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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”)

World’s Leading Demagogue

You can keep your Orban, your Netanyahu, your pathetic Boris Johnson. As for Donald Trump, he’s really an icon of democracy, just slightly shop-soiled. The coveted title of World’s Leading Demagogue has just gone to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

Erdogan may look like an ageing, disappointed post office clerk, passed over for promotion too many times, but he can take an ignorant remark from halfway around the planet and inflate it into an existential threat to Turkey’s future. He’s desperately trying to rally support for his AK party in local elections due at the end of the month, so what better theme than the threat of an invasion by New Zealand?

“Your grandparents came here,” he warned the savage New Zealand hordes, “and they returned in caskets. Have no doubt that we will send you back like your grandfathers.” Erdogan had already warmed the crowd up by showing them footage of the massacre of New Zealand Muslims in their mosques by Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant, so they cheered that line.

“They are testing us from 16,500 km. away, from New Zealand, with the messages they are giving from there. This isn’t an individual act, this is organised,” he explained, and then showed the crowd extracts from Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto on a giant screen. One of the killer’s many goals, it seems, was to ‘drive Turkey out of Europe’. (The country’s north-western corner, including half of Istanbul, is the southern Balkans.)

Erdogan also accuses the West as a whole of “preparing” Tarrant’s manifesto and “handing it to him.” New Zealand is presumably just the West’s chosen weapon. There are three times as many people in Istanbul alone as there are in New Zealand, so that may sound like an empty threat to you, but bear in mind that Erdogan’s electoral support mostly comes from the less well educated half of the population.

He was speaking at a rally commemorating the Ottoman empire’s victory over British and allied troops who landed at Gallipoli, 200 km southwest of Istanbul, in 1915. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) troops played a big part in that First World War battle, which is one of the founding myths of modern Turkish nationalism.

So Erdogan’s audience would not necessarily have giggled when he defiantly warned the evil New Zealanders: “We have been here for a thousand years and will be here until the apocalypse, God willing. You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople.” There he stood, metaphorical sword in hand, turning back the New Zealand neo-Crusaders single-handed, and the world heavyweight title for demagoguery was his.

First, a couple of niggling details. Istanbul IS Constantinople; the name hasn’t changed. ‘Istanbul’ is just the Turkish pronunciation of the old Greek popular name for the city, ‘Stamboul’. (The Turkish language does not like words to start with two consonants.)

Second, the Turks have NOT been there for a thousand years. They conquered the city in 1453, five-hundred-and-some years ago. Before that it was Christian for rather more than a thousand years. But you don’t want to get caught up in the details when you’re holding a flaming sword.

And third, I have never met anybody in Europe who wants it ‘back’. It would be as ridiculous as somebody in the Muslim world wanting Granada or Seville back.

Oh, wait a minute. I HAVE met Muslims who want Granada and Seville back. They tend to be of the Islamist persuasion, but there is a quite widespread conviction in the Arab world that the original 7th-century conquests that gave Muslims control of half of the then-Christian world were legitimate, whereas the 12th-century European counter-offensive that tried to take some of them back (the Crusades) was illegitimate aggression.

It was really just the ebb and flow of empires, with religion mostly as cover. The Muslims (or at least the Ottoman Turks) were on the offensive again by the 15th century, almost reaching Vienna by 1688. Then the tide turned again and the British empire was almost at the gates of Istanbul in 1915. Nothing to get excited about – and now it’s over.

It really is over. Legally, it has not been permissible to change borders by force since the UN Charter was written in 1945, and in fact few have changed. Militarily, modern technologies and methods of political mobilisation have made it ruinously expensive to sustain the long-term occupation of people who do not want to be occupied.

So I think it will be hard for New Zealand to reconquer Istanbul even if it wants to. Turkey is safe. But the old tribal buttons are still there to be pushed, and there are plenty of populist demagogues willing to push them.

Trump has his border wall (‘criminal’ Mexicans) and his anti-Muslim immigration controls (‘terrorist’ Muslims). Orban has the Jews (the enemy within Hungary’s border) and Muslim refugees (the enemy without). Narendra Modi, now in election mode, has Muslims both within India’s borders (cow-killers) and beyond them (Pakistani nukes and terrorists).

And Erdogan just has New Zealanders. Must try harder.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…population”)