Another War In West Asia

Sub Title : Turkey’s recent foray into Syria: advantage Russia

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 5 Nov/Dec 2019

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 12

Category : Geostrategy

: December 9, 2019

Turkey launched a military operation across its border in northeast Syria a  month ago securing control of a large swath of territory in the region aimed at creating a ‘Safe Zone’. Days before the offensive, the US in a surprise move withdrew its forces from the Kurdish-controlled region that would be targeted by the operation. In effect, the US ‘betrayed’ its Kurdish friends the SDF once again leaving the field open for Russia, which was swift to move in and their troops soon occupied the former US bases

Conflicts in the Middle East usually set off a chain of events. One war flows to the next. The present invasion of Syria by Turkey is part of a sequence of events that began in 2003 when the USA invaded Iraq. The War destabilized the region and gave rise to the Islamic State. They exploited the turmoil in Iraq and the civil war in Syria to establish a Caliphate in a swath of land astride the Syrian- Iraq border. The IS was finally defeated by the combined actions of the coalition air forces and ground actions by the Syrian Democratic Front, (SDF) a Kurdish militia which then settled in the areas they had retaken from the IS. Just as that phase of the conflict was over, Turkey launched an offensive into North Eastern Syria against the SDF to evict them from the area. And, the cycle of violence took another turn.

To understand the turn of events, we must go back to the history of the Kurds. The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group- around 25 – 30 million strong, living in the mountainous regions along the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia. In the aftermath of World War I, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed, they were promised their own state of Kurdistan through the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Yet their promised homeland never materialized and for the next 80 years the Kurds have been trying to establish their own state, or at least gain some measure of autonomy in the areas they occupy.

When the Islamic State established themselves in the border region of Iraq and Syria in 2013, immense atrocities were committed on the Kurds who lived there. Entire communities were slaughtered, and women taken as sex slaves. Kurdish militia formed self-defense groups such as the People Protection Units (YPG) and the Peshmerga which became the main elements in the fight against the IS. When the US and coalition forces entered the fray in 2011, they placed no boots on ground and the ground actions were done by the SDF, who lost over 11,000 of its cadres in the fight against IS. (in comparison, the US lost just five advisors and some members of Special Forces) Aided by coalition air power, the SDF slowly recaptured the territories occupied by the IS, and pushed them out of their last bastion in Baghouz in March 2019. The displaced Kurds settled down in the area and established a semi-autonomous fiefdom there which they called Rojava.

In the complex dynamics of the region, another US ally, Turkey, viewed the SDF with suspicion. Kurds form 15 -20% of Turkey’s population and have waged a three decade long insurgency for greater autonomy through their armed wing, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK.). With the success of the SDF (which is loosely affiliated to the PKK) and their occupation of land along the Syrian –Turkey border, Turkey feared that the Kurds could raise their demand for a homeland once again. Even during the fight against the IS, they waged their own actions against the Kurds, launching a full-fledged operation – ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in 2017 – against the Kurdish militia. The present offensive – ‘Operation Peace Spring’ – launched on 9 Oct 19, is designed to drive out the Kurds from the border region adjoining Turkey and create a ‘Safe Zone’ there – a buffer zone almost 120 kilometers wide and 30 kilometers deep inside Syrian territory along the Syrian Turkey border. This would uproot the Kurds who have settled there, break the growing influence of Kurdish militia and nip any aspirations for Kurdistan – a state which Turkey fears would include a large swath of its border regions.

The Turn of Events

The Kurds have actually been pushed under the bus, by President Trump. Just three days before the Turkish offensive, President Trump announced that he would pull back the US troops (about 1000) stationed in North Eastern Syria de facto clearing the way for Turkey’s offensive. The decision, opposed even by the Pentagon, was taken after a Presidential call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, implying some degree of collusion. The abandoning of the SDF, has been opposed by the Pentagon and senior members of the Administration as ‘a catastrophic blow to US credibility as an ally’

Turkey has the second largest standing army in NATO and its forces were able to simply brush aside the SDF militia, more so since they had no air or artillery support. Moreover, Turkey had received surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance feeds from the USA till days before the assault, giving it precise information on Kurdish positions and deployment. In the first three days of the advance the Kurdish strongholds of Akcakale, Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain were hit as Turkish armoured columns, supported by air and artillery, moved deeper into Syrian territory all along a 120 kms long front from Kobanito  Qamishi just west of the Euphrates River.

