Turkey has done cross-border shelling for a long time now, and has used her air force to bomb Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria. There was even evidence in November 2015 that Turkey had troops deployed just across the Syrian border in northeastern Latakia Province.
But for the first time, on Tuesday, 23 August, Turkey has ordered an entire town on the Turkish border with Syria to evacuate, in preparation for an overt cross-border military operation, complete with an armored invasion force. The objective is to take the Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State.
That may sound superficially like it serves America’s goals. (Indeed, the operation is reportedly being supported by NATO air power. That could get messy, if it continues.)
But Turkey has actually been content to have ISIS in control of Jarablus for many months now. The timing and context of this latest move are the key: Turkey’s real objective is to prevent the Kurds from wresting Jarablus from ISIS.
And the Turkish entry into the Syrian conflict looks to be part of a joint effort – with Russia, Assad, and Iran – to neutralize the Kurds, as part of the campaign to take all of Syrian territory back from the factions now holding it.
The Kurds have been the major U.S. partner in fighting ISIS in both Syria and northern Iraq. Until the Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Iraq ejected ISIS from Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah – under the military direction of Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani – the Kurds were by far the most effective ground force against ISIS.
But Erdogan has been uneasy with the Kurds’ success in consolidating territory. Now Turkey wants to roll them up in this sensitive border area.
There are reasons why Iran is satisfied to be part of that effort, at least for now. And for Russia, dealing with or protecting the Kurds is always a calculation, not a cause. Don’t look for Russia to be solidly on one side of this thing; the Russians will maneuver simply to be at the center of it, so everyone has to come to them for solutions.
Remember, Moscow isn’t trying to get out of Syria, or leave Syria in good hands. The whole point for Putin’s Russia is to stay there.
U.S. position eroded beyond recovery
The U.S has been the Kurds’ main patron for a long time now. I very much fear Obama is about to abandon them – because he’d get so much bad press if any Americans got hurt, in the Syrian war realignment that now looks inevitable.
Obama has no intention of strengthening our forces’ posture against that realignment.
More importantly, he has absolutely no policy for what to do other than watch that realignment happen. From a policy standpoint, he’s an inert quantity, a leadership void, tethered to a bunch of SOF, intel assets, and strike-fighters still wandering through the battle space burning gas and bullets.
It’s only with extraordinary pain that I say this, but it would be better for America – because of who’s in the Oval Office – if we did simply pull out. Our forces on scene are in an increasingly impossible situation. They should not be left there, exposed and unsupported. Moreover, there’s nothing they can achieve there. It’s not worth their lives to try to hang on to a situation that’s slipping away, for no positive good. The next president will just have to deal with whatever reality has become, five months from now.
But pulling out – even quietly – and abandoning all pretense of having a policy or a plan would signal a definitive end to the last vestige of U.S leadership in the Middle East. It would be a severe blow to the Kurds, who don’t deserve to be treated that way. It would be a signal of faithlessness that our other long-time partners and allies could not ignore.
It’s difficult to preview comprehensively everything that might be unleashed; it could be very, very bad, or there could be random factors that keep it from getting too bad between now and next January.
A tale of realignment
At any rate, a brief summary of how things are changing. First, know that Jarablus has been of concern to Turkey for a long time, because of where it’s situated, and how it plays into the expansion of Kurdish territorial holdings on the border. Jarablus is on the west bank of the Euphrates River, just where it crosses the Syrian-Turkish border. The Kurds hold the territory on the eastern side. If they gained control of Jarablus, they would occupy a river-straddling position of supreme strategic significance, one that Turkey can’t tolerate.
In 2015, Turkey threatened to enter the Syrian war if the Kurds tried to take Jarablus, which the Kurds have been in a position to attempt for some time. The Kurds backed off, and ISIS remained in control of the town. That suited Turkey (and was a boon to ISIS, which thus had a convenient border location for illicit traffic).
A year ago this month, meanwhile, the U.S. was a few weeks into a new “partnership” with Turkey in Syria – a partnership that was clearly going to serve the purposes of Erdogan, and thus, given how things were at the time, thwart the purposes of Russia and Iran.
Russia was galvanized by this prospect to mount the 2015 force deployment to Syria, and begin air operations there. In the fall of 2015, Russian and Turkish interests came into dangerous head-to-head conflict.
But now it’s 2016, and the partnership with the U.S. has proven to be counterproductive for Turkey. A year after partnering with Turkey, Obama decided to subordinate U.S. policy discretion to Russia, by entering a new “partnership” in Syria with Moscow. The abject weakness of this decision could hardly have been more unmistakable. Why should Erdogan be a backbencher in a sucker deal? He hopped the fence and hooked up with Putin himself.
By doing that, Erdogan got a seat at the table with the other actors (Russia, Iran, Assad) who will decide the fate of both Syria and the Kurds. Erdogan’s long-term aspirations are bigger than that; he knows where Dabiq is, just as ISIS does, and the map in his head has an Ottoman caliphate emblazoned over it. But for now, the more localized Kurdish question and the disposition of Syria are driving his specific tactical intentions.
Just in the last few days, a number of things have come together. One is that the U.S. backing of the Kurds was directly challenged, by Assad. His tactical bombers attacked a position in Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, where U.S. special forces were embedded with the Kurds.
Although the U.S. issued a warning that we would protect our forces, and the Syrian regime should stop bombing there, local media reported over the weekend that embedded U.S troops were actually withdrawn from Hasakah. That leaves the Syrian regime free to bomb again.
