President Donald Trump has given the orders to begin a “deliberate withdrawal” of his troops and end the occupation of north-east Syria (NES). This is accelerating the race between the Turkish and the Syrian forces to control NES.
Turkey is in a rush to establish its 30-35km wide safe zone on the borders with Syria in the US-occupied north-east territory, currently under the control of the Syrian Kurdish separatists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware of the pressure his US ally, President Donald Trump is under for approving this operation, an operation which has made Trump even more unpopular among the US and western élites.
Trump took it upon himself to unilaterally take control of an area in Syria bigger than Switzerland. Uninvited by the central government, he had established over a dozen military and air bases in the country and kept them there notwithstanding the defeat of ISIS. Trump has now agreed to pull back some US troops, allowing Turkey and its Syrian proxies to move into this part of Syrian territory. The US President and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin blocked an EU-drafted resolution condemning the Turkish offensive. Now, the winners in this operation are much more numerous than the losers and it would be a mistake to suppose that only Turkey is gaining from this operation. All winners have their own objectives and perspectives to assess how they can benefit from the Turkish invasion.
By deciding to pull out 1,000 men from NES, Trump is reshuffling the cards, moving the burden away from his administration and dropping it into the hands of Russia, Turkey and Syria (and their allies). There is a serious need for Russia to move fast and bring concerned players around the table to organise a situation that could turn more chaotic and lead to even more confrontation.
The biggest losers are the Kurds: the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which were classified as terrorist organisations by the US (since 1997), by the European Union (since 2002), and by NATO, Turkey, and some other countries.
The Kurds in the Levant:
The Kurds are now in south-east Turkey, north-east Syria, the north of Iraq, north-west Iran, and south-west Armenia. With an estimated population of 30 million, they may be the largest stateless minority in the world (after the Tamil). More than half of the Kurds live in Turkey; it is thus less than accurate to call the Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds “ethnic cleansing”.
The 1923 Lausanne Peace treaty with the Republic of Turkey denied the Kurds the realisation of their dream for an independent “Kurdistan” state of their own. The Kurds staged many rebellions but all failed to achieve their aspirations for a state. These include the Sheikh Said rebellion (1925), the Ararat (1930) revolution led by the Armenian Ziylan Bey, one of the most famous rebels of the mountains (the Iraqi Mustafa Barzani crossed the borders to join the rebellion), and the Sayid Riza 1937-1938 Kurdish-Alevi Dersim genocide (known today as Tenceli). The latter operation was carried out under the orders of Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and is recognised by President Erdogan as a “massacre“.
In 1974, Abdullah Ocalan formed a Maoist proletarian movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and focussed on Turkish targets within the country. Thus far at least 40,000 people have been killed in this conflict without the Kurds achieving their goal of a state. Ocalan and some 3,000 PKK militants are festering in jail. The US, the EU and many other countries categorize the PKK as a terrorist group. “The PKK is on the terror list of the EU and delisting it is not on the cards,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last March.
When the war in Syria began in 2011, the Syrian Kurds were neutral but provided many besieged Syrian cities with much-needed supplies. But everything changed on September 2014 when the “Islamic State” (IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) attacked the Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab, known to the Kurds as Kobane.
Although Turkey refused (in order to avoid a domestic uprising) to allow Turkish Kurds to cross the borders to help their Syrian brothers, it opened the borders for Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to walk in just when the city was about to fall. The Peshmerga had the task of providing laser designators to guide US jets against ISIS targets. The town was destroyed but ISIS failed to occupy it and withdrew in January 2015.
In October 2015 the US-led coalition formed, trained and armed the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) under Kurdish command and alongside local Arab militias. The Kurds hoped their dream would finally materialise since the prospect of dividing Iraq and Syria now seemed realistic. A Kurdish state seemed attainable, and the name of “Rojava” (Rojavayê Kurdistanê), one of the four parts of Greater Kurdistan, was chosen. This territory extends from the city of Afrin in the north-west to al-Hasaka in the north-east.
In August 2016, Turkey inserted its own troops into Syria with the help of Syrian proxies and captured the border town of Jarablus. This disturbed the Kurds’ plans. Almost two years later, Turkey conquered the Kurdish city of Afrin, curtailing the map of Rojava and displacing tens of thousands of Kurds.
The Kurds preferred to hand Afrin to Turkey rather than allow the Syrian army to defend the city. Intensive negotiations were held between Kurdish leaders and the Syrian government in Damascus, the Russian military base of Hmaymeem, and other locations. The Kurds refused to hand over the billions of dollars they had accumulated from Syrian agriculture and refused to join Syria’s National Defence Forces. They wanted both full autonomy and at the same time, they wanted the Syrian Army to serve as their border guards. They preferred to fight and lose the battle rather than handing Syrian territory back to Syrian government control. The Kurds opted for Turkish occupation. This has proved to be their first major mistake.
