight for northern Syria had been a war room, known as the military operations centre (MOC), at a military base in the Turkish city of Adana. From there, weapons sourced largely from eastern Europe were passed to Syrian rebel units, which had been vetted by the CIA, in conjunction with Turkish intelligence. Rebel leaders regularly crossed the border to lobby Turks and Americans for bigger and better weapons and, more often than not, went back to Syria disappointed.
“It was the Americans who were always saying no,” said one former opposition leader, who quit the fight last July and now lives in southern Turkey. “They were happy with bullets and rifles. But that was it. We could never win a war like that. But we still hoped to capture weapons from the regime instead. And then Turkey changed its mind.”
Although the MOC continued to function throughout the Russian and Iranian-led recapturing of Aleppo, officials told the Guardian it is now sending far fewer weapons into Syria. And those arriving – Soviet-era weapons from Serbia and Bulgaria – come with instructions that they be used only to fight Isis.
Central to Turkey’s about-face was the downing of a Russian fighter jet in late 2015. Turkish commanders had been authorised to use lethal force against Russian planes that had regularly flown near, or beyond, the northern Syrian border for several weeks prior, after Moscow deployed an intervention force to the north to support the struggling Syrian leader. Both Tehran and Moscow had come to believe Assad was weeks from losing control of the country, and the war.
Vladimir Putin seethed for the next six months, banning Russian tourists from travelling to Turkey, suspending trade deals and stepping up contacts with the Kurds of northern Syria. Ankara has long viewed the Kurds as an extension of the PKK – a threat to its borders even greater than Isis – and the Russian move was viewed as deeply provocative.
Then came the opening, which changed both the bilateral mood and the fate of the war. Last April, with rebel groups under near-daily bombardment by Russian jets, Putin said he supported Syria’s territorial integrity. It was music to the ears of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as it meant Russia would not support the ambitions of the restive Kurds. Erdoğan saw the concession as a safeguard for Turkish sovereignty, which he believed was more directly threatened by the Kurds than Isis, because of the Syrian Kurds’ links to the ongoing insurgency in south-east Turkey.
As Russia scaled back its links to the Kurds, the US was stepping up its support for the same groups. To Erdoğan, their main ally was wilfully blind to their biggest fear. Russia, on the other hand, was sympathetic.
“That probably was the moment that changed everything,” said a senior western diplomat. “From then on, Turkey sold out Aleppo to keep the Kurds at bay. They started to cast their contribution as solely humanitarian. Ever since then, the American involvement [in Syria] has been small and getting smaller.”
In February, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, travelled to Ankara to discuss the Syrian war and the fight against Isis with his Turkish counterparts. Senior military officials from both countries have also met.
“The upshot is that it’s still unclear who will take Raqqa when Mosul falls,” said one senior official involved in discussions. “The Americans are still hedging on the Kurds, even though the Turks are adamantly opposed. The Russians want the Syrian army and the rebels to do it, under their tutelage. Turkey is not against that. One thing that is for certain though is that Assad needn’t fear the rebels anymore. His fate is in the hands of Russia and Iran.”