Full facts of US partly lifting sanctions in Northern Syria aren’t yet known

Sanctions that prevented foreign firms in the neighboring countries of Northern Syria have been lifted. But who are the winners and losers, and is there more to it than merely keeping ISIS out?

Martin Jay
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There is more than meets the eye to Washington’s latest sanctions relief to Kurdish-held Northern Syria.

On the surface, giving the people a break from this vast region of North Eastern Syria, held by the Syrian Defense Forces (Kurdish PKK group), makes sense. The recent sanctions relief from the Biden administration explicitly allows farmers in the region to do business now with companies outside of the country, which is particularly relevant given that wheat and barley are grown on a vast scale in this region.


So outside companies in this part of Syria can now invest in agriculture and telecoms. However, according to Washington’s latest move, the Kurds can still not legally sell their oil to clients in the Middle East.

But it’s poverty and what poverty brings which is at the heart of the initiative. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Biden wants to defy his allies in the region, calling on him to bring Assad back from the cold. GCC states are patching up their differences with the Syrian leader, so why can’t Washington?

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Terrorism always finds a welcome home with people struggling to put food on the table. The president wants to go in the opposite direction and increase sanctions on Assad – given that he is an ally of Russia – and helping the breakaway state in the country’s North East is a way to do that. Equally, though, there is a real worry that this region could fall into the hands of extremist groups like ISIS if it is to remain at its desperately poor level.

It, ironically, is a lesson that Americans learned themselves when the George W Bush administration decided not to pay Saddam Hussein’s soldiers once Bagdad fell in 2003. This erroneous decision was essentially the spark that created overnight the egregious insurgency in the West of Iraq and swelled the numbers of what we now call ISIL or ISIS today.

And so, to apply the same logic in Kurdish-held North-Eastern Syria is interesting because recent jailbreaks and reports of ISIS re-emerging in places like Deir ez-Zor have come to the attention of the Americans. The US wants to make sure that the SDF has at least political support on the ground. It’s a hearts and minds strategy or something similar.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Jan. 7, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Jan. 7, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

But there are other gains for the Americans to make with the move.

President Recep Erdogan of Turkey will certainly not be pleased by the move. Even though the sanctions relief also applied to parts of the smaller region in northwest Turkey that Ankara holds, assisting the Kurds – the PPK – in state-building and helping the local economy, albeit farmers, is a bitter pill for the Turkish leader to swallow. Geopolitics is also part of the decision to cut some slack to this region, held by the Kurds.

Erdogan will see this as another slap to his regional ambitions and aspirations of hegemony and will undoubtedly use it to justify playing hardball with the US and the West. The strategy is similar to what he is doing with NATO now, which has received a veto from him over Finland and Sweden’s bid to become members.

The Kurds will benefit more from companies in the region looking at business opportunities in the Kurdish-held area, which is enormous, compared to the much smaller Afrin. Idlib, also controlled by Turkey, doesn’t get the sanctions breaks as Ankara relies heavily on them. Extremists there fight under the umbrella group of HTS.

Naturally, the US doesn’t want to be seen supporting them (although Obama before had a number of these affiliates on the payroll in 2014 and 2015, largely unreported in the US media).

The Kurdish question remains: are the Kurds the West’s allies or helpful militias, to dump at some time.

The move has edged them closer to Washington and away from Assad. For the SDF and influencing its future role in Syria, he has previously reached out and offered a sovereign sharing deal while reminding them that having anything to do with Russia is off the table.

Geopolitics is changing fast. These days, the main worry is that ISIL will return to the region and that SDF soldiers might defect to the Assad regime. The illegal oil sales by the Kurds to both the regime and Turkey will continue. Of course, the US has always signaled little concern if this happens, so long as ISIS doesn’t get its hands on the revenues.

To get an accurate picture of Washington’s intentions, watch closely the companies that move in for the spoils of war and the countries where they are registered. Fast money and who gets to make it reveals the bigger picture. Follow the money.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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