Ever since things started to go badly wrong in Syria after the uprising prompted by the 2011 Arab Spring, the situation has converted the customary fog of war into an impenetrable black box. None of the intervening political actors including Turkey, United States, Iran, Russia, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia calculated correctly, nor did the various non-state extremist groups associated with al Qaeda and later ISIS, as well as a variety of anti-Damascus Syrian insurgencies. No international conflict has ever been quite as opaque, multi-faceted, and beset by the play of contradictory, and even self-contradictory national, regional, and global political forces. What is said and what is done diverge so dramatically that all efforts at understanding are contingent and need continual updating. Aside from the sincere efforts to interpret and appraise what is happening and why, are a variety of manipulative agendas in which facts, intentions, and motivations are subordinated to the cookie cutter rigidity of wider political goals that are not acknowledged, and envelop the realities of this Turkish military operation in dark clouds of fabrication. It is with the awareness of these difficulties that I am making this effort to comment on this latest episode in a tragic sequence of Syrian events that began more than eight years ago with spontaneous civilian demonstrations in Deraa against serious human rights abuses by the Damascus government, a dynamic seemingly aggravated by climate change impacts in other parts of the country that gave rise to internal migrations and ordeals of displacement. The government crackdown on this show of opposition was harsh, and a full-fledged armed uprising quickly followed.
Two fundamental miscalculations by non-Syrian actors, which were repetitions of past mistakes by all these contending forces, have certainly contributed to the devastation of Syria, the massive suffering of its people, death and injuries for hundreds of thousand, and the displacement of millions, creating a set of circumstance that still has little prospect of producing satisfactory ending. The first miscalculation, shared especially by Ankara and Washington, was that military intervention could quickly tip the balance, producing the long. desired regime change in Damascus sought for decades by the U.S. and Israel. The second miscalculation was to suppose that Syria was similar to Libya, that is, an autocratic government lacking political support from its own population, and thus susceptible to being easily toppled by insurgent violence, especially if backed by external diplomatic encouragement and military assistance. These miscalculations overlooked the capabilities of Iran and Russia to offset anti-Assad interventions and seriously underestimated the domestic support enjoyed by the government in Damascus as well as the capabilities and battlefield effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces, which far exceeded what was available to the government of Qaddafi’s Libya.
In the years of disorder, the struggle for control of the Syrian state became entangled with other political preoccupations, especially the U.S. led struggle against ISIS and Kurdish efforts to pursue their goals of self-determination, given the fluidity of the political situation in Syria, its enjoyment of American support, and the influence exerted by the success of Iraqi Kurds in virtually achieving de facto statehood in northern Iraq. The Kurdish plan unfolding, in collaboration with U.S. military forces supposedly present in Syria to fight ISIS and Damascus, was to help the Syrian Kurds achieve their goals under the militant leadership of the YPG (Kurdish Peoples Protection Group), which most expert commentators agreed was closely linked materially and ideologically to the PKK (Peoples Workers Party), which has been engaged in armed struggle against Turkey for more than 30 years in a continuing struggle that has already cost over 40,000 civilian lives. The PKK objective was either to create a stand-alone Kurdistan or establish an autonomous Kurdish dominated political entity within existing Turkish borders, which seems akin to the YPG goal. As complicated, contested, and relevant as is this background, the foreground is even murkier.
