The Kurdish Crisis: Annotation
(October 12, 2019) — Here we are again: a major series of events in the Middle East accompanied by thin and misleading media coverage. Admittedly, the MSM in this instance have gotten the basic facts right — for the time being, anyway. It is the background, context and interpretation of implications that are distorted and prejudiced; also, spiked with a drizzle of lies. Par for the course.
So, a regard for some approximation of the truth prompts one to denote a few basic facts as a guide to making sense of what is going on. Having no expertise on the region, I have run it by someone who does.
1. Turkey encouraged, facilitated and provided tangible support for the various jihadist groups that have carried the fight against Assad’s regime since 2012-13. Erdogan saw them as the instrument for toppling Assad and carving out a slice of northern Syria to attach to Turkey in his fanciful vision of a (partially) reconstituted Ottoman Empire.
2. Toward this end, he provided transit facilities for foreign fighters (including ISIS recruits), allowed the transfer of arms through Turkish territory, provided support services, and trans-shipped ISIS controlled Syrian oil to Mediterranean ports (thereby providing a major source of financing for the would-be ISIS Caliphate). His son was co-owner and manager of the Turkish transportation country.
3. On arms, Turkey collaborated with the United States and Saudi Arabia. From 2012 onwards, they supplied al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and friends (if not ISIS) with sophisticated weapons including TOW anti-armor missiles. The last came directly from the US via Saudi Arabia. The rest were purchased mainly in East Europe with American connections, paid for by Saudi Arabia and other Gulfies, and conveyed through Turkey. The non-jihadist opposition elements served as political cover but were operationally subordinate to the dominant al-Nusra coalition. The supply of arms to the renamed al-Nusra concentrated in the Idlib pocket continues until this day.
Turkey, like the United States, has been playing a double — or, perhaps, triple — game throughout. The main objective is as noted above. A secondary objective is to prevent a consolidation of a YPG-PKK statelet in northern Syria that could reinvigorate the Kurdish separatist rebellion in Turkey. That issue also colored Turkish attitudes toward the semi-autonomous Kurdish statelet in Iraq which has mixed relations with the PKK. Ankara inserted, and maintains a small force in northern Iraq.
4. Since the Kurds were the main ground forces available to the US for fighting ISIS (especially given its denunciation of the Iraqi Hashed militias as haram, i.e. an auxiliary of Iran — its enemy Number One in the region), there have been strains between Ankara and Washington. Differing interests and priorities also help explain why Washington pulled its punches in fighting ISIS in the earlier years, in particular its self-imposed restrictions on using air power to cut the oil trade.
Indeed, on one noteworthy occasion, the US provided air cover for an ISIS assault on forces of the Syrian National Army poised to break the siege of Deir ez-Zur — causing scores of casualties. That incident punctuates the warped American priorities in Syria.
An open question is whether the Kurds operating southeast of the Euphrates will continue to do the Americans’ dirty work after being sacrificed up North. We should also bear in mind that the Syrian Kurds are not united. There is a significant divide, tribally based with political overtones, between the ‘Kurds of the West’ who derive from the Ain Arab (Kobane) and Manbij region and the “Kurds of the East” concentrated in the area northeast of Hassake. The two have a history of competition and friction. The later also have strained relations with their neighbors across the border in Zakho and Dohouk, Iraq.
The Turkish invasion and planned occupation of a border zone is concentrated in the homeland of the ‘Western Kurds.’ Were Erdogan to push farther East, he would encounter complications with the ‘Eastern Kurds’ as well as American outposts and the Syrian government’s bastion in Hassake which it has retained throughout the civil war.
The Iraqi Kurds generally are not allied with or coordinate with the YPG Kurds of Syria. The Iraqis are in the more enviable position of having constituted their own semi-autonomous statelet — unrecognized by Baghdad but with strong backing from Washington dating back to 2003. They have no formal affiliation with the PKK, although PKK fighters from Turkey at times have taken refuge in the mountains along the border. The two dominant factions in the Iraqi zone are headed by the rival clans of Barzani and Talabani.
Both place greater value on that power struggle than on the PKK movement in Turkey or the YPG’s fate. In fact, they have a pragmatic accord with Turkey for the transhipment of oil from their territory which provides crucial financing. They will check where support and money for YPG come from, and do what’s necessary to maintain the flow so as to take their cut.
5. The Russia factor. The MSM media have gone out of their way to picture Russia as Erdogan’s partner in the Syrian incursion. This is complete nonsense. The Moscow-Ankara relationship has been multi-dimensional and shifting. At no time, however, have their been partners.
A) The Russian military intervention was a desperate move to save the Assad regime from a Turko-American supported offensive in 2015. That was vital to Moscow not only because Syria is its longest ally in the Middle East. Equally important, the prospect of Syria becoming a jihadist homeland was anathema given Russia’s vulnerability to Islamic terrorism from which it has suffered more than anyone in the West.
