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Islamic State

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The Middle East: Winners and Losers

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serves as a symbolic full stop to the many civil wars that have engulfed Syria in the past eight years, although Baghdadi was not personally in charge of anything by the time he died. The outcome of all those wars was already becoming clear, and it is the Russians and Bashar al-Assad who have won.

Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from eastern Syria makes the Russian victory clear: within days, there were Russian soldiers taking selfies in the abandoned American bases on the Syrian side of the frontier with Turkey.

Trump’s elaborate thanks to the Russian, Syrian and Turkish governments for their aid in the Baghdadi operation was a genuflection before the powers that now really count in the region, but the Russian response was as disdainful as ever. “We are unaware of any alleged (Russian) assistance during this operation,” said Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

The Russian contempt for Trump is understandable, but showing it so publicly is self-indulgent and quite untypical. They clearly have some hold over the man, but why flaunt it? Perhaps their victory is going to their heads, because they can never have expected to win so decisively. But that is a question for another day.

What have the Russians won? Four years after they began providing air support to a Syrian regime that was teetering on the brink of defeat, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule once again extends over almost all of Syria. They never had to commit Russian ground troops to combat, and yet they are now the dominant outside power in the entire Fertile Crescent.

Assad didn’t do too badly either. First he cleared the rebels out of all the big cities, then he regained control of all Arabic-speaking rural areas except the northwestern province of Idlib, and now his troops are re-occupying most of the Kurdish-speaking east without a fight.

He never had to fight Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’ either. It was a Syrian Kurdish militia with US air support that destroyed the part of IS that was located in Syria. And when Donald Trump pulled US troops out of Syria on 6 October, betraying the Kurds, Russian diplomacy finessed that into another win for Assad.

The Syrian Kurds were immediately attacked by Turkey, which intended to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the Kurdish population from northeastern Syria and replace them with Arabic-speaking refugees from other parts of Syria. It was almost certainly Russian emissaries who persuaded the Kurds to give up their dream of independence and invite the Syrian army back in to protect them from the Turks.

When the Syrian army went back in last week it was accompanied by enough Russian soldiers to deter the Turks from shooting at it, so Syrian troops now control most of the border and ethnic cleansing is presumably off the menu. Turkish troops still hold some bits of Syrian territory that they grabbed last week, but Ankara has publicly stated that it will not try to keep them indefinitely.

It was really the Russians who rescued the Kurds, so you can guess where their loyalty lies now. And remarkably, the Turks are coming around as well.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the jihadi rebels throughout the Syrian civil war and still protects them in their last stronghold in Idlib. He even kept the border with Syria open so that foreign jihadis could cross to join Islamic State. But he is a pragmatist who understands the new realities, and within months he will reopen diplomatic relations with Assad’s regime in Syria.

That will mean that Turkey can no longer provide military protection to the jihadi groups in Idlib (most of whom now acknowledge the leadership of Osama bin-Laden’s old organisation, al-Qaeda). Thereupon the final operation to reconquer Idlib can begin, although it may be done quite slowly and methodically to keep the Syrian army’s casualties down.

The Russians have accomplished everything they set out to do in the region in 2015, and the main risk they face now is over-confidence. They saved Assad and he owes them a lot, but he also owes Iran, which provided and paid for the foreign Shia volunteers who provided vitally needed military manpower when the Syrian army was running out.

They have drawn Turkey away from its old reflexive loyalty to NATO, but it is still a member of the alliance and Erdogan’s political position in Turkey is weakening.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago went well, because Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman has been seeking friends elsewhere after Trump did nothing in response to the recent drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. But MbS’s position at home is hardly secure either.

The truth is that Russia has won the prize, but the prize is a can of worms.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“The Russian…day”; and “It was…well”)

Syria: Wheels Within Wheels

Russia and its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad win, the Kurds lose, and the United States pull out. It has been a hectic 48 hours on the Turkish-Syrian border.

After a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 7 October, Donald Trump abruptly abandoned America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. As US troops pulled out of their positions along the Syria’s northern border, where they had been protecting the Kurds from a Turkish attack, Erdogan moved fast.

The Turkish president declared that he would take over a big chunk of northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), the Kurdish-dominated militia that has been America’s key ally in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS). Erdogan described the SDF as ‘terrorists’ and a threat to Turkey, but they are nothing of the sort.

Syrian Kurds are the majority population in the border region with Turkey. They created the SDF to resist Islamic State’s attempts to conquer the region five years ago, after the Syrian regular army pulled out of the region to fight rebels elsewhere in the country.

The SDF became America’s key local ally in the fight against ISIS. Over 10,000 Kurds died in that war, while the United States gave them air support. By the end of last year they had destroyed Islamic State, and the whole region was at peace. The local Kurds and their Arab neighbours were running it themselves.

The Kurds did want autonomy within Syria, but they never demanded independence and they have made no attacks on Turkey, terrorist or otherwise. So why did Erdogan want to attack them?

