Washington has helped the YPG - the Syrian wing of the PKK - which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by both the US and Turkey, to become the primary winner of the civil war.
On March 15, the Syrian civil war, which has led to unthinkable atrocities, will mark its eight-year anniversary, as the Syrian regime takes over much of the territory it lost during the war.
While the Assad regime, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-led Shia militias and land forces, has recently regained much of the country, it is not the real winner of the war.
The YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, NATO, and Turkey, has silently become the group that has benefitted the most from the war, claiming one-third of the country in northeastern Syria, with the help of US assistance and guidance.
On the other hand, Syrians as a whole have apparently become the main losers in the war, as the war has cost nearly half a million Syrian lives, while about half of the country’s population has been displaced, triggering a huge refugee crisis stretching out from the Middle East to Europe.
“Heavily armed by [US] modern weaponry, the SDF-YPG-PKK axis, which is backed by the US, but has also kept its ties with Russia, has developed a structure resembling a proto-state,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was established in 2015, mainly as a part of US-led efforts in the fight against Daesh. Despite US reluctance to accept the fact, the backbone of the SDF has been the YPG. Washington also continues to deny any direct links between the PKK and the YPG, despite Turkey providing clear evidence that they exist.
While Ones also sees, “without a doubt,” the YPG’s rising political role as a result of the civil war, he says, “it’s a secondary issue” compared to Washington's “long-term designs” in Syria.
“For imperialists, [the YPG] is an important political instrument” for the creation of a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region, according to Ones, which will likely mirror the autonomous Kurdish region they carved out in northern Iraq in the 1990s, soon after the first Gulf War.
Much like northern Iraq, YPG-controlled territory contains most of the country’s oil fields and its two biggest dams, providing the US-backed group enormous economic sources and a means to access modern weaponry, which even the YPG’s umbrella organisation, the PKK, could not imagine having during its three-decade-long history.
The PKK has launched a terrorist campaign against the Turkish state, leading to more than 40,000 deaths and material destruction of the country’s mostly Kurdish-populated and eastern and southeastern regions.
“The PKK has gained most [from the civil war] east of the Euphrates River in the Middle East,” Ones told TRT World, underlining the YPG’s role in the American plan to divide Syria, creating new borders in the region.
“The PKK, which is suitable for the concept of American proxy wars, is also useful for controlling other Kurds in the region from Syria and Iraq to Iran,” Ones viewed, adding that the group can also be used against the rising influence of Iran across the Middle East.
But Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, thinks differently from Ones, in regards to the YPG’s relationship with Washington.
“The YPG is not a US proxy to control Syrian territory,” Bryza told TRT World.
“As Ambassador [James] Jeffrey has said, the US relationship with the YPG was a transactional one in terms of conducting combat operations against the Islamic State (Daesh), which ends with the defeat of ISIS,” Bryza viewed.
Jeffrey was the former US ambassador to Turkey, currently leading the US-led anti-Daesh international coalition.
SDF forces have placed a siege on a village called Baghouz, the last Daesh stronghold in eastern Syria. But despite Bryza’s emphasis on the US’s approach to the YPG in terms of the fight against Daesh, which President Donald Trump has recently announced will end in a matters of weeks, the Pentagon budget numbers tell another story.
According to the 2020 Pentagon budget, Washington has decided to allocate more than $500 million in total assistance to SDF expenses under Revolving and Management Funds.
Bryza also differs from Ones on YPG gains in Syria.
“I do not think the YPG is a winner,” Bryza said, perceiving the YPG-US relationship as “transactional,” like Jeffrey does.
“I expect it to end soon. I do not anticipate that the YPG will control much territory when the war in Syria ends. It is important that Turkey now works as constructively as possible with the US and the other NATO Allies to establish a safe zone in northern Syria from which the YPG will be banished,” the former US ambassador concluded.
But Turkey has grave concerns about the formation of the safe zone, which it solely wants to control, resettling its growing refugee population, and differences between the two allies over the mission of the safe zone have not been resolved yet.
Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population with nearly 4 million refugees since the beginning of the civil war, spending more than $30 billion, according to 2017 estimates.
Russia: The ultimate winner
Despite the differences over the controversial gains of the YPG, and their future implications, experts from both sides agree on Russian gains in Syria.
They have reached “warm waters,” Ones said, referring to the Mediterranean Sea, which has long been a part of landlocked Russia’s political mindset, since the rise of its imperial power, under Peter the Great in early 18th century, over the Eurasian landscape.
“They have become a prominent power in the Mediterranean region, increasing their capability in competing with the US,” Ones observed.
Bryza agrees with Ones saying that over the course of the civil war, Moscow “reasserted itself in the Middle East, thereby bolstering its status as a regional power.”
Russia came to rescue the Assad regime in August 2015 at a crucial time when his forces had lost much of their grip over the country, as opposition forces and Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate, along with the YPG, controlled two-thirds of Syria.
At the time, Assad, a member of the country’s minority Alawites, could only govern parts of western Syria alongside the Mediterranean, where much of the Alawite population has been concentrated.
Before the Russian intervention, the regime had already lost Raqqa, a densely-populated city, to Daesh in eastern Syria, and Idlib, another important city, to opposition forces in northwestern Syria.
The Assad regime was also on the verge of losing major urban cities, such as Aleppo, Hama and Homs, even facing powerful pressure from opposition forces in the suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus.
But the Russians, with their powerful air force, fundamentally changed the military and political equation in favor of the Assad regime with their intervention, ensuring its survival.
The rise of Iran’s Shia Crescent
Tehran has also used the civil war as an opportunity to increase its presence in the country, aiming to extend its Shia Crescent from Afghanistan to Lebanon and through Syria.
Iran has committed its own troops and organised its shia militias from different countries in the service of Bashar al Assad, whose Alawite roots have been regarded sometimes as an offshoot of Shia Islam.
“Using its proxies across the Middle East, Iran has extended the Shia Crescent and its reach in the region, further developing communication and supply lines among its local militias,” Ones said.
Bryza also thinks of Tehran as one of the possible winners in the unfinished war.
“Iran has gained a chance to expand its zone of influence from the Gulf through Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean,” he said.
Other political outcomes
Since March 2011, the civil war has also led to some important political developments across the world, from bringing an effective end to the Arab Spring, which was the main purpose of the Syrian protests in the first place, to escalating a refugee crisis to levels that have not been seen since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The brutal crackdown on protesters by the Assad regime and the bloody civil war have spread waves of fear across the Middle East.
On the other hand, the refugee crisis has been a cause for political propaganda in Europe and other parts of the world for the countries’ far-right movements to champion extreme views against migrants.
As a result, many far-right movements and political figures ranging from Italy to the US and Brazil have been able to make their way to power, using anti-Muslim rhetoric and refugee fears as fodder for their election campaigns.