There are several extraneous factors that need to be considered. First, Trump’s diplomacy, as usual, irresponsibly sent the most mixed possible signal to all interested parties, coupled with inflammatory insults and irresponsible insults directed at Kurdish identity and aspirations. To Ankara, the abrupt pullout of American military forces seemed clearly intended and reasonably interpreted as a green light to create a safe zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border by ending YPG presence in a 20-mile strip of territory in northeast Syria. Such a signal was soon followed by severe, unlawful, and totally threats unexpectedly issued by Trump warning of dire consequences if it failed to follow orders from the White House. Such a diplomatic reversal was also reinforced by the imposition of sanctions (increasing tariffs on Turkish steel by 50% and freezing the assets of several Turkish officials) that are quite ambiguous. These sanctions can be interpreted either as punitive or as a mere gesture designed to appease Republican critics in the U.S. Congress who uncharacteristically voiced harsh criticism, accusing Trump of abandoning the YPG, recently an important ally in the primary American fight against ISIS terrorism. During his presidency, most of Trump’s foreign policy swerves seem dictated more by calculations related to American domestic politics than to a reconsideration of how to carry out international policies in an effective manner.
To the Syrian Kurds aligned with the YPG, it was the end of the dream of self-determination, substituting instead an awful prospect of yet another military and humanitarian catastrophe. Apparently not all Kurds shared this interpretation as many thousands fled across the border seeking sanctuary in Turkey, and adding still more refugees to 3.5-4 million already present. As throughout their century of frustration and struggle the Kurdish national movement has failed to present a united front as to means and ends, and lacks forceful visible leadership that could exert influence on world opinion.
A second extraneous set of factors involves taking account of the intense international campaign waged against the Turkish government as led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which was seized upon by external enemies of the Turkish president and the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) to brand the Turkish incursion as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and even ‘genocide.’ It was also contended that Turkey had become such a disgrace to NATO that it should be expelled. American diplomacy was also sharply attacked due to the cynical abandonment of the Kurds as soon as Washington believed that their help was no longer needed. It is not that these anti-Turkish views are all wrong, but they were certainly being used for wider purposes unrelated to the cross-border attack, and hence distorted almost beyond recognition.
This anti-Turkish campaign has been waged by a loose coalition of political forces, including overseas Kurds, hard-core Kemalists, and unrepentant followers of the Fetullah Gülen movement that staged in Turkey an attempted coup in 2016. At the time what European and North American reactions of indifference to whether or not the elected democratic government of Turkey survived was seen by many in the Turkish government and public as an ominous development. If you take the trouble to read what is published on the militantly pro-Israel, ardently Zionist websites such as Middle East Forum, a vehicle for the views of Zionist extremist Daniel Pipes, or Gatestone Institute associated with such rightest figures as Alan Dershowitz and John Bolton you will encounter a steady stream of rabid opinion pieces designed to delegitimize Turkey in every possible way. There is much pious writing on these websites about abuses of human rights in Turkey, which is in large measure deserved, but it is coupled with a deafening silence about far worse abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t require a PhD to understand that what is at stake is Middle East hegemony for the United States to be carried out in close collaboration with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Given this mainstream agenda, it is not surprising that there has occurred such imbalanced and misleading interpretations of Operation Peace Spring, the code name given the Turkish military operation, dominate the media.
Somewhat surprisingly, the New York Times, published an opinion piece by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on October 11th, which set forth in clear and plausible terms the scope of the military undertaking and Turkish overall intentions. What was central, and totally neglected by the hostile drumbeat of anti-Turkish media coverage, was the affirmation that Turkey was seeking a ‘safe zone’ on its borders by removing the YPG, and not at all launching an attack on the Kurds. Çavuşoğlu claimed that the Turkish aim was limited to clearing the 20-mile strip of the YPG and ISIS presence, and allowing those Syrian refugees in Turkey who wished to return to Syria to settle in this cleared land. A secondary objective was to restore Syrian sovereignty over its own territory, which meant rejecting as unfeasible the project of creating a Rojava statelet in northeast Syria. Çavuşoğlu rightly repudiated the malicious propaganda claim that Turkish forces or sympathizers were setting free from detention hundreds of ISIS fighters. In this regard, Ankara’s record on counterterrorism is far more consistent than is Washington’s–the U.S. classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization and yet arms and allies itself with YPG, its Syrian extension, supplied and even political controlled in its policies and practices by senior PKK leaders. The inflammatory accusation, absurd on its face, that Turkey would deliberately set free ISIS fighters is up against the gruesome reality that ISIS was consistently directing violence at Turkish targets and Turkey was exerting itself to destroy ISIS as a security threat, a reality I experienced as a part-time resident of Turkey.