Erdogan is paranoid about the Kurds, because one-fifth of Turkey’s own population are ethnic Kurds, and some of them have waged a guerilla and terrorist struggle for decades, seeking an independent state. Other Kurdish minorities in the region, including those in Syria, are not at war with the Turks, but Erdogan didn’t like having the Kurdish-run SDF on his border.

Erdogan invaded last Saturday, and after about 36 hours the despairing Syrian Kurds did the obvious thing: they asked the Syrian army to come back and save them. They don’t love Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, but it’s better than being invaded by Turkey and losing their homes permanently.

But there was something puzzling about all this. Why would Assad’s Russian allies approve a Syrian army move that might bring it into direct conflict with the Turkish army? After all, Vladimir Putin has been courting Erdogan as a potential ally (even though Turkey is currently a NATO member).

The Syrian army is now driving back into the northeastern part of the country unopposed by the SDF. They will re-occupy the whole region (which is Syrian sovereign territory).

The Syrian Kurds may still be able to negotiate an autonomy deal with Damascus, on the grounds that they are Syria’s only non-Arab minority. In any case, they have no other alternative.

Erdogan can either back down and be humiliated, or he can press on and risk a war not only with the Syrian army but also the Russian air force. That’s the way it looks on the surface, and maybe that’s all that’s going on here.

But we must also consider the possibility that the whole thing has been a charade, master-minded by the Russians, to get the Americans out of Syria and restore Syrian government control over all of eastern Syria.

First Erdogan puts the frighteners on Trump in the famous phone-call, and Trump abandons the Kurds and starts pulling the US troops out. Then Erdogan starts the threatened invasion, and the Syrian Kurds understandably panic and make a deal with Damascus.

The Syrian army returns to the northern border for the first time in five years without having to fire a shot, carefully avoiding the points along the border where the Turks have already entered the country.

Erdogan declares a ceasefire and eventually withdraws his troops, stating that he is satisfied that the Kurdish ‘threat’ has been ended because the Syrian army, not the SDF, now controls the border.

Even Iran is satisfied, because this eliminates the possibility that the US forces could be an obstacle to its planned secure corridor across Syria to Lebanon.

There’s no proof of this, but it makes sense. The Russians are smart enough, and Trump is inept or compromised enough. It would explain why the Russians looked like they were backing the Syrians at the risk of alienating their new Turkish friend. Maybe there was no risk. Maybe Erdogan was in on the deal.

And don’t worry about a revival of Islamic State. For the thousands of ISIS fighters now held prisoner by the Kurds, there can be no worse fate than falling into the hands of the Syrian army.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The SDF…them”)

The End of Isis

Last Wednesday Donald Trump said: “It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the (ISIS) caliphate.” Well, it is next week now, and by the weekend Trump will probably have made exactly that announcement. He will be right, too: ISIS as a major threat has been defeated for good.

A number of other claims will then be made in short order. Trump, of course, will claim that it is his victory and only his, although he was actually only carrying through with the strategy laid down by Barack Obama. On the other hand, give him credit for having the wit to stick to that strategy, even though he missed no opportunity to trash Obama’s achievements.

Various other people, mostly in Washington, will hasten to point out that ISIS is far from defunct as an organisation. It is losing the last of the territory it once held, but it carried out lots of terrorist attacks before it controlled any territory. It will continue to do so after it has lost it all again. You can’t ‘defeat’ terrorism; you can only contain it.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) was a group that broke away from Osama bin Laden’s original fundamentalist jihadi organisation, al-Qaeda, and the main reason for the rupture was that some members thought the time was ripe to create an actual Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden disagreed, so they defied him and created ‘Islamic State’ anyway.

At its peak, in mid-2015, Islamic State controlled around half the territory of both Syria and Iraq and ruled over more than seven million people. It looked impressive, but it was only possible because the Syrian government was fighting (and, at that point, losing) a civil war, while Iraq was greatly weakened after the withdrawal of American troops.

Later in 2015, Russia intervened on the side of the Syrian regime, which has now won its civil war, and the return of American troops to Iraq enabled that government to recover all its territory by mid-2017. The last villages in Syria that were once part of Islamic State will be recaptured this week, whereupon Trump will bring the US troops in Syria home – and the surviving ISIS fighters will revert to simple terrorism.

Bin Laden was right: ISIS’s great mistake was to create a target, an actual state, that could be successfully attacked by an army. Various armies duly did just that, and now Islamic State is gone – while al-Qaeda, the parent organisation, carries on. But it no longer uses that name in Syria, as it attracts unwelcome Western attention.

For years al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch called itself al-Nusra, and now it trades as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), but it is still al-Qaeda in all but name. And there is one place in Syria where al-Qaeda does control territory despite the late bin Laden’s views: Idlib province in the north-west, hard up against the Turkish border.

The Idlib enclave came into being more or less by default, because that was where Syrian rebel groups were sent when they surrendered to Assad’s government elsewhere in Syria. As a result the province’s population has doubled to 3 million people, and over the past year al-Qaeda has fought a series of small wars that brought all the other rebel groups there under its control.