B) Therefore, Turkey and Russia have been constantly at odds as the Syrian-Russian alliance has rolled back the jihadists in Aleppo and elsewhere. Erdogan wants to keep them alive as a force for instability.
C) In Idlib, the two powers made a deal that a military offensive would be suspended to give Turkey a chance to neutralize al-Nusra & friends. Erdogan has shown himself unwilling/unable to do so. One reason is the open question as to where the fighters would go — especially since a large fraction are neither Syrians nor Iraqis.
The same concern hovers over Turkey’s pending custodianship of captured ISIS fighters in Kurdish territories. Erdogan obviously would like to arrange a smooth pipeline through Turkey to a clear Exit with transfers to Afghanistan, the Sahel, the Caucasus or Libya where the Turkish assisted jihadis protect ‘our guy’ — the nominal President and de facto Mayor of Tripoli. Easier said than done.
6. Turkey is alone in this adventure. However, none of the major players in Syria are actively opposing it — albeit the invasion has been loudly denounced by the Damascus government itself. It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia is taking a hands-off position on the intricate games being played in Northeast Syria. There are reports of a deal between Erdogan and Mohammed bin-Salman in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder.
Supposedly, Turkey threatened to release videos and audio transcripts that inculpate MBS directly unless he met three conditions. One condition was that the Saudis refrain from providing any support — direct/indirect, tangible/political — to YPG. In effect, an ancillary element to the deal Erdogan pursued with Trump. Their agreement left in place their pragmatic cooperation in sustaining the al-Nusra controlled, mainly jihadi anti-Assad forces in Idlib.
7. The two areas where Russo-Turkish interests coincide are energy and opposition to American hegemony. Turkey is energy deprived (hence, its good relations with Iran); Russia wants a southern route for export of its abundant resources. A collaboration has been in the works for many years. Erdogan’s troubled relations with Washington have motivated him to hedge his strategic bets by establishing practical ties with Moscow despite their differences over Syria.
Purchase of the sophisticated S-400 air defense system from Russia punctuates that pragmatic relationship. It has little if any strategic value, though, since Turkey isn’t going to war with anyone who has missiles. Erdogan does see the Pentagon’s heartburn over the deal as giving him leverage in Washington. Turkey is not about to abandon its alliance with the US in exchange for a Russian alliance.
8. Russia is committed to restoring the territorial and legal integrity of Syria. It opposes, therefore, the Turk occupations of Afrin and previously occupied pockets in northeastern Syria as well as the current invasion. They have been strongly advising the Kurds for more than a year to reach an accommodation with Assad. He, in turn, has offered them a high degree of autonomy. We also should bear in mind that the Kurds of Syria did not experience the oppression, and suppression, that they did in Iraq.
Of course, Russia is ready to take advantage of every opportunity to make the United States look bad. Currently, it need do nothing more than refrain from any association with the Turkish attack. It, therefore, is totally illogical to claim that Moscow is somehow conniving with Ankara.
9. The United States is not leaving Syria. It retains more than 1,000 troops — not including armed CIA operatives and ‘consultants.’ In addition, it is actively organizing the coalition of Kurds, Arab tribes, and even some jihadi alumni east of the Euphrates where they have seized Syrian oil fields. The objectives are to keep the Assad government weak, distracted and denied a land bride from Iran via Iraq. That is why Washington intentionally allowed some ISIS elements to flee Raqqa and reestablish themselves in the region. Hence, both Turkey and the US are occupying chunks of territory that are legally part of the sovereign Syrian state. By contrast, the Russians were invited into the country by that same sovereign state.
10. Washington is firmly committed to maintaining a major military as well as political presence in Mesopotamia. That is why it is moving heaven and earth to keep its much larger base network in neighboring Iraq while intervening in Baghdad politics to secure the position of leaders amenable to our doing so. These moves are parts of its all-out campaign to topple the mullahs’ regime in Iran.
All of this complexity seems difficult for American policy-makers to digest — and beyond the capabilities of the MSM & guest ‘experts.’
Nicolas J Sandy Davies: Two additional points worth mentioning:
1) During Turkey’s invasion of the Afrin region 18 months ago, the YPG and Syrian Army worked together to prevent Turkey going any further. They now defend that area together. The Syrian Army was also ready to move into Afrin city to protect it from the Turkish invasion, but only on condition that the YPG leave or disarm within the city.
The Kurds refused, and Turkey’s partly ex-IS/Nusra Arab militia now occupies Afrin. It’s an open question whether the Kurds learned any more from that than from a century of betrayals by the US
2) The way Trump announced the US pull-out from the border and Turkey immediately invaded suggests that getting the jump on any cooperation between the YPG and the Syrian Army was a critical part of the plan. Nonetheless, Al-Jazeera broadcast pictures of Syrian Army forces crossing the Euphrates over a pontoon bridge built by Russian special forces to take up positions near Manbij to deter a Turkish assault on that city, which is further west than the current invasion.
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