BY JEREMY SALT
Abandoning its Syrian Kurdish allies, the US is pulling its troops back from the Turkish border to allow the Turkish military to begin a campaign east of the Euphrates. Within hours of the announcement coming from the White House on October 6, the troops were being withdrawn and Turkey was shelling Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) positions across the border, with a land operation regarded as imminent.
The decision took the Washington political and media establishment by surprise. According to Trump, “it’s time to get out of ridiculous endless wars …. the United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago. We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight.”
The Defence Department made plain its opposition to the Turkish operation, while emphasizing the small number of US troops would be pulled back. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said the withdrawal would benefit Russia, Iran, and the “Assad regime,” as well as giving the Islamic State and other terrorist groups the opportunity to regroup. Other members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, emphasized the “betrayal” of the Kurds. While giving Turkey a green light, Trump warned that if it did anything he considered “off limits” he would “totally destroy and obliterate” its economy.
Islamic State prisoners held in the southeast will be transferred into Turkish custody. The fate of the thousands of women and children – the Islamic State families – who have also been detained has not been clarified. In late September a number of mutilated bodies were found in the Hawl camp after an outbreak of violence in which women were said to have fired on their guards. The chief Kurdish administrator of the camp said the security situation was “deteriorating sharply” as Islamic State fighters had “stepped up their regrouping efforts” through women. Once Turkish forces are inside the northeast, this will be Turkey’s problem.
Turkey is already inside Syria, of course, in Idlib, where it has 12 military ‘observation posts,’ and in the northwest. In 2012, under attack across the country, the Syrian army was forced to withdraw from the northwest, allowing the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) to take over the Afrin region and begin working towards the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone along the border.
Early in 2018 the Turkish army and its proxy militias crossed the border and suppressed the YPG after three months of fighting. Turkey now occupies thousands of square kilometers of Syrian territory, almost as far south as Aleppo. Inside this occupied zone it has set up schools, Turkish banks, postal services, university faculties and even an industrial zone, close to the town of Al Bab, about 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo.
Whereas Afrin is a largely Kurdish enclave, a military campaign across the Euphrates in Syria’s northeast will take the Turkish army into the Syrian Kurdish heartland, just across the border from Turkey’s own Kurdish heartland. This will be a much more dangerous operation than the campaign against the YPG in Afrin. The Syrian Kurdish militias east of the Euphrates are armed and trained – by the US – and are now preparing to fight a war of resistance, no doubt a guerrilla war of attrition, given the overwhelming numbers and firepower of the Turkish military.
Having been abandoned by their American benefactor, the Kurds may turn to the Syrian government for support but having allied themselves with the enemy it is not likely to be sympathetic. The YPG, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are all components of the same Kurdish national movement, creating the possibility that the campaign could blow back across the Turkish border.
The Washington political and media establishment is largely critical of Turkey, which has a notoriously poor human rights record and jails more journalists than any other country in the world. The prosecution and imprisonment of the US pastor, Andrew Brunson, in 2016 is still fresh in the mind, as is the savage beating of demonstrators by Erdogan’s security detail when the Turkish leader visited Washington in 2017. Then there is Erdogan’s cordial relationship with Putin and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S400 anti-missile defense system in preference to the American Patriots, despite threats of sanctions.
Equally if not more offensive in an administration and a Congress strongly beholden to Israel and its lobby is Erdogan’s support for the Palestinians and his repeated depiction of Israel as a terrorist state. Speaking before the UN General Assembly in late September, Erdogan infuriated Netanyahu by holding up maps showing Israel’s engorgement of Palestinian land since 1948.
Like Israel and Erdogan’s enemies in Washington, Saudi Arabia would like to see Erdogan brought low in Syria. Turkey fell out with Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian government over the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. On public occasions Erdogan still holds up his right hand with the thumb turned inwards, the four fingers signifying the killing of thousands of demonstrators by ‘security forces’ in August 2013 during the sit-in around Cairo’s Raba’a or Rabi’a (‘the fourth’) al Adawiya mosque in August, 2013. (The mosque is named after the 8th century female Sufi mystic poet, Rabi’a al Adawiya).
Relations with Saudi Arabia worsened in 2017 when Saudi Arabia launched a land, air and sea blockade of Qatar for refusing to follow the Saudi line on Iran. Turkey and Iran immediately came to Qatar’s support, causing the blockade to fail, and Turkish-Saudi relations have only worsened since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, 2018.
Turkey did not hold back from sharing details of the gruesome killing with other governments and the media and Erdogan himself has kept up the pressure on Muhammad bin Sultan, the power behind the Saudi throne. The crown prince has accepted government responsibility for the murder but has denied personal responsibility, even though it is practically inconceivable that Khashoggi could have been killed without Muhammad bin Salman ordering it.
So, should the light being flashed from Washington be seen in Ankara as green or red? In the Aeneid (written 29-19 BC), Virgil’s epic account of the Trojan wars, Laocoon remarks: ‘Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.’
Perhaps the same caution needs to be observed when the Americans approach with gifts in hand. In 1990 such a gift seemed to have been offered to Saddam Hussein by the US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” she told Saddam, who invaded Kuwait shortly afterwards, perhaps thinking the US would not intervene, only to walk into a trap which ultimately destroyed him and left his country in ruins
The US says it will neither help nor hamper a Turkish military operation in Syria. This is the gift – perhaps the Greek gift – being offered and the way is now clear for Erdogan to finally give the signal for the land operation to begin (if he has not already given it by the time this article is printed). A successful military campaign would certainly offset the mounting pressure he is facing on the home front, but only as long as that victory can be had at a minimal cost. Therein lies the danger because the cost might not be sufficiently minimal to maintain Turkish nationalist support for the campaign.