Inside Turkey, even among those deeply opposed to Erdoğan and the AKP there exsts a consensus supportive of this ongoing military operation so long as it is limited to border security and counterterrorist goals. The Trump diplomacy combined with the AKP alliance with the anti-Kurdish right-wing MHP after the 2014 elections, does explain why Kurds, even if not sympathetic with the tactics or affiliations of YPG, are understandably extremely nervous and upset about what is happening, especially after Trump pulled the rug our from under them, insultingly saying they were not an ally of the U.S. and their protection was a trivial matter not worthy of being treated as a matter national interest. The Kurdish reaction was to reverse its own alignments. Under the circumstances, realigning with Damascus seems, neither stupid nor surprising. It is as yet impossible to tell whether this shift in expectations by the YPG is a tactical expedient or represents a major downward adjustment in political ambitions. Much depends on how the Syrian government will react, which is anybody’s guess at this moment. It is well to heed Graham Fuller’s well- argued assessment of the current Syrian situation, pointing out that for the last decade everyone has betrayed everyone in Syria. Fuller should know, having long served as a senior official in the very important CIA operation in Turkey, a major outpost in the Cold War period.
It is difficult to evaluated the ‘ceasefire’ just announced by Mike Pence in Ankara after somewhat lengthy negotiations with Erdoğan, even whether the terminology of ceasfire is appropriate. In this regard, Çavuşoğlu was careful to call what was agreed upon as ‘a pause’ of five days in an ongoing cross-border operation. The language is important. If fighting resumes, Turkey will be accused of breaking the ceasefire, while Turkey will retort that it only agreed on a pause. Much probably depends on whether the YPG forces leave or decide to stay, and engage the Turkish military presence. As of now, it seems correct to conclude that Turkey seems to be getting the results it was seeking. As well, by the manner of the American withdrawal of its 1,000 troops and its feckless wavering diplomacy, Russia and Iran could take heart, while Israel and Saudi Arabia are losing sleep. It is not surprising that the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was sent from Ankara to Jerusalem on a nursing mission to cheer up Netanyahu. It should also be of some interest that Pompeo was not asked to stop in Riyadh with a similar hand-holding assignment.
My plea in the midst of such willful and innocent confusion, is to withhold judgment and the pretense of clarity, and above all avoid further intervention or otherwise escalating the scope or intensity of the conflict, seek negotiations limited to regional parties, and stay mindful of humanitarian concerns. It would help also to disregard anti-Turkish extremists whose manifest goal is regime change in Turkey to be achieved by any means, but for now by delegitimizing the Turkish state to the extent possible, encouraging Trump to carry out the dire threat of destroying the Turkish economy, bringing misery to yet another country in the region, this one home to 85 million. We should not forget that Turkey is a sovereign state that is as entitled to uphold its national security as any other, and despite its problems, more capable than any other country in the Middle East of pursuing constructive diplomacy throughout the region.
While it was shameful that Trump brazenly trivialized Kurdish concerns, it is not much less shameful that the liberal press in America has acted as if the Turkish military operation clearly focused on the YPG was treated as synonymous with attacking the Kurdish people. It is worth noticing that during the years of Turkish operations against the PKK its uses of force were never challenged as being directed at the Kurdish population as a whole, but then again, the PKK was not enlisted by American military forces to collaborate in joint operations as was the YPG. Satisfaction of Kurdish basic rights are as important as ever, but this imperative should not be confused with Turkish sovereign rights to uphold border security by reasonable means and of Syria to restore its territorial sovereignty on the related reasoning that unified states, however artificial their origins a century ago, are more likely to lead to Middle East peace and stability than are the emergence of ethnic statelets throughout the region.