“Never get into a well with an American rope” goes the saying spreading across the Middle East, as the US abandons its Kurdish allies in Syria to a Turkish invasion force. People in the region are traditionally cynical about the loyalty of great powers to their local friends, but even they are shocked by the speed and ruthlessness with which Donald Trump greenlit the Turkish attack.
According to the UN and human rights groups, tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees are in flight from their border towns and are being targeted by Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire. Most leaders contemplating ethnic cleansing keep quiet about it, but Turkey’s President Erdogan is openly declaring that he will settle two million Syrian Arab refugees from other parts of Syria on Kurdish lands (he says he’s discovered that the land is not really Kurdish).
Every news dispatch from the new war zone is full of ironies. Trump says that Turkey will be responsible for securing the thousands of Isis prisoners held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), But Brett McGurk, as the former presidential adviser to the anti-Isis coalition – and the source for the saying about the unreliability of US rope – notes that in the past it was Turkey which had rejected “any serious cooperation on Isis even as 40k foreign fighters flowed through its territory into Syria”.
Other ironies are still to come. At about the same moment that the Turkish army was crossing the Syrian frontier to attack the YPG on Wednesday, these Kurdish forces were under attack from a different enemy: in the former de facto Isis capital of Raqqa, two Isis fighters with automatic rifles, grenades and suicide belts opened fire on the YPG, who have controlled the city since they captured it from Isis in 2017 at the cost of 11,000 lives.
On this occasion, the two Isis men were surrounded by the YPG, who ultimately came out on top. But in future, their soldiers – it is absurd to call them militiamen since they are some of the most experienced soldiers in the Middle East – will face a more difficult task. In addition to battling Isis at ground level, they will also have to scan the sky for hostile Turkish aircraft that are already hitting YPG positions to the north of Raqqa. Inevitably, parts of the old caliphate will soon start to slip back under Isis rule.
The resurgence of Isis and the fate of the thousands of Isis prisoners held by the YPG has been the focus of much self-centred speculation in the US and Europe. But this is only one consequence of the chaos brought about by the Turkish invasion; there will be no like-for-like replacement of Kurdish/American control with Turkish control.
In this vast area – the 25 per cent of Syria that lies east of the Euphrates – Turkey will be a big player, but it will not be an all-powerful one. It may try to carve its way through northeast Syria salami-style, one slice at a time, though this will still have a great effect on the Kurds since 500,000 of them of them live close to the border. In effect, the frontier between Turks and Kurds will simply be pushed further south and will be a great deal hotter than it was before.
In other words, the inevitable outcome of President Trump greenlighting the Turkish action – in this case the absence of a red light was the same as a green one – is fragmentation of power. This fragmentation will clear an ideal breeding ground for a renewed Isis, and the attack in Raqqa mentioned above is evidence that this rebirth is already beginning.
Another feature of the present crisis favours Isis and the al-Qaeda-type paramilitaries acting as Turkish proxies. Maps showing northeast Syria as “Kurdish-controlled” mask the fact that the demographic balance between Arab and Kurd in this region is fairly equal. Ethnic rivalries and hatreds are the substance of local politics and will become even more venomous and decisive as communities have to choose between Turks and Kurds. It is this sort of sort of broken political terrain in which Isis and al-Qaeda have traditionally flourished.
The balance of power in Syria has been changed by the Turkish invasion and by the American unwillingness or inability to stop it. Trump make clear that he wants out of the Syrian war. “USA should never have been in Middle East,” he tweeted this week. “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending.” Despite this, the world has been curiously slow to take his isolationism and dislike of military action seriously.
When it comes to Syria, Trump’s policy – though so incoherent that it is closer to a set of attitudes – may be treacherous towards the Kurds, but it contains a coldhearted nugget of realism.
The US position in Syria is weak, and not really sustainable in the long term. Minimal US forces could not hope to indefinitely prop up a de facto Kurdish statelet squeezed between a hostile Turkey to the north and an almost equally hostile Syrian government to the south and west.
The US foreign policy establishment may be aghast at Trump giving up on the Kurds and keen for him to instead confront Russia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. But this could only have been done with a much greater US military and political commitment – something that both congress and the US public do not want.
McGurk is probably right in believing that sales of US rope as a means of escaping from deep wells will be sold at a heavy discount in the Middle East from now on. In the eyes of the rest of the world, the US has suffered a serious defeat in Syria. The sight of convoys of terrified Kurds in flight recalls pictures of desperate Vietnamese, who had worked so closely with the Americans, trying to escape Saigon in 1975.
The Kurds were always privately cynical about their alliance with the US, but they believed they had no other option. Even so, they did not expect to be discarded quite so totally and abruptly.
Yet it may be that the crudity and unfairness of US actions, and the furore this has provoked at home and abroad, will do the Syrian Kurds some good. Certainly, the anger expressed all round is in sharp contrast to the international disinterest when Turkey took over and ethnically cleansed the small Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria last year.
But there is a broader lesson to be learned from the latest phase in the Syrian crisis. For a while, it seemed that the violence was ebbing as winners and losers emerged, but now a whole fresh cycle of Turkish-Kurd violence is beginning. It is only when all the multiple conflicts in Syria are brought to an end at about the same time that the country will cease to generate new crises.