What the result will be of Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria may not be clear for a while, but two things are already certain. Bad decisions in Washington provided the trigger, and Washington’s regional position will suffer as a result of Ankara’s Orwellian-named “Operation Olive Branch.”
The offensive is the latest twist from Turkey’s erratic and unpredictable leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Let’s recall that “Sultan” Erdogan was an early and active participant in what was supposed to have been a relatively easy regime change operation in Syria starting in 2011, on the pattern of NATO’s overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi that same year. Turkey, with its lengthy border with Syria, was (and to some extent still is) a major supporter of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Syria, working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar under American guidance, with Israel as a silent partner. The appearance of ISIS (Daesh, ISIL) as an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a direct and foreseen consequence of that effort, as the Obama Administration was warned in 2012 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), then under the command of General Michael Flynn.
To the surprise of many, the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad didn’t just roll up and die but displayed an unexpected tenacity in defending that country’s secular, multi-religious society against outside efforts to impose a Wahhabist sectarian state. The clincher came with Russia’s September 2015 intervention, a distinctly unwelcome development for the “Assad must go!” crowd.
Two months later a crisis erupted between NATO-member Turkey and Russia when Turkish planes shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter (ostensibly for crossing into Turkish airspace) and ethnic Turkish (also called Turkmen) fighters murdered one of the two Russian airmen who parachuted from the plane. Perhaps Erdogan thought he could give Moscow a bloody nose and, with NATO’s backing him up, the Russians would turn tail and run. That didn’t happen, giving Erdogan reason to feel hung out to dry.
Then came the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, orchestrated, he claims, by his former ally businessman, educator, and cleric Fethullah Gülen, resident in the U.S. Despite the deep freeze in Russia-Turkey ties since the Su-24 shootdown, Russian covert assistance reportedly was critical to saving Erdogan’s regime and perhaps his life. At the same time, his U.S. ally – which denies involvement in the coup attempt – still refuses to hand over Gülen, whose supporters in Turkey have been repressed in a massive purge of real or imagined opposition to Erdogan’s consolidation of power.
Internationally, the upshot of the coup’s failure was a turnaround in ties between Ankara and Moscow. In December 2016, Erdogan joined Russia and Iran, the principal supporters of the Syrian government against terrorists armed by Turkey among others, in the Astana peace process.
Erdogan, if not completely breaking with the anti-Assad coalition, at least started to hedge his bets, for example not reacting to the Syrian liberation of Aleppo from Ankara’s al-Qaeda clients. When Syrian forces relieved the ISIS siege of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria in late 2017, and the Syrian army linked up with the Iraqi army (supported by the U.S. and Iran) at their common border, ISIS was almost finished as a territorial “caliphate.” This in turn has allowed Damascus to shift its focus elsewhere, notably to al-Qaeda-held Idlib. This wasn’t yet the end of the Syrian war but the end was coming into view.
Or so it seemed – which brings us back to U.S. policy.
In July 2017, Ankara had leaked the existence of U.S. bases in Kurdish-held northwestern Syria. Not that it matters to anyone in Washington, this presence is totally illegal under both U.S. law (there’s no Congressional authorization) and international law, which in U.S. politics counts for nothing (no UN Security Council authorization, no self-defense justification, and of course no invitation from the Syrian government). The U.S. presence with the Kurds is positioned on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, while the Russians and Syrians stay mainly on the western bank. Aside from some scary air incidents, it seems both sides seem to have been careful not to come into conflict.
If Washington had been content to leave it that, President Donald Trump – who had campaigned on a promise to “crush and destroy ISIS” – was in a great position to declare victory and get out. Keep in mind that despite ordering a demonstrative cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in April 2017 (in reprisal for a chemical attack that almost certainly was not the work of the Syrian government), he had not indicated an appetite for digging deeper into an involvement in a conflict where he had once praised Assad, Russia, and Iran for fighting ISIS. He even reportedly cut off CIA aid to “rebels,” i.e., al-Qaeda, in July.
