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Syrian Kurds

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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”)

Betraying the Kurds Again

Everybody betrays the Kurds. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition. But given Donald Trump’s reputation for treachery, it’s astonishing how bad he is at it.

This particular betrayal got underway on Sunday night. After a telephone conversation with Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump declared that he had started pulling American troops out of Syria. It’s time for US forces “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal,” he tweeted.

Did Trump realise that he was effectively giving Turkey permission to invade northern Syria and expel the Syrian Kurds from their homes? His own officials patiently explained that to him last December when he tried the same stunt for the first time, but maybe he forgot.

So they reminded him again, and by lunchtime Monday Trump had changed his tune a bit. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he tweeted.

But Trump did not explain exactly what was ‘off limits’. Did the Turkish president have a green light to invade northern Syria, or not? Erdogan is going ahead with the operation anyway, assuming that Trump’s threats are just the usual empty belligerence and bluster. It’s a safe assumption.

The weird thing is that Donald Trump’s basic attitude to wars in far places is pretty sound. Don’t invade Iraq. (Wrong enemy.) Don’t have a war with North Korea over nuclear weapons. (Make a deal.) Get American troops out of the Middle East. (Duh.) The problem is in the execution.

We saw it two weeks ago when Trump, having decided to pull American troops out of Afghanistan and sell his Afghan allies down the river, changed his mind at the last minute and cancelled a planned meeting at Camp David to sign a deal with the Taliban.

We saw it last week when a US delegation met the North Koreans in Sweden for their first talks on nuclear weapons in seven months. Trump declared the meeting a great success, but the North Koreans accused the Americans of showing up “empty-handed” and said they would not engage in “such sickening negotiations” again.

Calling Trump ‘transactional’ is just a polite way of saying that he has no long-term strategy at all. He doesn’t even understand that his adversaries often do have such strategies, so they run circles around him.

Erdogan’s strategy is quite clear. He says he is going to create a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria by driving the ‘Kurdish terrorists’ out. It will be 480 km long and 30 km deep (three times the size of Prince Edward Island), and in this strip just south of the Turkish border he will ‘resettle’ 2 million Syrian Arabs, more than half of the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

However, this plan sounds quite different when you translate it into plain English. The zone in question is already safe for the Kurdish people who live there and the Arab minority who live alongside them, because they defeated the Islamic State extremists who were trying to conquer it. There are no terrorists there now.

The army that destroyed Islamic State was an alliance between the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG and some smaller Arab militias in the region. It fought in close alliance with the United States and lost more than ten thousand killed. (Only seven American soldiers were killed in action in Syria.) It has now restored peace throughout the area, and there were no attacks on Turkey at any point in the war.

Erdogan’s aim is to drive all the Kurds living within 30 km of the border out of their homes and replace them with Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees. Almost all of those refugees will be from elsewhere in Syria, but they won’t get any choice in the matter either.

Why is Erdogan doing this? Because it will greatly shrink the number of Arab refugees in Turkey and because, having falsely portrayed the Syrian Kurds to his own supporters as a security threat, he can then claim credit for having solved the problem. It’s brutal and immoral, but it’s sound politics.

What can the Syrian Kurds do to save themselves? They will have a brief opportunity in the next week or two, after US troops have left the ‘safe zone’ and before the Turks have established control.

If the Syrian Kurds can hold off the Turks for a few days, and meanwhile invite Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus to reoccupy what is, after all, sovereign Syrian territory, the Turkish invasion might actually stall.

It would only work if the Russians are willing to back that strategy, which is doubtful. But the Syrian Kurds have almost certainly been talking to Damascus about this idea already, because they could see Trump’s betrayal coming a mile off.

The Kurds could probably still get a fairly good deal on local autonomy from Damascus at this point – and Assad, for all his faults, is much likelier to stick to a deal once he makes it than Trump is.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The weird…again”)

Turkey: The Empire Strikes Back

The Ottoman Empire, like many of its Middle Eastern predecessors, had the bad habit of moving entire peoples around if they were causing trouble. And sometimes, as happened to the Armenians during the First World War, what started as deportation ended up as genocide.