Bombing hasn’t started, at least not in earnest, because a ceasefire was declared in Hasakah on Tuesday. If you know the Middle East, you know that means the opposite of “everybody’s looking for a peaceful compromise.” It means instead that “everybody needs time to prepare for his next move.” In this case, that’s going to be a double-down by the regime-aligned actors, which now are Assad, Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
We know that, in part, because of Turkey’s preparations to seize Jarablus, and her cross-border artillery attacks on the Kurds and ISIS in the surrounding area.
But collateral signals tell us the strategic winds are shifting. For the first time in five years, Turkey signaled this week that “dealing with Assad,” i.e., on some peaceful, cooperative basis, would likely be part of an orderly transition for Syria. Acknowledging this is a sea change for Turkish policy, and opens the door, for Erdogan, to comprehensive cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria’s future.
There was also the drama with statements about Russia having the use of Incirlik air base, which the U.S. and NATO have used as a major hub for decades. The latest word from Turkey is that Ankara is open to the possibility:
“If necessary, the Incirlik base can be used (by the Russians),” [Prime Minister] Yildirim told reporters.
There’s no need to explain, I assume, that this is a much bigger deal than a mere logistics arrangement. It’s a fissure opened wide in NATO by tectonic-plate movement in the geopolitical firmament. (Just to be clear: it didn’t just somehow happen. It was brought about directly by Obama’s decision to subordinate U.S. policy to Russia’s in Syria. In doing that, Obama basically threw the very purpose of NATO out the window.)
At the same time, the Kurds are doubling down themselves, apparently hoping to consolidate what gains they can before the Assad regime and Turkey ramp up attacks on them. They proclaimed control of Hasakah before the ceasefire was announced, and reportedly sought within the last 48 hours to drive regime forces entirely out.
This last-minute energy portends a hardening of the alignment against them – which would put embedded U.S. forces in greater danger, if Obama keeps our objective limited to attacking ISIS, while our Kurdish partners come under fire from both Assad and Turkey.
The bigger picture to the east
But the strategic problem is bigger than that, because the Kurds, as a regional political entity, can also see how the winds are shifting. They’re worried that they’ll be squeezed between Iran in the east, which is moving in on Kurdish-held territory in northern Iraq, and a combination of Turkey and Assad in the west. A Kurdish-language report from Tuesday makes clear that Kurdish leaders see Iran as complicit in the unleashing of Assad and Erdogan on the Kurds in Syria (Western, or “Rojava” Kurdistan, in their terms).
From Iran’s perspective, there’s reason to be complicit. Over the last several months, the Kurds in northwestern Iran have been ramping up insurgent activities against the regime in Tehran, asserting that the mullahs are putting increased pressure on them.
In fact, Tehran is militarizing its Kurdish-populated border with Iraq, and even moving into Iraq (see link above). And neutralizing the Kurds in the area has to be part of that. Iran has no intention of letting Irbil or Mosul become the hub of a Kurdistan that would energize Kurdish nationalism inside Iran, and promise to unite territory stretching from northwestern Iran to northwestern Syria.
Iran and Turkey have always been fine with exploiting the Kurds against each other. But the empowerment of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS has given the two nations reason to collude, however loosely, in repressing the Kurdish threat to their own separate aspirations.
We must also note, however, that there have been Kurdish leaders visiting with Erdogan this week, indicating that part of Turkey’s preparations for entering the Syria conflict is laying groundwork with at least one faction of Kurds. This will not be a cleanly adversarial military enterprise, as Americans and Europeans tend to see these things. It will be more of a probe-and-negotiate process.
Regardless, it’s beyond Obama’s ability to deal with now.
Obama is overtaken by events
The fight for Syria is about to begin in earnest, and the circumstances of the whole problem have moved beyond anything Obama had a policy for. It’s not about “ISIS” now. It’s about things Obama has no positive, proactive policy on: the future of Syria, what Syria’s borders will be, who will govern Syria and with whom she has alliances, and what the status of the Kurds will be.
Bleating canned pieties about ISIS is absurdly outmoded at this point. Russia and Iran have overarching control of the strategic framework, and for them, ISIS is just one of many factors.
From a distance, their secretive, back-room plotting profile looks messier and less satisfactory than the way the U.S. used to handle things, in the decades before Obama came along. It’s hard, with the Russia-Iran coalition, to tell what anyone is doing. And it isn’t going to get better. Russia and Iran will not prosecute their plans on politically clear lines, like the America of the post-1945 era. They won’t even do things like the Britain or Germany of the post-1815 era.
In five short years, we’ve jumped backward more than two centuries, to the geopolitical climate before there was a “concert of Europe” or a legacy of Metternich. In the Syrian drama, there isn’t anyone proposing to seriously account for his policies to a consortium of like-minded nations. There are only devious Asian actors maneuvering around each other, in alliances of convenience that – I guarantee you – will come and go with the tides.
Those who say America should just give up on the Eastern hemisphere are wrong. The consequences of doing that will become untenable very quickly. But no one can be blamed for concluding that as long as Obama is in charge, it’s better, for American skins, to get out of the way of fights we have no intention of shaping, or winning.
Bonus: for the moment, RT is running a live video feed of the Turkish forces entering Syria near Jarablus. The invasion started Wednesday morning, 24 August. So far you can’t see much, but there’s some interesting smoke rising in the background, and a few military vehicles visible passing on the road.