World Affairs

A Dangerous Inflection Point in the Syrian War

Tensions between Russia and Turkey have escalated dramatically in the past few weeks, so much so that direct military confrontation cannot be ruled out.

Under the cover of Russian air power, Assad’s forces have almost completely encircled Aleppo. Assad plans to repeat the siege-and-starve tactic he followed to regain control of Homs City is May, 2014. The coming siege has prompted some 150,000 residents to flee towards Turkey, which has closed its border to the refugees.

US-backed Syrian Kurds are hoping replicate the achievement of the Iraqi Kurds and forge a statelet along the Syro-Turkish border. YPG forces exploited the opportunity opened up by regime gains north of the city to seize territory held by Turkish-backed rebels near the border, including the Menagh Airbase. Ankara responded by shelling their positions; ignoring US calls for restraint. Moscow has been effectively supporting the YPG by conducting airstrikes on non-Kurdish rebels in the region.

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Aleppo City is held by a motley collection of some fifty odd Turkish, Saudi and Qatari-backed rebel groups. Most of these groups are no more than neighborhood militias with dozens or hundreds of fighters. The biggest is Turkish-backed salafist outfit Ahrar al-Sham, which has tens of thousands of fighters and controls the strategically important Bab al-Hawa crossing, the only remaining line of communication into Aleppo.

Ahrar competes with Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) for leadership of the Aleppo rebels. JN controls the main water and power plant in the city and enjoys a degree of leverage over other groups.  It has disarmed and absorbed at least three US-backed groups in the past year.

Both JN and Ahrar have a significant presence outside the city and are likely to survive and perhaps even make strategic gains as a result of the siege. Other US and Turkish-backed groups are at risk of annihilation and absorption by the big two. The same goes for the Saudi-backed Jabhat al-Shamiya and Jaysh al-Mujahideen.

That the loss of Aleppo would be a turning point in the proxy war is not lost on the Saudis. Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, is “willing to take military, financial and political risks in order not to fall behind in regional politics,” according to German intelligence.

The Kingdom’s aggressive new foreign policy was on display in Yemen, where the Saudis rashly intervened to push the Houthis back to the hills and restore their man to the helm. It is on display again in Syria: Riyadh is deploying fighter jets to the southern Turkish airbase of Incirlik.

Turkey is considering a military intervention in northern Syria. This is not because Ankara has any illusions that it can put up a fight with Russia, with or without Saudi help. Turkey is counting on Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty which states that “an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.” In other words, Turkey may be betting that the United States will deter Russia from directly attacking its Nato ally.

The situation is starkly similar to the July Crisis. Back then, German guarantees prompted Austria to attack Serbia, a Russian protectorate. Today, US guarantees may prompt Turkey to attack Syria, a Russian ally.

It is time to diffuse this dangerous confrontation. It would be extremely damaging to US credibility to back-off after the event. On the other hand, unlimited guarantees to Turkey could embroil the United States in a major military confrontation with Russia that would serve no conceivable US interest. The US needs to inform Turkey post-haste that the United States is not going to war to protect Turkish interests in Syria.


World Affairs

Did the United States Just Sell Out the Kurds?

KRG Kurdistan

David Luce argues that the US has sold out the Kurds in order to sign up Turkey for the fight against the Islamic State; saying specifically that: “Washington may be allowing Ankara to batter the only forces on the ground that have proved effective against the Islamic State.” Is this an accurate observation? The answer is no.

Turkey has not declared war on the Kurds. There are three major Kurdish political actors in the Middle East. The leftist Kurdish political party, the HDP, is now playing King-maker in Turkish electoral politics; the KRG, the de-facto independent state in northern Iraq that fields the peshmerga, the only force on the ground that (in combination with US air power) has proved effective against the Islamic State; and the PKK, a militant group now in control of some parts of northern Syria, that is also active inside Turkey.

The Turkish government has launched an attack on the PKK in response to the killing of two police officers as well as a Turkish serviceman at the hands of the PKK. The suicide attack in which 32 people were killed and nearly 104 others were injured has been attributed to a man linked to ISIS: The Turks are just using the response to the ISIS attack as a cover for crushing the PKK.

The HDP has called on the PKK to lay down its arms; a call echoed by the KRG which has offered its brokerage services to help relaunch the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK. The Prime Minister of the KRG took a pot shot at the PKK for rejecting Mr. Abdullah Ocelan (who has also called on his comrades to lay down their arms) as a “principal party” in the peace negotiations. So the situation is much more complicated than simply the Turks crushing the Kurds. The KRG and the HDP, both worthy representatives of the Kurdish people, are not opposed to pushing the PKK back to the table with the application of force.

The PKK would like to establish its own de-facto state in northern Syria; something along the lines of the KRG in northern Iraq. While Damascus poses even less of a hurdle to the PKK statelet than Baghdad does to the KRG, Turkey is unshakeably opposed to the PKK acquiring de-facto statehood without forswearing revolutionary aims inside Turkey. It is hard to see how even a coalition government that includes the HDP can be persuaded to accept a de-facto PKK state just south of the border without a peace deal with the PKK. The Turks could be persuaded to accept a PKK-run region south of the border only if the PKK permanently foreswore armed secession for the Kurds inside Turkish territory.

The US green light to Turkey is to batter the PKK; not the Kurds. Nothing so far suggests that the Americans would accept a Turkish assault on the KRG; which has been under Anglo-American protection since 1991. The United States should of course be pushing the PKK and the Turkish government back to the table: The US needs the Turks and the Kurds to get along so that both can focus squarely on the Islamic State.

If there were a referendum in the Kurdish areas in the Middle East (chunks of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq), the Kurds would overwhelmingly vote for an independent state. This ethnographic/democratic reality has been in play since the break-up of the Ottoman empire that brought Turkey into British arms, and Ottoman territories under joint French and British suzerainty. Turkey’s geostrategic position under Russia’s belly made it exceedingly useful as a platform for launching missiles and airstrikes into the Russian interior. The Mandate powers screwed over the Kurds from the get go, to keep their Turkish allies happy; a practice continued by the Americans after the Second World War on the same geostrategic grounds.

After kicking Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991, the Western allies imposed a no-fly zone in northern and southern Iraq; and helped the Kurds in northern Iraq establish a de-facto independent state, in what amounted to a partial reversal of a long-running policy. At first the Turks were furious. But after getting a measure of American resolve, got around to accepting the existence of the KRG. Once the KRG had established a working relationship with Turkey, it brokered a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government in 2013.

Recent events (mobilization in the Syrian conflict, especially the novel experience of American military support from the air) have emboldened the PKK, which is now seeking to replicate the achievement of the KRG in northern Syria. This is actually an achievable political goal for the PKK. But it needs to swallow the bitter pill and give up the fight for the liberation of the Kurds inside the borders of the Turkish state.

It is too soon to tell the outcome of this convulsion. Much depends on backroom diplomacy. But it is clear than a stable working relationship between Turkey and the PKK statelet along the lines of the relationship that Turkey enjoys with the KRG is in Turkish and American interests. If Kerry can arrange it, he would arguably become one of the most successful Secretaries of State the US ever had.