In September 2015, when Russia was persuaded to move its air force into Syria, coordination with the US was necessary to avoid clashes. Any area east of the Euphrates River was considered subject to US operations and control. The west of the river was controlled by Russian forces. After defeating ISIS, the Syrian army tried, with its allies, to cross the Euphrates in order to eliminate ISIS from the oil and gas-rich wells north of Deir-ezzour before the arrival of US-backed forces. The Syrian troops were decimated by US forces. Over 200 men were killed, showing that the US was not ready to give up what it considered its “zone of influence,” with its considerable accompanying material advantages.
Clearly, the US had the intention of staying and occupying an area that represents slightly less than the third of Syria, an area particularly rich in agriculture and in energy resources.
Then Kurdish Iraqi leader Masoud Barzani’s hasty and failed attempt to declare his independent state in Iraq finally put an end to the Kurdish dream of uniting Rojava with Iraqi Kurdistan.
With the arrival of Donald Trump, the newly appointed President, came a promise to bring the US forces home from the Middle East. Trump described north-east Syria as “a land of death and sand“. He intended to pull out unless the area could bring him revenues. Arab states who were heavily involved in the war in Syria, financing jihadists and rebels, had lost their appetite to supply monies and arms. They were no longer ready to pay Trump for keeping his troops there.
Trump stated that the Syrian Kurds “were not great fighters” and needed his jets to clear the way before attacking ISIS. Thus he minimised their role and their losses in defeating ISIS in the capital of the “Caliphate” in Raqqah.
The Kurds never imagined the US would betray them, despite their previous experience in 1975. That was their second big mistake. Kurdish military leaders tried, to no avail, to convince Kurdish political leaders to open a serious dialogue with Damascus. But in fact the Kurds suspended negotiations and once again seemed to prefer facing a Turkish attack rather than working with the Syrian government. They put their hopes in the support of the international community and the mainstream media. The media and public personalities have indeed offered the Kurds abundant verbal support. But that will certainly not be enough to stop the Turkish attack that is now advancing rapidly in the designated area.
Trump looks on the Kurds as mercenaries he has bought and paid for. Since their services are no longer required, he is now ready to withdraw US forces to win favour with Turkey. The Kurds are expendable now that their manpower is not needed by Trump.
The Kurds, however, insisted for years on acting as human shields for Trump’s soldiers in al-Hasaka and Qamishli. And they believe that social media together with a media campaign can reverse Trump’s decision. But they are now left with no allies on the ground, and not even the mountains will protect them. Their wrong choices – in surrendering territory that did not belong to them – have made them today’s biggest losers. The US short notice announcement of a sudden withdrawal gave a cold shower to the Kurds who have now asked Damascus to move in to protect them from the Turkish advance. It was certainly high time to wake up to what is, at this stage, the only available option.
Turkish forces invaded north-east Syria (NES) only when it had coordinated with the US to define the red line of the invasion. Moreover, both superpowers, the US and Russia, protected Turkey by blocking an EU-drafted UN resolution to halt the Turkish advance. Turkey refused to allow the US to arm, train and give an independent state to the Syrian Kurds on the Turkish borders and simultaneously keep Turkey as an ally. President Donald Trump had no choice but to accept Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position over that of the Kurdish separatists. Russia considered the Turkish presence in NES much easier to deal with than the US forces and the disillusionment of the Kurds with their US mentor worth allowing President Erdogan’s operation. So, who is the winner and who is the loser among these players?
Ankara has played one of the most disastrous roles in the Syrian war since the beginning, allowing jihadists to flock into Syria from all over the world. The Turkish position was in harmony with the US-EU directives calling for regime change in Syria or a failed state so that each player could take a chunk of the country and leave it in total chaos. Moreover, Turkey supported the jihadists to attack and successfully occupy the city of Idlib starting from the Turkish borders. It did the same when jihadists attacked Kesseb and threatened the province of Latakia.
However, President Erdogan did pull out his proxies from Aleppo, allowing the Syrian Army to free the northern city with fewer human losses. It also played an effective role in the fall of al-Ghouta, in the suburb of Damascus, to the benefit of the Syrian Army.
President Erdogan also pushed his forces into Jarablus in NES and, two years later, occupied Afrin, disturbing the Syrian Kurds’ dream of a “Rojava” state. His invasion of NES caused the end of Northern Kurdistan and, indirectly, pushed the US forces out of NES, with the exception of a “small footprint” at al-Tanaf.
