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Amateur Hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the north-western border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012,

And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

And do you recall that the United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS?

When Turkey objected, Washington hastily dropped that notion, and is indeed standing idly by while the Turkish army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. It does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t have a serious strategy at all. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The United States doesn’t want President Bashar al-Assad to win, but beyond that the Americans don’t know what they want. They originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as American troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants – the ultimate reunification of Syria under his rule) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian army, by the Russians, and even by the Americans. And by the way, after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have actually made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living.

Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States now), but those interventions effectively cancelled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and American troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

Weirdly, it reminds me of the J. Geils Band’s greatest song (they didn’t have many): ‘Love Stinks’.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win…

I’ve had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic, ridiculous story, and it stinks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“Weirdly…stinks”)

Will the US Betray the Syrian Kurds?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an angry man at the best of times, but on Monday he outdid himself: “This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences.” That was a barely veiled threat that he will use force against American troops if they try to stop him from attacking the Syrian Kurds.

The iron law of international politics in the Middle East is that everybody betrays the Kurds. It was on display again in Iraq last October when the Baghdad government seized almost half the territory ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In obedience to that unwritten law, nobody else objected – including the United States, even though it had armed the Iraqi Kurds to fight Islamic State. But now the US government has effectively told the Syrian Kurds that they can keep the huge chunk of Syria they control for the indefinite future. And the Turkish government, predictably, has gone ballistic.

In President Erdogan’s book, any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a ‘terrorist’, and the Syrian Kurds are a ‘terror army’. In fact, they played the main role, under US air cover, in destroying the Syrian base of the real terrorists: Islamic State. As a result the army that the Kurds dominate, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now controls almost half of Syria’s territory.

It’s the north-eastern, relatively empty half, with less than one-fifth of Syria’s population, but it includes all of Syria’s border with Iraq and almost all its border with Turkey. On Sunday Washington confirmed that it will help the SDF create a new 30,000 ‘border security force’ over the next several years that will police those borders – and also the ‘internal’ border between Kurdish-controlled Syria and the rest of the country.

The ‘rest of the country’ is now mostly back under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after six years of civil war, thanks largely to the intervention of the Russian air force and Iranian militas. Both Moscow and Tehran immediately accused the United States of planning to partition Syria, and there is some substance in the accusation.

Washington is indeed creating a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the northeastern half of Syria, and has declared that 2,000 US troops will stay there indefinitely. Or, to be more precise, until progress has been made in the UN-led peace talks in Geneva and it is certain that Islamic State is permanently defeated. Which is another way of saying indefinitely.

The main purpose of this sudden escalation in the US commitment in Syria is presumably to stop the Russians from winning a total victory in the country. The Syrian regime, of course, has denounced the plan as a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty – but Turkey is the only country threatening to kill Americans over it.

The Kurds always get betrayed because what they really want is an independent Kurdistan including all 20 million Kurds. But to create that, the four most powerful countries in the region – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq – would all have to be partially dismantled. They will do whatever it takes to prevent that.

Erdogan re-started the war with Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists two years ago mainly for electoral advantage, but he really is fanatical on the subject. He is convinced that the Syrian Kurdish organisation, the YFP, is really just a branch of Turkey’s own PKK (which does have a terrorist past), and he is determined to destroy it.

The declaration of a de facto American protectorate over the Kurdish-dominated parts of Syria only makes the matter more urgent in Erdogan’s eyes. “A country we call an ally [the US] is insisting on forming a terror army on our border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Monday. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

That’s nonsense: the Syrian Kurds are not terrorists. They are American allies – and when the Turkish army first attacked Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria last spring, US troops drove in front of the Kurdish lines flying very large American flags to protect their allies from Turkish fire.

What Erdogan meant in that quote at the start was that next time, if American soldiers and flags obstruct Turkish operations, they will be blown away. Does he mean it? He may not know himself, but his army is going to move into several parts of Syrian Kurdish territory this week or next. Turkish artillery is already softening the targets up.

But the likelihood of a shooting war between Turks and Americans remains very low. Like Obama before him, Trump is pursuing a policy in Syria that is not backed up by enough force to make it credible. Everybody assumes that he is bluffing, and that he will betray the Syrian Kurds in the end.

For the peace of the world, it’s probably better that he does.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Kurds…destroy it”)

The First Bit of Kurdistan

The neighbours are very cross about Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is currently known as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR). They can’t go on calling it that if and when it gets formal independence, and the leading candidate for the new name is “South Kurdistan”. Which is precisely what annoys the neighbours.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who governs the Arab majority (80 percent) of Iraq’s population, says he will impose an air blockade on the KAR if it doesn’t hand over control of its airports to Baghdad by Friday. Iran has already stopped direct flights to the Kurdish region, and Lebanon’s Middle East airlines will observe the ban from Friday.

The Iraqi prime minister also said that Baghdad will fight to prevent Kurdish secession, if necessary, and he has sent Iraqi troops to take part in joint exercises with the Turkish army on the KAR’s northern border. As for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is enraged and warns that this “adventure” (the independence referendum) “can only have a dark end.”

Turkey is the great power of the region (80 million people and a big, modern economy), so Erdogan’s threats to shut off the pipeline that delivers Kurdish oil to the world and to stop exporting food to Iraqi Kurdistan have to be taken seriously. The KAR is landlocked, and Turkey is its main trading partner (about $10 billion of cross-border traffic a year).

Erdogan tried very hard to persuade Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, to call off the independence referendum. He accuses Barzani of “treachery” for going ahead with it anyway, and warns that “If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”

Most of us were under the impression that that war has already been underway for around five years, mainly in Syria, with Erdogan eagerly feeding the flames. But his interventions in Syria were just dabbling in other people’s problems; an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, he thinks, would be an existential threat to Turkey itself.

