The humanitarian crisis in northeastern Syria is well documented. Nonetheless, despite the devastation that has occurred and the likely peril that is soon to come, pleas from aid groups, journalists and refugees have not been enough to move policymakers to take action. One reason for this is that because the underlying causes of this crisis are political, the solution must be too. Washington could seize considerable political influence in Syria by throwing a lifeline to its strategic allies in the northeast. Unilateral action by US policymakers to open the Yarubiya border crossing between Iraq and Syria could increase American and Kurdish influence at the expense of Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Islamic State (IS) and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A decade of civil war against the Syrian regime, a regional war against IS and a recent Turkish military incursion have turned half of Syria’s prewar population into refugees. More than 6 million Syrians are displaced internally, and 5.6 million are in refugee camps in neighboring countries. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria governs the seven cantons of the northeast. Its alliance of paramilitary groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is led by the Kurdish majority People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Of the 3 million residents of this region, 700,000 are refugees living in numerous refugee and displaced persons camps, with 65,000 in the Al-Hol refugee camp alone.
Trump Is Giving Syria the “Iran Treatment”
Humanitarian aid shipments were all but cut off to northeastern Syria in January 2020, when the United Nations ordered the closure of the Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq. As the only port of entry with sufficient capacity to handle the requisite shipments of aid and equipment, Yarubiya was the carotid artery bringing humanitarian aid into northeastern Syria. The border between Turkey and northeastern Syria is effectively closed. The Syrian regime allows minimal, if any, aid to cross from its territory into this part of the country, and it controls the Qamishli airport. The remaining border crossing at Samalka, between northeastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, is a river crossing over pontoon boats, which heavy rains regularly wash away; it is shut on most days.
By closing the Yarubiya crossing, the UN was acceding to concerted pressure from Russia, officially to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State, but in reality to choke off aid to anti-Assad regime forces, primarily the SDF. To make matters worse, in August, Turkey cut off the flow of water through the Alouk pumping station, thereby weaponizing water by severing northeastern Syria’s main freshwater source. Aside from leaving hundreds of thousands without water for drinking, cooking and bathing, not to mention hampering the generation of electricity by hydroelectric plants dependent on it, this manmade political crisis has made the medical response to the region’s escalating COVID-19 crisis all the more helpless.
Lack of Interest and Resolve
The squeezing of the ethnically diverse residents of northeastern Syria is the result of political jostling by Turkey, Iran and Russia to increase their respective regional influence at American and Kurdish expense. For Iran and Russia, who are working to rearm their pro-Assad proxy forces, the SDF stands in the way of the Assad regime reasserting control over the country. Although Turkey does not support Assad, it considers the YPG to be a mortal enemy and has even been supporting the Islamic State against it.
The Trump administration’s imposition of the Caesar Act — US sanctions targeting Bashar al-Assad’s government and its backers — may create obstacles for regime officials to transfer assets, but their benefactors will find a way to put their money where they want. Regardless, this policy will have no effect on the ongoing loss of American regional influence to Iran, Russia and Turkey.
Despite the recurring crises related to Syria over the last four years, it has not received consistent attention from the Trump administration, whose characteristic lack of interest and resolve to carry out complex foreign policy goals has allowed the crisis to escalate. This can be exemplified by the administration’s inconsistent messaging. For example, the official US position to justify the presence of American forces in Syria is to defeat IS, push out Iranian influence and resolve the civil conflict between the Assad regime and domestic opposition groups. However, President Donald Trump recently minimized the American presence to keeping the oil out of the hands of Iran, the IS and Russia, and to allow American companies and allies to benefit from its sale.
Aside from statements of support for opening the Yarubiya crossing, congressional committees have not expressed more than a nominal interest in the significant loss of American regional influence. This is despite the trillions of dollars the US has invested to build up the American position in Iraq and Syria over the past two decades. As a result, the harsh reality must be accepted that one cannot expect the US government to do anything to protect American interests or regain its squandered strategic regional influence without the executive and legislative branches being willing and able to design and implement policy to that effect.
Fortunately, the opening of the Yarubiya crossing is a relatively simple policy that will require minimum resolve to carry out. Nonetheless, it will bolster American regional influence at the expense of its most bitter regional rivals. Pleas to the UN by humanitarian groups and NGOs seeking to reopen the Yarubiya crossing to aid will never overcome Russian opposition. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi has separate authority over Yarubiya. Having spent close to $2 trillion in Iraq on military operations, hardware and training of local military, police and emergency medical staff, as well as operating the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, the US government has more than enough leverage to instruct Khadimi to open the border crossing.
There are other added benefits to unilateral action. For instance, sidestepping the UN will itself add leverage to both the US position and that of its ally, the SDF. Brokering a deal with its rivals for the UN to open the crossing would require the US to make considerable concessions. By design, all anticipated requests, such as allowing Turkey to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, would likely be ones the US could never accept, as the status quo benefits all parties involved except the US and the population of northeastern Syria.
Acting unilaterally would bypass such futile negotiations. Instead, the US would gain considerable leverage that it can save for a final status agreement in the long term or, at the very least, demand concessions from other parties in exchange for limiting what would be allowed through the crossing, thereby ensuring continued and adequate aid shipments. Aside from humanitarian considerations, from an economic standpoint, the move would provide an avenue for oil in northeastern Syria to be brought to market. The windfall profits would lead to a boom of economic development in northeastern Syria as well as Iraq, through which all materials would have to be shipped, and would save the United States millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.
