11 Oct Some Hard Truths About Turkeyâs Invasion Of The Syrian Kurds
ON the first day of Turkey’s military demarche into Syria, no even before, you got the impression from newsmedia that tides of blood ran in the gutters and full genocide of Kurds was already under way. Too much emotional hysteria befogs the events currently unfolding there. I have written on the region for some 25 years and I advise readers to keep a clear eye. Remember it’s the Middle East. Do not get over-attached to any one side if you wish to see the picture clearly. Or if you want to keep your ideals intact. As someone who deplores Erdogan’s charlatan brutishness routinely in this space, I worry that he may regain domestic support through this invasion and stay in power longer. But that doesn’t mean the particular Kurds he’s battling, the Syrian Kurdish militia or YPG, are quasi-cherubim worthy of besotted adulation. If you won’t believe me, believe Michael Weiss’s appropriately complex Daily Beast essay on the matter, by far the most useful analysis currently on offer. Hereâs the money quote:
â(To fight ISIS) The Pentagon found… the YPG (Kurds), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK (see below), which was under existential threat from ISISâ onslaught and (the Kurds) shrewdly realized that having the worldâs only superpower behind you is a good way of pursuing your political ends through fire and steel.
Under the canopy of F-18s, the YPG has stretched across a vast swath of northeast Syria, acting as the Kurdish janissaries of Americaâs anti-ISIS mission. The Kurds of what is known as âRojava,â or Syrian Kurdistan, thus engaged in their own nation-building exercise on the ruins of ISISâ and as a direct function of Americaâs counterterrorism campaign.â
In effect, the US chose a proxy (YPG) with close links to a longstanding Kurdish terror organization inside Turkey (PKK). The YPG, as it displaced ISIS in Syria, was given an inch and took a mile, and built huge extensions to its homeland in Syria along the Turkish border. The Turks see all that real estate as a massive new infiltration threat into Turkey. The problem, as Michael Weiss points out in his article, goes back first to Obama withdrawing US forces thereby needing a local proxy to suppress the suddenly mushrooming ISIS. Enter the YPG Kurds, a fairly contentious ally considering that everyone else resented them, Turks, Arabs, Iranians et al. To be fair, Obama himself started with little choice but to draw down having run and won on the ticket that Bush’s Iraq war had been a catastrophic mistake. Why did he choose the Kurds rather than the Turks or anyone else as his proxy against ISIS? One theory goes that he inherited the Bush longterm Neo-con strategy of empowering the Kurds and Kurdish unification as a way to redraw the Mideast map. So thought most of the regional players â plus Putin.
Bush Jr’s invasion, the reader will remember, spurred a civil war inside Iraq between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, which the wider Muslim world joined by infiltrating from outside â Iran helped the Shiites, Al Quaeda and ISIS helped Sunnis, and America helped the Kurds. Ultimately, in theory, the Kurds could glob into one big entity by subtracting a chunk from each neighbor country, thereby reducing the threat from each. Nobody except the Kurds (and America and Israel) wanted the project to succeed. Only the Kurds trusted US intentions, and vice-versa. Hence, when Obama drew down US forces, the YPG Kurds became America’s main anti-ISIS proxies. And what was the plan after ISIS? Would residual US forces stay there forever to protect the expansionist Kurds from everyone else’s ire? Hardly. US troops were bound to leave sooner or later. The mulishly capricious Mr.Trump decided on sooner. All of which is to say that Trump, for all his encyclopedic faults, didn’t create this disaster all alone. Nor are the Kurds entirely blameless.
But back to the Turkish invasion. Why does Erdogan want a Turkish-controlled safe zone inside Syria? First some context. He has asked for it numerous times over the years, but the YPG Kurds always nixed it and the US had to second them. He saw that Iran had created just such a zone across its border with Afghanistan and it worked strategically because it meant Iran could project influence deeper into Afghan territory while keeping its actual border better sealed. (It is also, of course, what Putin has done in both Ukraine and Georgia with Russian proxies.) Erdogan wants to do something similar in Syria as a lever both against the Kurds there and the Assad regime. Let’s not forget his neo-Ottoman aspirations: he has, for some time, wanted to lead the Sunni world in the Middle East and elsewhere like a latter-day Caliph. Throughout the ISIS years, he allowed tens of thousands of Sunni Islamist fighters to come through Turkey into Syria â a phenomenon well-documented in western media. A Turkish zone would allow him to keep sending Sunni fighters in from around the world. Above all, he gets to keep his army busy, which he still regards as a coup threat against his rule. And by creating a constant border of conflict, he gets to play the patriot against all his domestic challengers.
At this point, nobody has more clout in the region than Putin simply because he supports the pre-existing national boundaries. That automatically wins him the allegiance of the regime in each country. Furthermore, he works to guarantee the personal hold on power of individual populist autocrats on multiple levels, from helping hide their money to backing them against the US, all the while playing them off against each other. The US, instead, loses influence effortlessly by insisting on human rights, open societies, various freedoms and is willing to support revolutions to that end â which often ushers in chaos and more grisly despots. That, at any rate, is Putin’s message and it sells. Mirabile dictu, he seems to have found a precise empath in Donald Trump who can’t wait to abandon not just the Kurds but the entire region to the rule of strongmen and Russian strategic dominance.