He may be right, because one-fifth of Turkey’s population is also Kurdish, and most of them live in the part of Turkey directly across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is terrified that Turkey’s Kurds will catch the independence bug too, and he’s willing to take strong measures against Iraq’s Kurds to stop it.

That’s why the talk of “South Kurdistan” is so incendiary. Seen through this Kurdish nationalist prism, it is the first bit of a big, united Kurdistan: south-eastern Turkey is “North Kurdistan”, southwestern Iran is “East Kurdistan” and north-eastern Syria is “West Kurdistan.” The 30 million Kurds are one of the biggest stateless ethnic groups in the world, but giving them all a national state would require dismantling Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

That’s why it has never happened, although the Kurds were first promised a state of their own when the Western powers were planning the carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. The Kurds have been seeking it ever since, but everybody else always lines up against them.

Iran has just said that it too will close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan is confident that Turkey can bring it to its knees: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said this week.

The United States is preparing to abandon its Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, although they have done much of the fighting against ISIS, because it doesn’t want borders to start to move in a region that is already turbulent enough. The Kurds haven’t got a friend in the world, and it is an old international tradition to use them and then betray them.

So why did Barzani hold the independence referendum now? Preliminary results suggest that it was hugely successful at home – a 91 percent “yes” vote on a 72 percent turn-out – but there’s going to be a big, ugly backlash from the neighbours. There could even be a war, and the likelihood that anybody will actually recognise South Kurdistan’s independence is minimal.

Barzani’s motives are partly personal: he must step down before the elections scheduled for November, and he wants to stamp his own name on the independence project. But many Kurds would argue that there will never be a “good” time to go for independence, and that they must just push on and hope for the best. After a hundred years of oppression and division, you can see their point.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The United…them”)

No Peace Yet in Iraq (or Syria)

The shooting was still going on down by the river last week when Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dropped by and prematurely declared that the battle for Mosul was over. He was misled by the various Iraqi army, police and militia units who were competing with one another to declare victory first, but now it really is over – and there is little left of Mosul.

The siege began on 17 October of last year, so it lasted nine months – longer than the Battle of Stalingrad. It probably killed more civilians, too, because the US-led air forces were used to compensate for the shortage of trained and motivated Iraqi ground forces.

Individual ISIS snipers were regularly taken out by air strikes that levelled entire buildings. Life is returning to some of the east-bank suburbs that were retaken last year, but there is nothing to go back to in the oldest part of the city on the west bank, where ISIS made its last stand. And the level of destruction has been almost as high in a lot of other cities.

The Sunni Arab communities of Iraq and Syria are shattered and scattered. The mixed Sunni-Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad were mostly “cleansed” of their Sunni residents in the civil war of 2006-08. Even Sunni-majority cities in Iraq that were taken back from ISIS a couple of years ago, like Ramadi and Fallujah, are still largely deserted, with few signs of reconstruction.

Not many of the estimated 900,000 people in refugee camps around Mosul, almost all Sunni Arabs, will be going home soon either. And in Syria, the eastern side of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, fell last December after a four-year siege. It now contains a few tens of thousands of people rattling around in the ruins.

Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria, will be largely destroyed in the next few months, and after that it will be the turn of Deir-es-Zor. The calamity that began in 2003, when the US invasion of Iraq overthrew the centuries-long Sunni rule over a mostly Shia country, has reached its final phase.

There can be no come-back for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who only make up one-fifth of the country’s 36 million people. They have been ruined by their long complicity with Sunni minority rule of the country, first under the Turkish empire, latterly under Sunni tyrants like Saddam Hussein, and finally by their reluctant, desperate support for ISIS. Some, maybe most, will remain in the country, but not as equal citizens.

The Sunni Arabs of Syria will not suffer the same fate, for they are fully 60 percent of that country’s population, but their current situation is appalling. They were very unwise to throw their lot in with ISIS and al-Qaeda – which most of the Sunni fighters in Syria did in the end, though it is impolitic to say so in public – and they are now paying a heavy price for that mistake.

In the longer run, however, Syria’s Sunni Arab majority will have to be reintegrated into the general society. It isn’t impossible: millions of urban Sunnis never fought against the regime anyway, regarding their mostly rural fellow Sunnis who fell for the jihadi fantasy as severely misguided.

There’s at least another year’s fighting against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria before reconciliation can even begin. There may be much more than a year’s fighting before the Kurds are subjugated again in Syria and Turkey.

They are out of the box now, controlling almost all of the Kurdish-majority parts of northern Syria and many rural areas in south-eastern Turkey. Since Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan re-started the war against Turkey’s Kurds two years ago, they have even taken control of some parts of the Kurdish-majority big cities in the south-east – and bits of them look like Syria’s devastated cities.

As for Iraq’s Kurds, it may prove impossible to put them back in the box at all. Thanks to the collapse of the Iraqi army three years ago, when ISIS overran much of the country in a fortnight, the Kurdish Regional Government now rules over all the traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq. It is effectively an independent country, and it has scheduled a referendum for September to make that official.

Iraq’s government will fight that, of course, but unless the United States is willing to bomb the Kurds the way it bombed ISIS, Baghdad is unlikely to win. The Iraqi army couldn’t even have retaken Mosul without the lavish use of US air power.

Washington is much more likely to betray the Syrian Kurds, but unless it does, they too will probably manage to keep their de facto state within a nominally reunited Syria. (Turkey would be happy to crush them for free, but the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers would certainly veto that.)

So there’s lots of fighting left to be done, and lots of opportunities yet for the United States and Russia to stumble into a confrontation. Stay tuned.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“In the longer…misguided”; and “Washington…that”)