THE SYRIAN SOLUTION DEPENDS ON AFRIN
Inevitably, with the military defeat of the ISIS, there arise
contradictions of a situation where interests, aims and strategies
so far kept under the rug of the common fight against Islamic
Now that the common enemy is defeated, each of the players is trying to have his way. Some alliances that were instrumental to the military objective are now coming to an end; allies become enemies and vice-versa.
The talks held in Astana, Sochi, Vienna and Geneva (under the formal umbrella of the UN), were carried out with the Russian blessing and aimed at keeping Assad’s regime alive and at legitimizing the role and influence of Moscow in the Middle Eastern scenario. These goals could well be within Russia’s reach if they can find a negotiated solution to the Syrian problem. The greatest peril now is that the end of one war will lead to another war.
But Russia’s ambitions are not the worse of problems, seen that they have already obtained, in terms of prestige, what they were aiming for when they decided to side with Syria. And the greatest problem is also not represented by the Iranian claims: they fought alongside Assad, sent volunteer militias to Iraq, and now they can cash in on the strategic/military situation that saw them flex their muscles vehemently in the fight against nearby Sunni monarchies. Iran’s next problem will be the military confrontation between them, the Hezbollah and Israel in one of the many proxy wars of the Middle East.
The bigger problem is Turkey because, amid its mutating approach to the Middle Eastern issues, it first tried to hinder Assad’s regime, then to support it; it looked the other way on the logistical support that the ISIS had while transiting through Turkey, then began to fight the terrorist group; it exacerbated relationships with Sunni Gulf countries in favor of Qatar; it went on a head-on collision with Egypt when its Muslim Brother president was ousted by a military coup; it had a sour stretch with the US but kept its position in NATO to this day; it shot down a Russian plane claiming a border violation, then got reconciled with Moscow; it instrumentally used the Jerusalem question to rise to the defense of Muslim rights. On the whole, Turkey is an uncomfortable and often unreliable party in the Middle Eastern debate.
Within the incoherent Turkish position there hides the Kurdish issue: Turkey initially tried to strike a deal with the PKK through their leader, long time detainee Ocalan, then suspended the truce and resumed their fight against the Kurds. Today, the Kurdish issue is central once more in the pacification of Syria.
Erdogan doesn’t really care whether the Syrian regime manages to hold on to power or not; he fears that, in the territorial re-composition of Syria, there will be an area where the Kurds can enjoy their independence. The demonisation of so-called Kurdish “terrorism”, the suggestion of connections between the Syrian YPG and the armed struggle conduced by the PKK against Turkey for years, is alas a central part of Erdogan’s AKP’s agenda, which directs nationalist consensus towards the Islamist leader.
The Turkish military, along with the Syrian Free Army – 10 to 15 thousand units – heading into Afrin (today) and into Manji (probably tomorrow) - two cities on the border with Turkey that were torn from the clutches of Al Baghdadi’s militias by the Kurds - represent the practical aspect of this approach, which foregoes any kind of negotiated solution to the issue.
The Syrian Kurds, who control roughly 20/25% of the country, an area that they call “Rojava” (“West”) and that includes, along the border with Turkey, the cities of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira, are asking to form a new, autonomous region within Syria. That’s why they never raised a finger against Assad’s regime, but only against the ISIS, claiming the merit and presumed negotiating prestige thereof. In practice, they already occupy an area that they rid of Islamic terrorists with their own blood. Now that the ISIS is defeated, they lay claim to that same piece of land and to a certain measure of independence.
But Turkey wouldn’t be happy to see such a thing happen; they are afraid that the same thing could happen with other groups within their borders and that Rojava could in the future represent a danger for the security of Turkey itself. On January 20, the Turkish military therefore decided to launch operation “olive branch”, aimed at dismantling the YPG defenses and preventing the risk that an independent Kurdish state could be born along their borders. It is an uneven fight that sees the Kurd’s scant forces up against an army of over a million soldiers.
The Turkish vision which strives to associate the PKK with the YPG, defining both as terrorist factions, is without doubt an exaggeration aimed at justifying the Turk armed intervention in Syria. Although the two organizations are proven to be in contact, especially with the aim of obtaining a piece of land for their community to inhabit in the Middle East, the struggles faced each refer to different geographical regions: the PKK fights against Turkey in the Iraqi mountains, while the YPG fights for Kurdish independence in Syria, without ever having attacked Turkey or the Syrian regime. So far, the YPG, backed by the US, has only done war against the ISIS.
The PKK has been fighting the government in Ankara since 1984 and is considered to be a terrorist organization by the EU, the US and even by Israel, while the YPG was the most qualified ally of the US in the fight against Islamic terrorism within the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Turkish attack now faces the other players, both regional and international, with a dilemma: should they let Turkey carry on with its ethnic cleansing or should they step in to stop it, perhaps by means of negotiations that can on the one side reassure Turkey about its border’s integrity and on the other downsize the claims of Syria’s Kurds. If a solution is not found, the 30 thousand or so YPG (men) / YPJ (women) fighters (representing the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which also include other ethnic groups and counts on a total of 50 or 60 thousand men), could convert their warring experience into armed opposition or terrorism.
The refusal by the Kurds to partake in the Sochi January conference about Syria – a reconciliation of sorts under Russia’s protection – is not a good sign.