So Al-Qaeda in Idlib now controls a border, has significant resources, and commands around 50,000 fighting men. It is a state for all practical purposes, although for doctrinal reasons al-Qaeda avoids using the term – and as a state it is an appropriate target for an army to destroy. When will that happen?

It depends on when Russia and Turkey decide to do something about it. The Turkish government used to support various rebel Islamist militias against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but all its local allies have now been subjugated by al-Qaeda, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is much less enthusiastic about.

Russia has never supported any Islamist forces and would happily help Assad to take back all of Idlib tomorrow. However, Moscow currently hopes to detach Turkey from NATO and turn it into an ally, and therefore probably won’t move against al-Qaeda until Erdogan gives it a green light. That may take some time.

There is also the question of what happens to the Syrian Kurds, who allied themselves to the United States and carried the main military burden of destroying Islamic State in Syria. They hoped to get independence from Syria, or at least autonomy within Syria, as a reward for their efforts, but Turkey will not allow that and in the end the US will betray them. Again, however, this may take some time.

So it could be a year yet before the wars that have ravaged the greater Middle East since the American invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 finally die down, but it will come. And as the flood-waters recede the political landscape will re-emerge almost unchanged, apart from a little more democracy in Iraq and quite a lot less in Turkey.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“A number…achievements”; and “There…time”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Kurds: Betrayed Again

The Kurds are like Kleenex. You use them, and then you throw them away.

The Kurds of Syria are now frantically digging trenches around their cities and towns just south of the Turkish border, because Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said on Monday that President Donald Trump gave a “positive response” to his plan for an invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. On Wednesday Trump confirmed it by announcing that he will pull all US troops out of Syria within 30 days.

Erdogan would have invaded long ago if the US army and air force were not protecting the Syrian Kurds, but at that time the United States depended heavily on the Kurds in its campaign to eliminate Islamic State. IS controlled the eastern third of Syria, and from 2015 on it was the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who provided most of the ground troops for that campaign.

There were some 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria too, but it was the Kurds who bore the brunt of the fighting and the casualties. Indeed, a principal role of the US forces was to deter Turkey from attacking the Kurds, because Turkey, at war with its own big Kurdish minority, strongly opposed the Syrian Kurds’ ambition for independence.

But now Islamic State has been destroyed (or at least so Donald Trump believes), and the US has no further need of the Kurds. Time to throw them away.

Deprived of US air support, the Syrian Kurds have little hope of resisting a Turkish invasion. As Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday: “They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want. They can go underground if they want. When the time and place come, they will be buried in their ditches.” So where can the Kurds turn?

Only to Damascus, where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recover “every inch” of Syrian territory from the various rebel militia forces that controlled different parts of the country. All that remains to fulfill that ambition is the recovery of Idlib province in the northwest, still held by Turkish-backed Islamist extremists – and of the Kurdish-controlled north-east of the country.

For the Syrian Kurds, reeling from the American betrayal, the urgent, unavoidable question has become: would you rather be conquered by the Turks or by Assad? There is no third option: the dream of independence is dead.

When Turkey conquered the much smaller Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria last February, almost every Kurd in the territory was driven into exile. Assad’s rule is unattractive, but the Syrian Kurds have carefully avoided fighting his forces (they only fought IS), and they might be able to cut a deal that left them some local autonomy. After all, Assad doesn’t want the Turks taking control of eastern Syria either.

The Kurds aren’t fools, and as the likelihood of an American defection grew in the course of this year they sent several delegations to Damascus to see what Assad would offer.

They came back disappointed, because Assad did not want to do anything that would open the door to a federal state in Syria, and he quite rightly thought that he had the upper hand. But now that the US pull-out from eastern Syria and the Turkish invasion of the same region have both become imminent realities, he may want to think again.

This is a part of Syria rich in oil, water and wheat. Assad needs its resources to rebuild the country, and a Turkish occupation could be a long-lasting affair. It’s therefore possible that he will make a deal with the Syrian Kurds to keep the region in Syrian hands.

The return of the Syrian army would be tricky to manage, since it would have to arrive in each part of the region after the Americans left (to avoid clashes) but before the Turks arrived. Moreover, the Syrian army is seriously short of manpower, and this operation would require a lot of it.

All the more reason to give the YPG a continuing role in the region’s security, the Kurds might argue, and it’s not impossible that Assad might buy that argument provided that the Kurdish militia became (at least in theory) a part of the Syrian army.

So the Russians may be right. When Trump revealed via Twitter that he was going to pull all American forces out of Syria, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded that the US decision could result in “genuine, real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria. And it’s true.

Turkey could be convinced (by the Russians) that letting Assad take control of Kurdish-majority parts of Syria is enough to end the alleged Kurdish ‘threat’ to Turkish security. Then only the single province of Idlib would remain beyond Assad’s reach, and that’s not really a critical issue.

In fact, the fix could be in already. We’ll know shortly. But no matter what, the Kurds lose again. Of course.
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For Kleenex use “tissues” if that is your usage. This article replaces the one that would normally be sent on Sunday.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Only…country”; and “When…either”)