The Turkish President is today an essential partner in the Astana peace process due to his control over 10% of the Syrian territory and his influence over militants and jihadists. He has also managed to play his cards well by creating a balance between the US and Russia, buying weapons from both despite the discontent and disapproval of the US administration.
Although Turkey failed to deliver on its promise to paralyse, contain and dismantle the jihadist groups in Idlib, it allowed a military expedition against them when the jihadists refused to stop sending armed drones against the Russian military base in Hmaymeem.
Today, President Erdogan will be negotiating a new constitutional framework in Astana, holding Idlib and aiming (hoping) to control almost 14,000 sq km (440×32) of NES. His country is hosting 3.6 million refugees and would like to relocate a few million to Syria. He also needs to satisfy his Syrian proxies, who will accuse him of treachery if he doesn’t offer to these at least the minimum of their required objectives: a reintegration into the Syrian system without persecution for their previous acts, and an approved change in the constitution.
Although President Erdogan was thoroughly in the US-NATO camp at the beginning of the Syrian war and went as far as to shoot down a Russia jet on November 2015, he has managed to strike a balance with Moscow.
He is becoming a strategic partner of Russia, not only buying the S-400 but also part of the Gazprom-sponsored pipeline Turkish Stream that is expected to supply Europe with Russian gas. President Erdogan may find himself threatening to leave NATO – to the jubilation of Russia – if the US imposes sanctions on his country and on Turkish personalities.
The Syrian war is not yet over. The role of President Erdogan is still to be played out in its last phase. Is the Turkish presence in Syria to last as long as the occupation of north-east Cyprus? That will definitely indicate a military confrontation with Damascus in the long term and the disapproval of his Russian and Iranian allies.
The Syrian Kurds and the Arab tribes loyal to Damascus will not stand idle in the face of a long Turkish occupation. That will no doubt disturb the relationship between the allies, who need to look for the development of commercial and business relationships at a time when the US is fighting for its hegemony and freely imposing sanctions on so many countries. It all depends on the latest Turkish moves in the Levant, and Turkey will have to choose what to become: a partner or an enemy, and of whom?
The United States of America emerged victorious from the Second World War, and came out stronger than any other country in the world. The allies – notably the Soviet Union – won the war but emerged much weaker. They needed to reconstruct their countries and rebuild their economies, with the US demanding huge retrospective payments for its support. The US became a superpower with nuclear bomb capability and an imposing power of dominance. Industrial countries rebuilt in what the Germans called their Wirtschaftswunder and the French les Trentes Glorieuses, the thirty years of post-war prosperity. Meanwhile the US leveraged its prosperity to spread its hegemony around the world. US power was enhanced with the beginning of Perestroika and after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the new millennium the US establishment declared the “War on Terror” as justification to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, while attempting to subdue Hezbollah in Lebanon, changing the régime in Libya and attempting to destroy Syria, all with the goal of reshuffling and forming a “New Middle East“.
In the Levant, the US has dramatically failed to reach its objectives, but it has succeeded in waking Russia from its long hibernation, to challenge the US unilateral hegemony of the world and to develop new forms of alliance. Iran has also challenged the US hegemony incrementally since the 1979 “Islamic Revolution”. Iran has planned meticulously, and patiently built a chain of allies connecting different parts of the Middle East. Now, after 37 years, Iran can boast a necklace of robust allies in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan – who are all ready, if necessary, to take up arms to defend Iran. Iran, in fact, has greatly benefited from US mistakes. Through its lack of understanding of populations and leaders around the world, it has universally failed to win “hearts and minds” in every Middle Eastern country where it imposed itself as a potential ally.
The arrival of President Donald Trump to power helped US allies and the anti-US camp to discover, together, the limits and reach of US sanctions. Russia and China took the lead in offering a new, softer model of an alliance, which apparently does not aim to impose another kind of hegemony. The offer of an economic alliance and partnership is especially attractive to those who have tasted US hegemony and wish to liberate themselves from it by means of a more balanced alternative.
During this period of Trump’s ruling, the Middle East became a huge warehouse of advanced weapons from varied sources. Every single country (and some non-state actors) has armed drones – and some even have precision and cruise missiles. But superiority in armaments by itself counts for very little, and its very balance is not enough to shift the weight to one side or another. Even the poorest country, Yemen, has done significant damage to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a country highly equipped, militarily, and with the most modern US hardware in the Middle East.
US President Trump was informed about the evident failure to change the régime in Syria and the equal impossibility of dislodging Iran from the Levant. He most probably aimed to avoid the loss of lives and therefore decided to abandon the country that his forces have occupied for the past few years. Nonetheless, his sudden withdrawal, even if so far it is partial (because he says, a small unit will remain behind at al-Tanf, to no strategic benefit since al-Qaem border crossing is now operational) – came as a shock to his Kurdish and Israeli allies. Trump proved his readiness to abandon his closest friends & enemies overnight.
