To hear Obama administration officials talk about the Syrian civil war, you’d think it all hinges on the fate of one man.
According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Syrian President Bashar Assad “calculated that he could shoot his way out” of the mass uprising that erupted two years ago, and today either fails to appreciate that he can’t or sees no viable alternative to going down with the ship. U.S. strategy is focused primarily on how to “change his current perception.” The administration has held off on providing large-scale assistance to Syrian rebels mainly because it still hopes the dictator can, with Russian prodding, be made to “read the tea leaves correctly” and relinquish power to a transitional government before all hell breaks loose.
Hawkish critics of the administration’s Syria policy also see Assad as singularly central to the conflict in Syria, counseling intervention in part because they think accelerating his downfall will bring the war to a swifter and more favorable end.
While either a negotiated or military end to the civil war would be welcome, given the staggering human cost of the conflict, both strategies for achieving this goal implicitly rest on the presumption that Assad and his immediate circle have so much power over their increasingly decentralized state and paramilitary pro-regime forces that a snap of his fingers – or of his neck – can bring an end to their fight against majority Sunni domination. But that presumption is flawed.
While Assad himself was never really the brains behind his regime, until a few years ago there was nevertheless a clear centralization of presidential authority over the Syrian security apparatus through his brother-in-law, Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat. However, Shawkat was assassinated midway through the uprising. His wife Bushra, once considered to be as influential behind the scenes as her brother, departed with their children to the United Arab Emirates shortly thereafter.
It’s not clear who wears the pants in the regime now. Though the president still enjoys substantial institutional legitimacy in the eyes of many Alawites and other minorities, this reserve has been gradually depleting as the inevitable collapse of the Baathist state looms nearer. Pro-regime forces are fighting with far more unity of purpose than the disparate rebel groups arrayed against them, but it is a cohesion built on desperation and shared sectarian anxieties, not loyalty to Assad. It is unlikely that he can still bring them to heel in the face of determined resistance within a security establishment deeply implicated in war crimes.
Meanwhile, the President’s brother, Republican Guard commander Maher Assad — whom even regime supporters privately acknowledge to be psychotic (he once shot Shawkat in the stomach during a family argument) — has proven his mettle on the battlefield. He probably has the wherewithal to defy, if not abort outright, any effort by his brother to reach a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to the rebels.
Moreover, manpower shortfalls have forced the Syrian army to cede effective control over many areas of the country to locally recruited militias and mercenary groups operating outside of the formal command structure, loyal only to whomever pays their bills.
Increasingly, this is Iran. Tehran is pouring financial and material resources into the conflict ($12.6-billion dollars so far, according to one estimate), and not only through the Syrian government. Its militant Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, is intervening directly in the Qusayr region and organizing indigenous militias among Syria’s small Shiite minority. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been training its own Syrian national militia, though U.S. and Israeli suggestions that it numbers up to 50,000 fighters may be overblown. Clearly, the Iranians are determined to keep Syria (or parts thereof) within their sphere of influence irrespective of whether and when the regime falls. They are not angling to help governing elites negotiate a better severance package.
Syria will be at war for as long as Iran is willing to finance and resupply clients committed to resisting the rebel takeover. The rebels are not unified enough (or moderate enough) to credibly offer concessions that might entice predominantly non-Sunni pro-regime combatants to spurn Iranian protection. If Assad chooses to take a golden parachute, others will surely be found to lead the fight against Syria’s departure from the Iranian axis. They may, over time and at great human and material cost, be forced underground, but Syria will not be at peace until Iran throws in the towel (if then).
Consequently, the primary goal of U.S. policy should be to drive up the costs to Tehran of intervention in Syria as much as possible. Fortunately, these expenses already are skyrocketing. The growing financial toll of Iran’s proxy war is a huge drain on its sanctions-ridden economy. Even worse are the reputational costs of a Shiite Islamist republic orchestrating murderous violence against Sunnis, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide.
Already, the conflict has led Sunni governments to vigorously contest Iranian regional ambitions for the first time. Turkey’s recent reconciliation with Israel is a harbinger of the strategic setbacks likely to attend continued Iranian aggression in Syria. With a restive Sunni minority (and widespread internet access) at home, Iran’s leaders also could face troublesome domestic political repercussions if the conflict drags on much longer.
Tehran’s only hope of snatching some measure of victory from the jaws of defeat is a ceasefire in place and an interim power-sharing formula that will allow its proxies to remain armed — thereby subverting the ensuing political process, much as Hezbollah did after the 1975-1990 civil war in neighboring Lebanon.
Overly zealous American pressure for a diplomatic solution (whatever the terms) will only encourage Iranian hopes that such a partial victory is still possible. A series of negotiated truces during the Lebanese civil war succeeded only in drawing it out for 15 years and saddling the country with a post-war political order more dysfunctional than its predecessor. A ceasefire in Syria before pro-regime forces are decisively defeated won’t produce a sustainable transition to democracy – it will only lead Syria down the same path (which is why hardline rebels and their outside sponsors will never accept a truce).
But neither is intervention the answer. Indeed, Iran would dearly love to reframe its participation in a chronic sectarian conflict as a fight against imperial powers: Internationalization of the war therefore could bolster its strategic leverage. If Western governments become invested in the fighting, the temptation to reward Iran’s disengagement from Syria with appeasement of its nuclear ambitions may become irresistible down the road. The best way the United States can make Iran cry uncle on both fronts is to not get involved in Syria.
Gary Gambill is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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