Finally, why Turkey is inside Syria in the first place? In 2010, just before the outbreak of the so-called ‘Arab spring’, relations between Turkey and Syria were better than they had ever been. All outstanding problems had been solved. The border had been opened to visa-free travel for Syrian and Turkish nationals and cross-border trade, including trade originating in the Persian Gulf, was flourishing. Erdogan (then Prime Minister) and Ahmet Davutoglu (then Foreign Minister) had made numerous trips to Damascus and regarded Bashar al Assad as their brother.
This was still the situation when in 2011 Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine bin Ali, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar al Qadhafi were all overthrown. Erdogan and Davutoglu concluded that Bashar was next in line and abandoned Bashar in favour of riding the wave of reform that seemed to be sweeping across the Middle East. If they were advised in adopting this policy, they were badly advised. Syria was not Egypt or Libya. Bashar was personally popular amongst his people, whatever their criticism of the government, and Syria had a powerful friend, Russia, whose long-term interests included access to a naval base in the eastern Mediterranean.
Blind to these realities, Erdogan and Davutoglu launched a propaganda war against Bashar, marked by a lot of personal abuse, before committing Turkey to the war on the Syrian government in 2012. This was done by supporting the exiled Syrian National Council and allowing the so-called Free Syrian Army to launch attacks from across the Turkish border. Furthermore, under their watch, Turkey turned into a highway for jihadists converging on Syria from all parts of the world.
At the time Turkey had only one declared goal. This was to bring about the downfall of the Syrian government. The ‘dictator’ would be overthrown, the Ba’ath party would collapse and the Syrian people would get their democracy back after decades of one-party rule. In fact, democracy had nothing to do with the assault on Syria except for propaganda purposes. In the minds of governments leading the attack (the US, Britain, France, Qatar and Saudi Arabia), the overthrow of the government in Damascus was only a stop on the way to the overthrow of the government in Tehran and the destruction of the ‘axis of resistance’ (Iran, Syria and Hizbullah) across the Middle East.
Israel had to remain in the shadows, while being fully part of this assault. None of these greater goals were on the Turkish agenda, yet Turkey still allowed itself to be sucked into this campaign.
The destruction of the Syrian government’s authority in the north opened a vacuum which was quickly filled by the Islamic State on one hand and the YPG on the other. Founded in 2004, the YPG was a small and relatively ineffectual organization, closely watched and controlled by the Syrian government.
The irony here is that Erdogan was seeking the overthrow of a government which was just as strongly opposed to Kurdish autonomy as were he and his government. The attack on Syria, in which Turkey was a central player, was the bellows which pumped oxygen into the lungs of the YPG and created the security problem which Turkey now says it has no option but to crush.
Predictably, the US played on Syrian Kurdish separatist aspirations to suit their own strategic interests, against the continuing protests of the Turkish government. Equally predictably, the Kurds again backed the wrong horse.
The other main beneficiary from the attack on Syria was the Islamic state. Had the US stayed out of Iraq, there would have been no Islamic state in the first place. In Syria, the attempts to create a credible armed opposition in the shape of the Free Syrian Army having failed, the takfiri terrorists were the committed fighters the US had wanted all along. Its condemnation of terrorism notwithstanding, the establishment of an Islamic State presence in eastern Syria suited US strategic aims, as a declassified Defence Intelligence Agency memorandum made clear in 2012.
The strip of Syrian territory to be cleared of Kurdish ‘terrorists’ is to be turned into a ‘safe zone’ into which a million or more Syrian refugees can be funneled, as long as the EU or someone else stumps up the $27 billion the Turkish government is requesting to build the city that will house them.
This project seems to be pie in the Syrian sky. Erdogan is threatening to open the gates to a new wave of Syrian refugees into Europe unless financial support is forthcoming but the EU has already poured billions into Turkey for refugee relief. Even if it has more money to spare, it might not be willing to give it to Turkey to build a city in someone else’s country. The time factor is another consideration: how many months or years would it take to build housing and infrastructural support for such a large number of people? Furthermore, Syrian refugees coming from somewhere else will most probably want to go home rather than stay in the north.
Inevitably, Erdogan is already being accused of demographic engineering, i.e. intending to swamp the Kurdish population in northern Syria with Arabs. One can quickly see the ethnic tensions that would be created by the implantation of a large non-Kurdish population in a region heavily Kurdish, apart from the parallels that will be immediately drawn with the ‘relocation’ of the Armenians in 1915.
The abandonment of a successful ‘zero problems’ foreign policy in favor of intervention in Syria has created no end of problems for Turkey, including the presence of more than three million refugees within its borders. The Syrian government was controlling the situation in the north before and the most sensible Turkish option now would be to work towards the restoration of its authority over the whole country and take a firm stand with Syria, Iran and Iraq against the endless mischief-making of the US and Israel. However, too much is at stake, politically and personally, for Erdogan and the AKP government for such an abrupt reversal to be possible. On the contrary, Turkey’s intervention in Syria has now been moved to an even more dangerous stage.
How long Turkey plans to stay in Syria, and what it intends to do with the territory it has occupied, will no doubt largely depend on political developments at home, where, after 17 years in power, the ground is finally cracking under the feet of the Turkish president and his government. They cannot afford to fail in Syria.