It looks as though there are some startling shifts in alliances in the Syrian civil war. Although for quite some time it has been less a Syrian civil war and more a proxy war between super-powers and tyrannical regimes in the region.
What is the relationship now between Turkey and the US?
Erdogan continues to strut arrogantly around – bolstered by his overcoming of the coup against him. Russia and the Syrian dictator, Assad, rub their hands with glee as Erdogan approaches them independently of the US for mutual favours. The US desperately seems to be playing catch-up, as the militias and the forces they finance and logistically support are turned by Turkey on each other.
The US were long reported to have been angry about Erdogan’s failure to act against ISIS. After all a successful war against ISIS, necessary for the US’s public credibility, is costing them a lot of money with no seeming end in sight.
Many of the leading figures in the recent attempted military coup in Turkey were known to be pressuring Erdogan to act and send troops against ISIS. Whether was this for anti-Islamist reasons or those of Turkish military pride – or both – is not clear to me.
After the failed coup, Erdogan accused the US of helping the attempted military coup against him. He then made approaches to Russia and for the first time argued that Assad need not go as a precondition for peace.
It is clear that more significant negotiations are also going on between Russian/ Assad/ Erdogan about common interests: a key one of these, at least to Assad and Erdogan, would be their common opposition to any Kurdish autonomy.
US Vice President Joe Biden following the coup rushed to Turkey in order to be seen to be repairing relationships with Erdogan. He stood alongside Erdogan demanding that the SDF/YPG leave the area west of the Euphrates, around Manbij, which the US only a few weeks before had helped the YPG take after a fierce siege.
Finally, Turkey sends troops into Syria with clear agreement from Assad. It is difficult to believe that this wasn’t done without NATO and US knowledge. Nevertheless, the US acts as if it has been publicly offended by this act.
After all, the Turkish action ended up with two of the US’s allies fighting against each other, the comparatively new Jaysh al Tahrir (acting with Turkey) and the US’s longer term ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Whatever else these events prove, one thing is clear. Turkey is not just a US pawn, an argument unfortunately too common on some sections of the left about Turkey and other Middle Eastern sub-imperialist countries. It simply isn’t true, Turkey is currently calling the shots here.
Intrique and double-dealing
It is difficult to predict what is going on between the US and Turkey. The cynical double-dealing of all the main players, Russia, US, Assad, is probably at its height at the moment. Some even think that the CIA both helped set up the military coup and leaked it to Erdogan and that they wanted a failed coup in order to help him.
I find that hard to believe. But not because of the implied gross duplicity of the US secret services – that I can believe. I just cannot believe the US would want Erdogan’s increased popularity amongst his Turkish supporters. A popularity that now gives him greater independence from them and able to pursue new relationship with Putin or Assad.
Is partition on the cards?
Some argue that what we are seeing is a move towards a partition of Syria between a Kurdish-dominated area, a Turkey-dominated area and a reduced territory under Assad. If that were to happen, how long could such a partition last or would it be just a short breathing space before another conflict?
About turns are not easy or predictable
The Syrian rebellion is probably close to defeat – symbolised by the fall of Daraya and the imminent collapse in Aleppo. The military coup in Turkey was put down. Each of these events have given their victors, Assad and Erdogan, the confidence to forge a new alliance with Russia’s help. Together with Putin, they see an opportunity to form a new alliance.
But abrupt reversals, especially in the exceptionally cynical alliances that exist within Syria, can cause huge problems. Subordinate elements do not do as they are told!
In defiance of the US’s instructions the YPG have stated that they will not move across to the east of the Euphrates river. If they did so, they would be sacrificing the bridgehead to the Kurdish canton of Afrin and to other potentially besieged Kurdish communities in Aleppo.
Erdogan will not leave a Kurdish dominated area alone even if the US told him to.
- They have long had imperialist ambitions of occupying sections of oil-rich northern Syria including the areas west of the Euphrates.
- They are conducting a vicious war on their own Kurdish community to destroy any hopes of autonomy, why would they tolerate an autonomous are Kurdish area in Syria?
- And even though they eventually dropped their opposition to a Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq, Rojava is not the KRG and the PYD is not the KPD.
Assad’s forces have been in Hasaka but he still feels comparatively confident – at least in comparison with where he has been in the past. The bloody bombardment of his people elsewhere in Syria has to some degree worked – they have been starved and mass-murdered into submission. Some undoubtedly will not surrender but continue to fight on.
So as part of the deal there may be further migration of both the militias and populations that opposed him into areas not under his control – perhaps into the Turkish dominated area of a partitioned Syria.
Where does ISIS stand?
ISIS are clearly in retreat in both Iraq and Syria. Primarily in Syria through the actions of the SDF/ YPG.
Now that ISIS are weak and after the Turkish government allowed them freedom of movement across the border for years, it now uses them as their public justification for military action in Syria.
But the primary intention of Erdogan remains to drive the anti-Islamist Syrian Democratic Forces back as far as he can.
Where have the all the Saudis gone?