Trump’s move offered an unexpected victory to Damascus. The Syrian government is now slowly recovering its most important source of food, agriculture and energy. North-East Syria represents a quarter of the country’s geography. The northern provinces have exceptional wealth in water, electricity dams, oil, gas and food. President Trump has restored it to President Bashar al-Assad. This will also serve Trump’s forthcoming election campaign.
Assad trusts that Russia will succeed in halting the Turkish advance and reduce its consequences, perhaps by asking the Kurds to pull back to a 30 km distance from the Turkish borders to satisfy President Erdogan’s anxiety. That could also fit the Turkish-Syrian 1998 Adana agreement (5 km buffer zone rather than 30 km) and offer tranquillity to all parties involved. Turkey wants to make sure the Kurdish YPG, the PKK Syrian branch, is disarmed and contained. Nothing seems difficult for Russia to manage, particularly when the most difficult objective has already been graciously offered: the US forces’ withdrawal.
President Assad will be delighted to trim the Kurds’ nails. The Kurds offered Afrin to Turkey to prevent the Syrian government forces controlling it. The Kurds, in exchange for the State of their dreams (Rojava), supported US occupation and Syria’s enemy, Israel. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu bombed hundreds of targets in Syria, preferring ISIS to dominate the country and pushing Trump to give him the Syrian-occupied Golan Heights as a gift – although the US has no authority over this Syrian territory.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed, millions of refugees were driven from their homes and hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on destroying Syria. Nonetheless, the Syrian state and President Assad have prevailed. Notwithstanding the consequences of the war, Arab and Gulf countries are eager to return to Syria and participate in reconstruction. Whoever rules Syria, the attempt to destroy the Syrian state and change the existing régime has failed.
Russia is one of the most successful players here, on numerous fronts, and is now in a position President Putin could only have dreamed about before 2015. Numerous analysts and think tanks predicted Moscow would sink into the Syrian quagmire, and they mocked its arsenal. They were all wrong. Russia learned its lesson from the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It offered air and missile coverage and brilliantly cooperated with Iran and its allies as ground forces.
President Putin skillfully managed the Syrian war, striking a balance and creating good ties with Turkey, a NATO ally – even after the downing of his jet by Ankara in 2015. Russia wanted to collaborate with the US but was faced with an administration with persistent “Red-Soviet” phobia. Moscow proceeded without Washington to solve the Syrian war and defeat the jihadists who had flocked to the country with support from the West (via Turkey and Jordan) from all over the world.
Russia showed off its new arsenal and managed to sell a lot of its weapons. It has trained its Air Force using real battle scenarios, fought alongside the Syrian and Iranian armies, and a non-state actor (Hezbollah). It defeated ISIS and al-Qaeda 40 years after its defeat in Afghanistan. President Putin has distinguished himself as a trustworthy partner and ally, unlike Trump – who abandoned the Kurds, and who blackmails even his closest ally (Saudi Arabia).
Russia imposed the Astana process instead of Geneva for peace talks, it offered countries to use their local currencies for commerce rather than the dollar, and it is dealing pragmatically with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with Assad and Erdogan. The Americans, by their recklessness, showed themselves incapable of diplomacy.
Moscow mediated between the Syrian Kurds and the central government in Damascus even when these had been under US control for years. Putin behaved wisely with Israel even when he accused Tel Aviv of provoking the killing of his officers, and stayed relatively neutral in relation to the Iran-Israel struggle.
On the other hand, Tel Aviv never thought Syria would be reunited. Today Damascus has armed drones, precision and cruise missiles from Iran, supersonic anti-ship Russian missiles – and has survived the destruction of its infrastructure and so many years of war.
Israel has lost the prospect of a Kurdish state (Rojava) as an ally. This dream has gone now for many decades to come and with it the partition of Syria and Iraq. The “Deal of the Century” makes no sense anymore and the non-aggression deal with the Arab states is a mirage. Everything that Trump’s close advisor, Prime Minister Netanyahu, wanted has lost its meaning, and Israel now has to deal with the Russian presence in the Middle East and bear the consequences of the victory achieved by Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians.
After the Kurds, Israel is the second biggest loser – even if it has suffered no financial damage and no Israeli lives have been lost in combat. Netanyahu’s ambitions can no longer be used in his election scenario. Israel needs to prepare for living next door to Assad, who will certainly want back Syria’s Golan – a priority for Damascus to tackle once domestic reconstruction is on its way. He has been preparing the local resistance for years, for the day when Syria will recover this territory.