The vacuum left by the United States in Syria - GulfToday

The vacuum left by the United States in Syria

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning Independent columnist who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He has been with The Independent since 1990.

Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning Independent columnist who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He has been with The Independent since 1990.

Turkish aggression in Syria unacceptable

Turkish and US troops return from a joint patrol in northern Syria, as it is pictured from near the Turkish town of Akcakale, Turkey. File/Reuters

“Never get into a well with an American rope” goes the saying spreading across the Middle East, as the US abandons its Kurdish allies in Syria to a Turkish invasion force. People in the region are traditionally cynical about the loyalty of great powers to their local friends, but even they are shocked by the speed and ruthlessness with which Donald Trump greenlit the Turkish attack.

According to the UN and human rights groups, tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees are in flight from their border towns and are being targeted by Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire. Most leaders contemplating ethnic cleansing keep quiet about it, but Turkey’s President Erdogan is openly declaring that he will settle two million Syrian Arab refugees from other parts of Syria on Kurdish lands (he says he’s discovered that the land is not really Kurdish).

Every news dispatch from the new war zone is full of ironies. Trump says that Turkey will be responsible for securing the thousands of Daesh prisoners held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), But Brett McGurk, as the former presidential adviser to the anti-Daesh coalition — and the source for the saying about the unreliability of US rope — notes that in the past it was Turkey which had rejected “any serious cooperation on Daesh even as 40k foreign fighters flowed through its territory into Syria”.

Other ironies are still to come. At about the same moment that the Turkish army was crossing the Syrian frontier to attack the YPG on Wednesday, these Kurdish forces were under attack from a different enemy: in the former de facto Daesh capital of Raqqa, two Daesh fighters with automatic rifles, grenades and suicide belts opened fire on the YPG, who have controlled the city since they captured it from Isis in 2017 at the cost of 11,000 lives.

On this occasion, the two Daesh men were surrounded by the YPG, who ultimately came out on top. But in future, their soldiers — it is absurd to call them militiamen since they are some of the most experienced soldiers in the Middle East — will face a more difficult task. In addition to battling Isis at ground level, they will also have to scan the sky for hostile Turkish aircraft that are already hitting YPG positions to the north of Raqqa. Inevitably, parts of the old caliphate will soon start to slip back under Isis rule.

The resurgence of Daesh and the fate of the thousands of Daesh prisoners held by the YPG has been the focus of much self-centred speculation in the US and Europe. But this is only one consequence of the chaos brought about by the Turkish invasion; there will be no like-for-like replacement of Kurdish/American control with Turkish control.

In this vast area — the 25 per cent of Syria that lies east of the Euphrates — Turkey will be a big player, but it will not be an all-powerful one. It may try to carve its way through northeast Syria salami-style, one slice at a time, though this will still have a great effect on the Kurds since 500,000 of them of them live close to the border. In effect, the frontier between Turks and Kurds will simply be pushed further south and will be a great deal hotter than it was before.

In other words, the inevitable outcome of President Trump greenlighting the Turkish action — in this case the absence of a red light was the same as a green one — is fragmentation of power. This fragmentation will clear an ideal breeding ground for a renewed Daesh, and the attack in Raqqa mentioned above is evidence that this rebirth is already beginning.

Another feature of the present crisis favours Daesh and the al-Qaeda-type paramilitaries acting as Turkish proxies. Maps showing northeast Syria as “Kurdish-controlled” mask the fact that the demographic balance between Arab and Kurd in this region is fairly equal. Ethnic rivalries and hatreds are the substance of local politics and will become even more venomous and decisive as communities have to choose between Turks and Kurds. It is this sort of sort of broken political terrain in which Daesh and al-Qaeda have traditionally flourished. The balance of power in Syria has been changed by the Turkish invasion and by the American unwillingness or inability to stop it. Trump makes clear that he wants out of the Syrian war. “USA should never have been in Middle East,” he tweeted this week. “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending.” Despite this, the world has been curiously slow to take his isolationism and dislike of military action seriously.

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