The Turkish offensive displaced 300000 Kurds and caused over 200 casualties. The Kurds – with their backs to the wall turned to Assad who deployed the Syrian army into the area. The US did announce a set of punitive sanctions against Turkey, but they were face-saving rather than of any consequence. On 17 Oct the USA and Turkey agreed on a deal which called for a five day cease fire which would provide time for a complete withdrawal of SDF fighters and their families beyond the proposed ‘safe zone’. The US also announced a complete withdrawal from the region. In effect, the US had sold off the SDF yet again. More significantly it has  left the field open for Russia.

Russia was swift to move in and their troops soon occupied the former US bases –  their soldiers gleefully taking selfies as US soldiers prepared to leave. Russia entered into its own agreement with Turkey in which they agreed to extend the cease-fire and joint Russian and Turkish patrols would ensure that the SDF moved away from the 30 kilometer deep ‘safe zone’ In other words, the betrayal of the Kurds was complete – and Turkey managed to get away with its blatant invasion of Syrian soil.

The only face-saver for the US – whose flip-flops on the issue reveal a glaring incoherence of policy – was the killing of the IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi , who was hunted down and killed by US forces on 27 October in his remote hideout along the Syrian border. That gave President Trump a personal triumph and also a plausible reason to call off the war against the IS and withdraw all US troops from the region.

What Next

The US has virtually ceded influence in Syria to Russia on a platter and Russia has established its dominance in the region – perhaps permanently. Erdogan too has played his cards well, aligning first with the USA and then with Russia and getting concessions from both for his campaign. The greatest casualties of the war have been the Kurds, who have been abruptly displaced yet again.

The war has also brought out the schism between NATO nations. Turkey is a NATO ally but has gradually veered towards Russia, even buying huge quantities of equipment and batteries of their S-400 Air Defence Systems. It has cocked a snook at other NATO allies, including France, Germany, Canada, UK and other nations who have imposed arms embargos and sanctions on it. It has also shrugged aside world-wide criticism, even threatening to unleash 2.5 million refugees, presently in Turkey, into Europe. The muted world reaction shows that it has got away with its move.

The US stance has been ambivalent. There is no doubt that President Trump gave the go-ahead to Erdogan – perhaps to safeguard his business interests in Turkey or to appeal to his voter base. He announced the withdrawal of US soldiers from the conflicts in the Middle East through a series of tweets, virtually washing his hands off the situation. It imposed some minor sanctions, only to revoke them within a week after brokering a cease fire (which only provided time for the Kurds to withdraw). The manner in which the Kurds were discarded has created ripples amongst other allies – especially NATO, South Korea and Japan who will now doubt US sincerity and look for other alliances.

Worse of all, the war raises fears of the resurgence of the IS. Over 12000 Islamic State prisoners (including 2000 foreign fighters) and over 100000 family members were held by the SDF and many of the prisoners are reported to have escaped. A battle that was won at high cost could face another revival – irrespective of the death of Baghdadi. And as for the fresh humanitarian crisis that has unfolded with the displacement of over 300000 people – well, it will soon pass of as just another statistic.

Yet, this act may just go out of control. The Kurds could take the struggle inside Turkey and prolong the fight indefinitely (just like the Houthis prolonged their struggle and then carried the battle inside Saudi). A stronger Assad and a dominant Russia could change the dynamics of West Asia especially with the US withdrawal from the region. In the light of the other events taking place in the Middle East – the Iran-Saudi tensions, the escalation of the Yemen Civil War, the internal turmoil in Iran, Iraq and Syria, this act could just be the link for another chain  of violence in West Asia.