Americans, Russians and Syrians
Meanwhile, the credibility of the US is at stake. Their disengagement from the Middle East, coupled with Russia’s activism, has already damaged their international prestige. If they choose to abandon the Kurds after helping and supporting them against the ISIS, their image will be inevitably tarnished. For the time being, just to be sure the other players don’t forget about them, the US proceeded to bomb a number of Syrian military targets. In other words, they will have to be reckoned with when finding a solution on Syria. This also includes the fate of the Rojava Kurds.
The Russians are also ill-at-ease because, in order to reach social peace in Syria, they will also have to deal with the Kurdish problem. Currently Russia is hiding behind the American embarrassment; they accuse the Kurds of picking the wrong ally and indirectly second Ankara’s claims (they also allowed Turkish airplanes inside the Syrian airspace). But the Turkish military presence within Syria is contrary to Russia’s interests and damages the stability and integrity of the country that they just fought for: Syria.
The Kurds asked the Syrian regime for support in order to resist against the Turkish army, although Damascus was already struggling on the battlefield, especially in the area of Idlib. But siding with the Kurds (and alleviating the worries of the US) could be advantageous for the regime in Damascus, so they sent some volunteer militias to help the Kurdish plight. As for the Kurds, they see Syrians fighting alongside their militias as the lesser of two evils, or rather, as the only way to survive.
But the only nation that can save the Syrian Kurds from being crushed by Turkey is the US, provided they are still on the same side of the barricade. So far, US military counselors are in the field and it doesn’t look like they want to leave. This represents a grave danger for the Turkish military, especially if they were to kill an American while fighting the Kurds.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
What solutions are there?
Is there room for a negotiated solution? In theory, yes, because Turkey could settle for a security strip along their border – a buffer zone – 20 or 30 kilometers wide. They are especially weary of the YPG becoming – as was theorized in the past by the US – a local defense force, albeit against the ISIS terrorists.
One solution could be to have the YPG act in conjunction with the US. But this view could hardly be shared by Russia or Syria. The Russians prefer to have the area under the control of Damascus, which would satisfy the Turks in part, would leave the US embittered, and could find widespread diffidence among the Kurds unless the proposal is coupled with a Syrian guarantee on Kurd independence.
And the Kurds?
The Kurds were first betrayed at the 1924 Lausanne treaty, which disavowed the territorial promises of the 1920 Sévres talks. Since then, neither their political representatives, nor their armed wing have managed to achieve the goal of independence. The latest attempt was orchestrated by Masoud Barzani, who tried to claim independence through a referendum of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The attempt failed due to the hostilities of authorities in Baghdad, of a number of other Middle Eastern nations, and to the reluctance of both the US and Russia. The countries where Kurds are demographically predominant (Syria, Turkey, Iran) are afraid of having another independent subject that could further destabilize an area that is already precariously tied to territorial divisions dictated by distant colonial accords. It could produce an ethnic feud between Kurds and Arabs (especially in the area of Manji, controlled by the Syrian Kurds but inhabited by an Arab majority).
Unfortunately, the future plans for Syrian Kurds will likely overlook their aspirations and the reason why they fought. They are but a pawn in a bigger game that involves their neighbors and the hegemonic struggle between Russia and the USA. The solution will be dictated by the interests of foreign nations rather than by Kurdish interests and aspirations. They are likely to be subject to the same fate as the Iraqi Kurds, who were cajoled when they opposed Al Baghdadi’s militias, reassured when they expressed their aspirations, then abandoned when they were no longer needed.
Unlike the Iraqi Kurds, who have somewhat of a State of their own, the Syrian Kurds run the risk of being overrun and eliminated altogether if a diplomatic solution is not found. They were valuable allies but now they are a big problem. After their many military successes, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its armed faction, the YPG, overestimated their contractual power and the willingness of the US to support them. They didn’t understand that the contractual power of a country like Turkey will always be more meaningful than their merits won on the battlefield against Islamic terror. And today, Turkey is fingering them as terrorists and trying to convince the international public opinion of its views.
Tel Aviv has always kept on good terms with the Iraqi Kurds. As for the Syrian Kurds, they represent an opportunity to weaken the regime in Damascus and to undermine the role of Iran and of the Hezbollah in Syria. The Israeli plane shot down by the Syrian air defense and the Iranian drone shot down over Israel have increased this sense of danger on the part of Tel Aviv. Throughout the Middle East, Israel is the only country that could benefit from the creation of a Kurdish State. Will this produce a synergy with the Kurds? It is too soon to say, but in the Middle East no option can be wholly excluded. The region is alas a place where proxy wars, dirty games and sudden changes in allegiances are just the usual cup of tea. Whatever the outcome of the dispute between Syrian Kurds and Turkey, it will surely reflect on the Syrian war and on the future of the Middle East as a whole.
Will Turkey conquer Afrin? What will happen to its relationship with the USA and Russia if they do? In the event, surely the Syrian Kurds will join the ranks of PKK terrorism against Ankara. Assad, unlike his father, whom had underwritten an accord with Turkey on a ban of the PKK, is likely to have a more condescending eye for the Kurdish claims. Will Russia be able to find a diplomatic solution? Or will it have to choose whether to side with Turkey or not? And what will the USA, with its 2000 men stationed in Syria, do? Again, they will have to choose to be with or against Turkey, but also with or against their Kurdish allies. The pretenses and aspirations of Turkey are likely to shape tomorrow’s Syria and the future Middle East as a whole.