The Saudi regime appears to have been sidelined considerably as a big player in Syria. Even more so has the mini-state of Qatar – an earlier major financier of jihadists in Syria.
It was only 9 months ago that Saudi Arabia was given the prestigious role by the UN of diplomatically unifying the anti-Assad opposition during the Geneva peace talks. However, you hear nothing now of the so-called ‘Riyadh opposition’.
A proper analysis of their marginalization in Syria requires more analysis and facts than I currently have access to. But it appears that despite the huge supply of Saudi-financed arms and the influx into Syria of many thousands of volunteer Saudi Wahhabi fighters – they have, as in Afghanistan, proved to have been more of a liability to the Syrian opposition than a benefit.
Suicidal activists and Islamist fanaticism did, and in places may still do, provide a fearsome edge for those fighting back against Assad. But the Islamists’ political objectives inevitably are anathema to many of those who believe they are still fighting against Assad for freedom.
Whenever the Islamists started to become dominant and started to shape society, the repellent undemocratic nature of their ideology was seen.
A brutal quasi-state like the Islamic State can be built in a closed territory where there is absolute and brutal control and where dissent is ruthlessly repressed as has existed in Saudi Arabia for decades.
But an authoritarian Islamist regime can’t be built in one suburb or small town where there may be competing ideologies and leaders, capable of undermining them, a short distance away.
There are other major Islamist outfits in Syria, Ahrar al Sham, Jaish al-Islam or Jabhat Fatah al Sham (formerly Al Nusra). They however were restrained not only by their financial and logistic dependence by their overseas Wahhabist sponsors, they have never had that degree of total control over a territory.
On occasion Nusra has attempted to enforce its will but it has led to civil and military conflict between them and more popular forces – as in Idlib province last March when there were both street demonstrations in support of the Free Syrian Army’s 13th Division when Nusra moved against them.
Is long-term Turkish domination of part of Syria possible?
After cynically supporting chaos in Syria Erdogan now wants to exercise more direct domination through occupation and greater control over Turkey’s 800 miles border with Syria.
His target with both is likely to be not only ISIS but all militias he doesn’t control: those under the influence of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism but above all and, of course, the Kurds.
Turkey wants even greater control of who gets arms and fighters and thereby gains political control and they are now doing so through direct occupation and where they feel unable to occupy a greater control of the border.
A 40 mile wall has been built from Öncüpınar to Çobanbey and that has reduced the flow of fighters to ISIS and other militias Turkey disapproves of. Allegedly 2,000 fighters came through this border before the wall – this has been reduced by up to 90%! And the wall is being extended to reduce this more. See Hurriyet Daily news
A strengthening of Erdogan and Assad’s control will not bring peace
Both the US and Russia may think a stalemate and a partition may be worth working together towards.
Hopes for a temporary peace through partition may also be welcomed by others, particularly after the mass slaughter that has been seen, primarily by Assad of his own people.
If the YPG are also allowed to finish their job against ISIS in eastern Syria, Obama may be able to go into retirement claiming a job done, at least in part. However, the US have little control over Erdogan who may continue his attacks there on the YPG.
There are still huge obstacles to a Turkish/ Syrian enforced partition. Their common enemy, the YPG/SDF, will not be easily removed from western Syria even with US acquiescence. Why should the YPG/ SDF ally with the US in the east if they are stabbed in the back in the west?
The Syrian anti-Assad opposition have not yet been defeated in Aleppo despite a phenomenal assault.
But the gulf between the Kurdish secular militias and the Syrian rebels remains as high as ever. The Arab allies of the YPG in the SDF are not that extensive and may be more a military one than having a shared vision of any multi-ethnic, secular Syria.
The hope for long-term peace and democracy in Syria needs a coming together of those that reject both religious and ethnic sectarianism. The PYD, at least in theory, with their calls for a secular and democratic confederation provided some possibilities of progress to that.
But civil wars are not easy places for political debate.
When barrel bombs and heavy artillery are slaughtering everyone around you, people fight back together regardless of ideology – there is a basic defensive communalism and an understandable astonishment that the world or neighbouring communities do not lift a hand to defend you.
When ISIS are selling women into sex slavery and beheading whoever they like, it is difficult for secular fighters (Kurdish or Arab) to trust those who want Sharia Law, no matter how different from ISIS’s variant.
There has undoubtedly been examples of democratic self-administration in areas freed of Assad’s terror and still inspired by the secular 2011 aims of Syria’s Arab Spring. Some people have argued those community organisations in Free Syria have effectively countered the sectarian agenda of some of the militias operating there. On occasion there have been civil and military conflict with them – as in Maarat-Al-Numanin Idlib province last March when there were both street demonstrations in support of the Free Syrian Army’s 13th Division.
But the anarchy, in both good and bad senses of the word, will not be allowed by either Assad or Erdogan. They will control and will attack democratic formations in any territory they dominate.
Those opposing the tyranny of them both and supporting democracy, both Kurds and Syrian, will need to find a way of uniting against them.