The empire collapsed a century ago, but old habits die hard. Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan (whose admirers often call him ‘the Sultan’) has a new plan: he’s going to move a million Kurds away from Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria, and replace them with a million Arabs.

And if his Western allies don’t like that, he’ll dump another million or so Arabs in Europe. “Either this happens (in Syria),” he said last week, “or we will have to open the gates (to Europe).” This is a blackmail threat with teeth: it was the sudden arrival of a million Syrian refugees in Europe in 2016 that energised extreme right-wing populists from England to Hungary.

Very few of those refugees ever wound up in either England or Hungary – the great majority of them were given shelter in Germany – but their arrival gave nationalists and racists all over Europe a stick to beat their opponents with. Erdoǧan, who is an accomplished nationalist rabble-rouser himself, knows exactly what he is doing, and he may well succeed.

All this is happening because Erdoǧan is obsessed about the Kurds – or at least he knows that a lot of other Turks are obsessed about the Kurds, and he’s in political trouble at home so he needs to feed their fantasies. You can never tell with the ‘Sultan’, who has a Trump-like ability to genuinely believe whatever he happens to be saying at the moment.

To be fair, the Kurds are a real problem for the Turks. They are about a fifth of the country’s population, concentrated mostly in the south-east, and they have been mistreated and their very identity denied by the Turkish state for so long that many of them would rather be independent.

Some of them have even taken up arms against Turkey in an organisation called the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is now mostly based across the border in Kurdish-speaking northern Iraq. There was a ceasefire and peace talks early in this decade, but Erdoǧan started bombing the PKK again in 2015 when he had a tricky election to win and needed to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Now he’s in trouble again: his party lost control of all Turkey’s big cities in the last election. Time to whack the Kurds again, and this time it’s going to be the Syrian Kurds, another fragment of the Kurdish people that lives in northern Syria, just across the border from Turkey’s Kurds. But not for much longer, if Erdoǧan has his way.

The Turkish strongman says that the Syrian Kurds are really ‘terrorists’ allied to the PKK, although there have been absolutely no attacks on Turkey from Syria during the entire eight-year Syrian civil war. What the Syrian Kurds were actually doing was defeating the real terrorists of ‘Islamic State’ in Syria, with strong air support and some ground support from the United States.

However, there is no gratitude in politics. Erdoǧan now wants to evict the Syrian Kurds from their homes and drive them south, away from the Turkish border. And to make sure they don’t come back later, he wants to settle a million Arabs there permanently instead.

There are four and a half million Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey. They’d like to go home, of course, but most of them are afraid of living under the control of Bashar al-Assad, the cruel dictator who has won the Syrian civil war. And here’s that nice Mr Erdoǧan, offering them homes in a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.

That’s not where their real homes are, but maybe they’ll be happy there once Erdoǧan has driven the Kurds out. As he said recently in Ankara, “we can build towns there in lieu of the tent cities here.” The only hitch in the plan is that the United States may feel queasy about betraying the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside American troops to destroy Islamic State.

To solve that problem, Erdoǧan is threatening to send a million or so Arab refugees west into Europe. The Europeans will panic and make the Americans go along with his plan, or so he believes. He’s probably right.

The European Union promised Turkey 6 billion euros to keep the Arab refugees in Turkey in 2016, but Erdoǧan claims that half of it was never paid (which, if true, was very stupid of the Europeans). He doesn’t owe the EU any favours, and it truly will panic if he opens the gates and sends the Arabs west.

Donald Trump wants US troops out of Syria before next year’s election, so he’ll probably give in to Erdoǧan (and the Europeans). But the Syrian Kurds will probably fight to protect their homes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“Very…succeed”; and “The European…west”)

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)’.