Elijah J. Magnier
Although the Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds in Northeast Syria (NES) only involves the conquest of a 32 km buffer zone on the border, the Ankara offensive could achieve quite different goals provided that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan respects the agreements made with Russia and the United States that allowed him to invade Syria.
The United States have been clear: Turkey has not exceeded the limits imposed; with this statement they have revealed that they gave their consent, some time ago, to the incursion of Ankara into NES. Russia has called for respect for the integrity of Syrian territory but the fact is that it has neither opposed nor condemned its strategic ally, the Turkish president Erdogan. Beyond that, however, Turkey could reduce its initial goals and this will depend on President Donald Trump, if (and for how long) he can resist the barrage of criticism that is coming to him from all over the world, even from his country, for abandoning the Syrian Kurds. Ultimately, this attack can bring benefits to many countries and it would seem that the United States, even if with a slow process, are determined to decrease their presence in Syria. Iran is no longer the reason why it continues to occupy the NES and the al-Tanf crossing, given that the al-Qaem crossing between Syria and Iraq has begun to function again. It is simply the state of confusion in which the American administration finds itself that prevents an immediate withdrawal, but this confusion will most likely disappear in the months and years to come.
Turkish troops, supported by jihadists and rebels fighting as the “Syrian National Army”, have attacked the enclave that the Kurdish separatists call “Rojava”, an enclave in practice autonomous. Although not all of it, much of the area attacked by ground troops and militias is inhabited by Arab tribes who would be happy if there were a Turkish presence: this is an important factor to take into account as these Sunni Arabs do not represent, in the long run, a threat to the Turks and their allies in the Syrian opposition. Inevitably, there will be a large exodus of Kurds and Christians to safer towns and villages not included in the Turkish plan. These communities will certainly not submit to the new occupiers. The NES is huge: it is larger than Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon put together, it is said to be about 43,000 square kilometers.
The area under Turkish attack (provided that Erdogan manages to reach his goal and therefore control the first 30-32km) should offer enough space to accommodate the approximately 4 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and another 2 million Syrians living in Idlib who would be forced to leave there to avoid the war that will inevitably break out when Turkey, unloaded the jihadists who occupy the city, will allow Russia and the Syrian government to free it. The Kurds would lose territories and cities, but the remaining space would be sufficient to allow the coexistence of both sides until the withdrawal of American troops.
The Syrian government is in a strong position in negotiations with the Kurds, the great losers. In Damascus, they know perfectly well that the Kurds will have to face the Turkish attack and face a probable gradual withdrawal of the Americans next year. The cost of not accepting a decent agreement in better times will be very high. At this point they will be forced to negotiate under threat: either they accept the role of Damascus or they will end up under the clutches of Turkey. The only hope of survival as an autonomous entity could be to cross the border to go to Iraq and live under the Barzani clan.
Turkey aims to return to the Astana process with a large area under its control. It would then be able to meet its commitments and contain the Jihadists of Idlib or choose to leave them in the hands of the Syrian army and the Russian Air Force. On 29 November, the Constitutional Commission will hold a conference to discuss the reforms proposed and accepted by the Syrian government. That is what Ankara is aiming for in order to set in motion a political solution to the war in Syria and it is also what the United States is hoping for, as it wishes to leave when this very important constitutional restructuring is approved and put into practice.
It is not strange that Arab states with the exception of Qatar condemn the Turkish invasion of Syria and call for the Arab League to be convened for this reason. When Turkey invaded the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, the Middle Eastern countries were silent. The feud between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, provoked the mobilization of Riyadh against Turkey, ally of Qatar in the Middle East. Could there be a rapprochement between the Gulf countries and Damascus? Undoubtedly, however, there will not be close ties with Syria again unless they have the approval of the United States whose administration had prevented them from even reopening embassies in Damascus.
Turkey is not in a position to give serious guarantees to Russia and the United States that they will withdraw from Syria once they have achieved their constitutional objective and reform. It failed for more than a year to do so in Idlib, where it left the field open to the jihadists in the city under its control, thus dissatisfying Iran and Russia that had expended themselves in reaching the agreement.
But the situation in the NES could be completely different. The Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes, since the beginning of the war imposed on the country in 2011, have never been “anti-Damascus”. In addition, the Syrian army and its allies have until now maintained a contingent in Qamishli and the airport, so the state’s relations with the population have not been interrupted. It would therefore be possible for Damascus to supply the Kurds with the weapons they would greatly need if Ankara were to decide to replace the American forces by occupying the enclave.
The war in Syria is dwindling. The Arab States no longer have an interest in supporting the Syrian rebels and would like to have good relations with the Syrian government again. Direct contacts, far from the media, have continued but still today the United States is putting pressure on Arab countries to keep President Assad at a distance. The government in Damascus controls half of the country where 70% of the Syrian population lives. The border between Syria and Iraq is as open as that with Jordan, even if the United States exercises control to limit the exchange of goods. ISIS no longer controls cities, nor does it have a sponsor to enable it to recover. It will remain a group of outlaw bandits wandering in the deserts of Syria and Iraq in search of remnants of lost glory, and will still attack in a spectacular way but without a strategy and without obtaining any significant results. The Kurds have been hit hard but apparently are not learning their lesson. They still control important energy resources that the Syrian government is determined to recover. Iran is in Syria and its departure at the end of the war is irrelevant: the link with Syria has become very strong and the United States can do very little. Washington and its allies lost the war while Russia, Iran and Damascus won.
Israel is not winning and has bombed Syria in vain. Nothing has changed since his attacks which are just propaganda for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Hezbollah is in possession of the latest generation of drones, Iranian precision missiles and Russian and Iranian supersonic anti-ship missiles. Assad and his allies have realized, after the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles, that even limited military equipment can bring a country to its knees. When the situation in Syria is settled, Damascus will be able to claim the Golan Heights and take back its occupied territories. The war in the Middle East is no longer based on military power because by now everyone has advanced technology. It is an economic war. This also applies to Turkey, should it ever be its intention to replace the American occupation.
In the meantime, Syria is not being harmed by the Turkish incursion, but neither is Russia and Iran. They are observing the United States, always the most feared, which is losing ground and allies in the Middle East. The US administration has substantially undermined relations with the region for the future. Other allies with lesser needs than Washington are appearing and asserting themselves. The day the United States leaves Syria, its decline will be irreversible.
Italian Translation by Alice Censi
English Translation by Internationalist 360°