Ever since things started to go badly wrong in Syria after the uprising prompted by the 2011Arab Spring, the situation has made the normal fog of war into an impenetrable black box. None of the intervening political actors, including Turkey, the United States, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, calculated correctly, nor did the various non-state extremist groups associated with al Qaeda and later ISIS, as well as a variety of anti-Damascus Syrian insurgencies. No international conflict has ever been quite so opaque, multi-faceted, and beset by the play of contradictory national, regional and global political forces.
Two fundamental miscalculations, repetitions of past mistakes by these contending forces, have led to the devastation of Syria, the massive suffering, death and displacement of millions, and a set of circumstances that has no prospect of a quick and satisfactory ending. The first miscalculation, shared especially by Turkey and Washington, was that military intervention could quickly tip the balance, producing the desired regime change in Damascus. The second was that Syria was like Libya, a government lacking political support of its own population, and could be toppled by insurgent violence and external diplomatic and military assistance. These miscalculations overlooked the capabilities of Iran and Russia to offset anti-Assad interventions and underestimated both the domestic support of the government in Damascus and the capabilities and battlefield effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces.
In the years of disorder, the struggle for control of the Syrian state became entangled with other political preoccupations, especially the US-led struggle against ISIS and Kurdish efforts to pursue their goals of self-determination, given the fluidity of the political situation in Syria, and inspired by the success of the Iraqi Kurds in virtually achieving de facto statehood in northern Iraq. The Kurdish plan unfolding, in collaboration with US military forces supposedly present to fight ISIS, was to help the Syrian Kurds under the militant leadership of the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), which most objective commentators agreed was closely linked materially and ideologically to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which has been engaged in armed struggle against Turkey for more than 20 years either to create a standalone Kurdistan or an autonomous Kurdish-dominated political entity within existing Turkish borders. As complicated and contested as is this background, the foreground is even murkier.
There are two extraneous factors that need to be considered. First, Trump’s diplomacy, as usual, irresponsibly sent the most mixed possible signal to all interested parties. To Ankara, the abrupt pullout of American military forces was signaled as a green light, followed then by threats by Trump to destroy the Turkish economy, followed by sanctions that can be interpreted either as a red light, or merely a yellow light intended to appease his Republican critics at home who voiced harsh criticism of abandoning the YPG, an ally in the primary American fight against terrorism. To the Syrian Kurds it seemed the end of the dream of self-determination, and instead the prospect of a military and humanitarian catastrophe. Many thousands have fled across the Turkish border to add still more refugees to four million already present.
The second extraneous factor is to take account of the international campaign waged against the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which external enemies of the Turkish president and the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) seized upon to brand the Turkish incursion as “ethnic cleansing” or worse, to contend that Turkey is such a disgrace to NATO that is should be kicked out and to point out that America has once again cynically abandoned the Kurds as soon as they were no longer needed. It is not that these anti-Turkish sentiments are all wrong, but they are certainly being used for wider purposes unrelated to the attack, and hence exaggerated beyond recognition.
This anti-Turkish campaign has been waged by a group of Turkish forces, including overseas Kurds, Kemalists, and followers of the Fetullah Gülen movement that staged an attempted coup in 2016, producing what was seen by Turkey as indifference to the survival of the elected democratic government on the part of Washington, Western Europe and Israel.
If you look at the strongly pro-Israel websites such as Middle East Forum, a vehicle for the views of Zionist extremist Daniel Pipes and Gatestone Institute associated with such rightest figures as Alan Dershowitz and John Bolton, you will read a steady stream of rabid opinion pieces designed to delegitimize Turkey in every possible way. There is much pious writing on these websites about abuses of human rights in Turkey, as well there should be, but there is a deafening silence about far worse abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t require a PhD to understand that what is at stake is Middle East hegemony in collaboration with Israel, and given such an agenda, it is not surprising that there is such an imbalanced interpretation of Operation Peace Spring, Turkey’s code name for its military operation.
Somewhat surprisingly, The New York Times published an opinion piece by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, which set forth in clear and plausible terms the scope of the military undertaking and Turkish overall intentions. What was central, and totally neglected by the hostile drumbeat of anti-Turkish media coverage, was the affirmation that Turkey was seeking a “safe zone” on its borders, and was not seeking to attack the Kurdish people. Çavuşoğlu contended that the Turkish aim was limited to clear a 20-mile strip of the YPG and ISIS presence, and allow those Syrian refugees in Turkey who wished to return to Syria to settle in this cleared land. A secondary objective was to restore Syrian sovereignty over its own territory, which meant defeating the hope for a Rojava statelet in northeast Syria. Çavuşoğlu rightly rejected as malicious propaganda the claim that Turkish forces or sympathizers were setting ISIS fighters free from detention. This inflammatory aspect of the anti-Turkish narrative makes little sense as ISIS was consistently directing violence at Turkish targets.
Inside Turkey, even among those deeply opposed to Erdogan and the AKP, there is a consensus supportive of the military operation so long as it is limited to the counterterrorist goals. The Trump diplomacy combined with the AKP alliance with the anti-Kurdish right-wing after 2014 does explain why Kurds, even if not sympathetic with the tactics or affiliation of YPG, are nervous about what is happening, especially after Trump pulled the rug out from under them, insultingly saying they were not an ally and their protection was not a matter of national interest. The Kurdish about face, realigning with Damascus is neither stupid nor surprising. It is as yet impossible to tell whether this shift in alignment and expectations by the YPG is a tactical expedient or represents a major shift in political ambitions.
My plea is to withhold judgment, avoid intervention or otherwise escalating the scope or intensity of the conflict, seek negotiations, and stay mindful of humanitarian concerns. It would help also to disregard the anti-Turkish extremists who have as their primary goal regime change in Turkey by delegitimizing the Turkish state, and encouraging what Trump threatens, destroying the economy of this sovereign state that is as entitled to uphold its national security as any other.
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