That was then, this is now. The U.S. is not leaving Syria. The globalists, generals, and other Swamp-monsters, plus their Israeli and Saudi pals, have won and “America First!” has lost. Recently Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a new “way forward” in Syria, which in effect is an old way backwards the Obama policy. There are five pillars:
- Defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda. [The first is almost finished in Syria and Iraq, and regarding the second there seems to be some confusion about whose side we’ve been on for almost seven years];
- Assad must go [Seriously; the fact that regime change in Syria would mean curtains for the Christians evidently is of no concern in Washington];
- Block the Iranians [The “Shiite crescent” bogeyman is now a “northern arch”];
- Return of refugees to their homes [Is that why the U.S. and the EU maintain sanctions on government-held areas?]; and
- No weapons of mass destruction [Someone seems to have picked up by mistake the old talking points regarding Iraq, circa 2002].
The linchpin of this concept, if it can be called that, is using the Kurds as America’s boots on the ground. (It should be noted that when CIA assistance to its al-Qaeda clients was stopped last year, the Pentagon’s support for the Kurdish YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, “People’s Protection Units”) was maintained or stepped up; at the time the move seemed largely a bureaucratic tiff between Langley and DoD. Now however there are rumblings that the CIA aid spigot may be turned back on.) But for Erdogan, the icing on the cake was U.S. announcement of plans to create a 30,000 “Border Security Force.” For Turkey, this amounts to U.S. sponsorship, perhaps with partition of Syria in mind, of a Kurdish quasi-state comparable to Iraqi Kurdistan, in league with the Kurdish PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, “Kurdistan Workers Party”) – designated a terrorist group by the U.S., Turkey, and NATO. Hence Erdogan’s claim he is acting against a U.S.-armed “terror army,” which he vows to “strangle … before it’s even born.”
Perhaps U.S. officials thought they could manage Ankara’s response, or that the bombastic Erdogan was just bluffing. If so, they were mistaken. It now remains to be seen how far the Turks plan, or are able, to advance in Afrin. There is also speculation whether an assault may also be directed toward Manbij in the main, eastern Kurdish-held area known as Rojava, where some 2,000 or more American troops are present. In addition, Erdogan, who has progressively dismantled the Kemalist secular order in Turkey seems bent on whipping the offensive up as an Islamic ideological jihad in 90,000 mosques across the country.
Afrin, with its rough terrain, is a tough nut to crack. Manbij might be even harder and risk confrontation with the U.S. In either case the Kurds are fighting on their home turf against the Turkish army with their local Turkmen militia and al-Qaeda allies. Damascus reportedly has allowed Kurds from the main Rojava area they hold further east to cross government-held territory to reinforce Afrin. Meanwhile, the expectation of some Kurds that the United States would create a “no-fly zone” to defend them from America’s own NATO ally was comically unrealistic.
While it’s hard to say in the short term if the Turks or Kurds will come out ahead, there’s no doubt that strategically the big loser is the U.S. – and it’s a totally self-inflicted wound. If Trump had stuck to his original goal of just defeating ISIS, he could take credit for the efforts of the Syrian army and Russian air force and soon truthfully proclaim “Mission Accomplished” (in contrast to George W. Bush’s notorious Iraq declaration in 2003). But now, with the foolish adventure into which his generals (National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly) have led him, with Tillerson’s agreement or acquiescence, he now has on his hands a conflict between our de jure NATO ally Turkey and our de facto ally, the Kurds.
If the Kurds win, Turkey is in effect lost to NATO – we’re close to that already. If Turkey wins, the misguided U.S. plan to stay in Syria is finished – a likely outcome anyway.
As far as the impact within Syria, the Kurds are about to find out, as did the Iraqi Kurds following their abortive independence declaration last year, that they likewise have pressed their luck too far and were foolish to count on “friends” in Washington, for whom they are disposable. In the end, the Turkish attack is likely to accelerate the Kurds’ outreach to Damascus, with whom they have never entirely burned their bridges.