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A Game of All Losers in Syria

A Game of All Losers in Syria

Friday, 11 October, 2019 - 06:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
While a "will-they won’t-they" speculation regarding a possible Turkish invasion of Syria continues, we may be witnessing the clash of three aspirations that the three parties to the drama hold to be legitimate.

In one corner of this triangle is President Donald J. Trump who triggered the current phase of the crisis with a tweet announcing his decision to end America’s military presence in Syria. That means abandoning Washington’s Kurdish allies who helped defeat ISIS at the cost of more than 11,000 dead. An American withdrawal would leave these Kurds, branded as “terrorist” by Ankara vulnerable to attacks by superior Turkish forces. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly speaks of “ethnic cleansing” against the Syrian Kurds as part of his plan to create a glacis within Syria to settle over a million Arab-Syrian refugees currently in Turkish camps.

But, why is Trump’s decision legitimate in his own eyes and the eyes of his supporters?

This is because Trump campaigned on a promise to end “the endless wars” that he claims his predecessors started in the Middle East. Trumps’ idiosyncratic style of decision-making shouldn’t hide the fact that a majority of Americans do not wish to spend any more blood and treasure in faraway wars without any direct or indirect impact on their own lives. Even if American withdrawal leads to a resurgence of ISIS that should not be seen as a direct threat to the United States 10,000 kilometers away. Also, resurgent ISIS would not be more dangerous for US interests than its Khomeinist version based in Tehran.

There was a time when the US needed a massive presence in the region to ensure the continuation of regular oil supplies to itself and the world markets in general. Right now, however, fear of running out of oil is the least of any American president’s worries. The end of the Cold War has also applied the law of diminishing returns to the American presence in the Middle East. John Foster Dulles’ “quarantine the aggressor” strategy and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Islamic green belt” to suffocate the USSR are part of history as is the Soviet challenger itself.

In terms of image and prestige, too, Trump may also have an excuse for his decision. President George W Bush was pilloried for intervening in Iraq, and his successor Barack Obama was vilified for not intervening in Syria. Since the US is criticized, whether it intervenes or not, it would make no difference what others, especially soft anti-Americans in Europe, say about his withdrawal move.

What about the feeling of legitimacy on the Turkish side of the triangle?

There, too, a case could be made for Erdogan’s desire to transform a chunk of Syrian land on Turkey’s border into a cordon sanitaire against Kurdish military incursion into Turkish territory. For almost four decades, Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist outfit dedicated to carving a Kurdish statelet in Anatolia.

This 40 years’ war has drained Turkey’s economic resources, slowed down socio-political reform and facilitated the emergence of Erdoganism, a mixture of Turkish chauvinism and Muslim Brotherhood Islamism, as the dominant ideology in the country. Without that war, some analysts believe that Turkey would have become a full-fledged democracy and a member of the European Union.

The irony in that is that Erdogan and his cohorts were initially swept to power thanks to Kurdish votes as the PKK regarded anyone who stood against the Kemalist ruling elite as an ally.

Erdogan has succeeded in depriving the PKK of any fall-back position, let alone a safe haven, in other lands where ethnic Kurds are present. He has made an alliance with Iraqi Kurds who have shut their autonomous region to armed PKK units. Erdogan has also reached an anti-Kurd understanding with the mullahs in Tehran ending the PKK’s 30-years long presence inside Iranian territory. Moreover, the Turks are also building a 48-kilometer long wall on the Iranian border to prevent even small-scale infiltration by Kurdish “terrorists.”

Erdogan’s plan to create an Ankara controlled enclave inside Syria is as popular in Turkey as Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is in the United States.

On the third side of the triangle, the Kurds defend the legitimacy of their own cause. Of the 17 major ethnic-linguistic groups of the world still without a state of their own, the Kurds are the largest. They are present in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, former Soviet Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia since time immemorial. Their aspiration to separate statehood started in the aftermath of the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

Then US President Woodrow Wilson promised them a state of their own but his successors quickly forgot the whole thing. During the Second World War Josef Stalin promised them a state and briefly tried to carve a chunk of Iranian territory for that purpose. However, he, too, quickly betrayed his Kurdish allies in exchange for a promise of a share in Iranian oil. In the 1970s, it was the turn of President Richard Nixon, through his Secretary of State, the self-styled Metternich of the time, to deceive the Kurds, this time in Iraq, and abandoning them when no longer useful. Stabbing the Kurds in the back has a long history.

What if our triangle has a fourth, not readily visible, angle?

That would be the United States as a superpower, the inventor of the current world order, and the guardian of a minimum of international law for almost seven decades. For eight years, Obama ignored that fact, making a speech each time there was a crisis that needed a clear and decisive American position, not necessarily military, even as far as diplomacy and economic measures were concerned.

More impatient, perhaps, Trump has no time for Obamaesque long flowery but empty speeches. Instead, he does the same thing with short, crisp tweets. The result is the same: rendering the mechanism of the world order, with all its defects, ineffective. And that means everyone will end up a loser, which, in this case, means Turkey, the Kurds, Syria, the Middle East, Russia, Europe and, of course, the United States.

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