This must be done soon. The Assad regime is being continually strengthened by Iran and Russia in order to reassert control over northeastern Syria, the Deir Az Zour oil fields and the profits they hold. Northeastern Syria contains 90% of the country’s oil and natural gas, but it does not have an efficient route to export these energy resources. As a result, what does get exported goes through markets controlled by Iran, and profits are also siphoned off by the Islamic State as it rebuilds its infrastructure.
The US finally allowed the export of oil from Deir Az Zour recently, which increased the political leverage of the SDF against Assad in future settlement negotiations. Opening the Yarubiya crossing will further extend that leverage to the United States. The more oil that is exported in the meantime, and the more involved the US is in protecting it, the more leverage the US will have and the stronger its regional ally, the SDF, will become. By fortifying itself, the SDF, which controls northeastern Syria, will be better equipped to cut off Iranian land access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In effect, the stronger northeastern Syria becomes, the more influence the US will have to counter Iranian and Russian influence in Syria.
To reiterate, as America’s frontline ally in the fight against the IS, the SDF has led the fight against the armed group and continues to prevent its resurgence. However, as IS is now receiving aid from Turkey as part of Ankara’s effort to wipe out the Kurds, if the SDF were to lose its fight, American soldiers may be expected to take their place protecting considerable US strategic interests. Otherwise, the oil would fall into the hands of Russia, Iran and the IS. It is therefore imperative to act quickly so as to bolster the SDF as well as to mitigate the disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic that has increased humanitarian suffering in the region.
Challenging Russia, Turkey and Iran
Turkey and Russia have outmaneuvered the US in Syria over the last several years. As Seth Franztman writes in The Jerusalem Post, “Moscow has become friends with all sides in Syria — except with the Americans.” As a result, all of these actors have benefitted to different extents in Syria with the exception of the United States. Russian and Turkish efforts to divide up Syria include allowing Turkey to shore up its control in Idlib province in exchange for letting Russia fortify the Assad regime and act against US regional interests. Crucially, the opportunity created by sidelining Washington has allowed and will continue to allow the Assad regime and Iran to fortify their positions.
Russia punches far above its weight in terms of international influence. As Anna Borshchevskaya reports for The Hill, Moscow’s efforts to defend its imperiled interests around the world by sowing unrest requires considerable personnel and resources. These resources are not unlimited and are effective because of the perceived threat of retaliation by Russian President Vladimir Putin against those who act contrary to his interests.
Moscow’s interests in Syria are among its most heavily challenged. Russia cannot afford to lose its gambit in Syria and will remain invested no matter what the foreseeable cost. Thus, there is no better way to undermine Russian influence globally than to spread it thin and weaken it by acting against its various global interests concertedly. Russia worked very hard to get the UN to close the Yarubiya crossing, thereby freeing up its resources to fight battles on other fronts. Those resources cannot simply be reassigned back to Syria without being removed from other fights.
As Turkey asserts itself as a regional political and military power, Ankara’s and Washington’s interests do not always align vis-à-vis Syria. For example, as analysis by the RAND corporation shows, Turkish attacks against YPG forces in northeastern Syria have led to the reappropriating of SDF personnel from fighting the IS in Deir Az Zour region to address Turkish incursions along the northern border. The State Department’s inspector general has accused Turkey of working in concert with the Islamic State to undermine US-supported YPG efforts in Syria.
Turkey has been threatening war with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, and its cutting off of water to northeastern Syria has considerably exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis in the region. Opening the Yarubiya crossing to allow in aid, supplies and water would challenge Ankara’s clout in northeastern Syria. It may cause Turkey to rethink its confrontation with Greece, making it more likely that Ankara will err on the side of diplomacy to resolve that conflict before it escalates into a military clash. It will also show Turkey that, despite its influence as a NATO ally, Ankara does not have carte blanche to act against US interests without facing consequences.
The involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria has drained its coffers and its personnel. This has considerably frustrated the Iranian population as its resources are sent abroad rather than used to rebuild the struggling economy at home. Applying pressure by opening up the Yarubiya crossing will further drain Iranian resources as it will require even more money, personnel and influence to fight Iran’s battles in Syria and Iraq, which will in turn further inflame domestic opposition to the IRGC.
Opening the Yarubiya crossing will aid the Kurds in northeastern Syria to fortify their positions and take a big step toward economic stability in the territory. Historically, the Kurds have been reliable US allies in the region and will undoubtedly continue to be strategic allies in the near future. Leaving them in the lurch by allowing Turkey to attack them in October 2019 shattered American credibility with the YPG, and left them with little recourse other than to put their hope in Russia for protection from Turkey. However, opening the Yarubiya crossing will considerably improve American credibility with the Kurds and work toward improving relations with a critical strategic ally, which will be imperative for American regional influence in the future.
Opening the Yarubiya crossing between Iraq and northeastern Syria is a singular action that will simultaneously put pressure on Putin, Iran, the Islamic State and the Assad regime. It will also reassert American leadership in NATO, rebuild credibility with regional strategic allies and safeguard US energy interests. Finally, and perhaps most critically, will improve humanitarian conditions on the ground, which will go a long way to win hearts and minds by saving lives.