By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
Although the Turkish attack against the Syrian Kurds in North-East Syria (NES)is limited to a specific bordering buffer zone not larger than 32 kilometres, it will achieve a multiple layer of objectives if the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan respects the acknowledgement he has received from Russia and the US, permitting his forces to invade Syria.
The US was clear: Turkey has not crossed the red line , indicating that a previous consent was reached with Ankara to allow the Turkish incursion in NES. Russia has also called for the integrity of the Syrian territory but did not oppose or condemn its strategic ally President Erdogan. Regardless, Turkey may reduce its initial objectives, depending on how long President Donald Trump can resist the significant international and domestic pressure he is under for dropping the Syrian Kurds. After all, many countries benefit from this action and the US seems slowly but surely heading toward reducing its presence in Syria. Iran is no longer the reason for US forces to occupy NSE and Al-Tanf since the al-Qaem crossing between Iraq and Syria regained its function. It is the US administration’s confusion that is preventing an immediate withdrawal- that is however expected not to drag on for years to come.
Turkish forces supported by jihadists and other Syrian rebels under the banner of the “Syrian National Army” attacked the de facto autonomous Kurdish enclave in NES, named “Rojava” by the separatist Kurds. Most parts of the area under attack first by ground troops and militia advance are inhabited by Arab tribes – although not exclusively – who would welcome the Turkish presence. This is an important factor since the Arab Sunni society poses no threat to the Turks and their proxy forces in the longer term. It will be inevitable to observe a large exodus of Kurds and Christians towards safer cities and villages not included in the Turkish plans. These are unwilling to be submitted to the new occupant. The entire area in NES is vast: its territory is bigger than Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrein, and Lebanon all together, nearly 43,000 sq km.
The zone under Turkish attack – if Erdogan is allowed to reach his objective and control the first 30-32 kilometres-wide area –is expected to offer enough space to re-locate Syrian refugees. These are divided in two parts: those living in Turkey (these count around 3.6 million) and another couple of millions who live in Idlib and may be forced to escape the battle when Turkey lets go of the Jihadists occupying the city and permits Russia and Syria to liberate the city. The Kurds will lose ground, and cities, but the remaining space will be enough for both sides to co-exist as long as the US forces have not withdrawn.
The Syrian government is in a stronger position in relation to its negotiation with the Kurds, the biggest losers. Damascus officials are aware the Kurds have to face the Turkish attack and a possible gradual US withdrawal in the next year or so. This will expose the Syrian Kurds to harsh reprisals because they have refused to reach an acceptable deal in a time of prosperity. Now the Kurds will have to negotiate under fire or accept to be submitted to Damascus or face their destiny under the Turkish guns and invasion. Their only survival hope is maybe to cross into Iraq and live “under the Barzani clan”, when all options are exhausted.
Turkey is aiming to go to Astana more stringently than ever, with an extensive zone under its control. It will be in a position to either fulfil its commitment and contain the jihadists in Idlib or leave them to the guns of the Syrian army and the Russian air force. On the 29th of November, the constitutional committee will be holding its conference to discuss reforms offered and acknowledged by the Syrian government. This is what Ankara is aiming for to put the political solution of the war in Syria on track. That would also be the hope of the US who will be willing to leave, once this most important constitutional restructuring has been agreed and implemented.
It is not surprising to hear the Arab countries, with the exception of Qatar, condemning the Turkish invasion of Syria and the call for the Arab league to meet for this purpose. When Turkey invaded the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, the Middle Eastern countries were absent. But the Saudi-Qatar “poor relationship” triggered Riyadh’s mobilisation against Turkey, Qatar’s ally in the Middle East. Is this another rapprochement between the Gulf countries and Damascus? Certainly, it is. None the less, no return to full ties with Syria unless agreed by the US whose administration forced the Arabs to stop their fast track return to Syria to re-open their embassies in the first place.
Turkey is not in a position to offer any serious guarantee to Russia and the US in relation to its withdrawal from Syria once the objective will be achieved and the constitution is reformed. It has failed to do so in Idlib for more than a year – to the discontent of Russia and Iran who played a role in achieving the deal, and kept jihadists within its controlled area in the Syrian city.
However, in NES, the situation might be totally different. The Syrian Kurds and the Arab tribes have not been “anti-Damascus” since the beginning of the war imposed on the country in 2011. Moreover, the Syrian Army and its allies maintained until today a large force in Qamishli, including the airport itself. Therefore, the relationship with the inhabitants of the region never ceased. Therefore, it would be possible for Damascus and its allies to supply the Kurds with much needed weapons and plans to form an insurgency against the Turkish forces and their proxies, in case Ankara decides to replace the US forces and occupy the enclave.
The Syrian war is fading away. The Arab countries have enough of supporting any Syrian group and would like to regain good contacts with the Syrian government, overtly. Direct contacts, away from media, never stopped but the US is still pressurising the Arabs to keep a distance from President Assad for the time being. The government of Damascus controls half of the country where over 70% of the Syrians live. The border between Syria and Iraq is open and the one with Jordan as well even if the US exerts control to limit the exchange of goods. ISIS has no longer the control of any city, nor a sponsor to resurrect. It will remain a kind of bandit or outlaws’ group errant in the Syrian-Iraqi deserts, trying to regain some of the lost glory with possible spectacular attacks but with no strategy or any substantial outcome for the group. The Kurds have been hit hard and will apparently never learn their lesson. They are still in control of important energy resources the government of Damascus will do everything to get back. Iran is in Syria to stay and its departure at the end of the war means very little: a strong bond has been created with Syria. The US can do little about that. Washington and its allies have lost the war and Russia, Iran and Damascus have won.
Israel is not winning but has been bombing Syria to no avail. Nothing has been altered on the ground due to these attacks which are a propaganda tool to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Hezbollah has its latest model armed drones, its Iranian precision missiles and its Russian and Iranian super-sonic anti-ship missiles. Assad and his allies understand today, after the Houthi missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia, that it only takes simple military hardware to put a country on its knees. Once the situation will settle in Syria, Damascus needs very little effort to claim back the Golan Heights and recover its occupied territories. The war in the Middle East is no longer about flexing military muscles because the advanced military technology is held by all parties. It is an “economic war”. This is also valid for Turkey if its intention is to replace the US occupation.
In the meantime, Syria is not damaged by the Turkish incursion, neither Russia or Iran. They are watching the US, always the biggest potential threat, lose more ground- and more allies- in the Middle East. This administration has damaged substantially the US relationship with the region for many years to come. Other allies are imposing themselves with much lower expectations than the US. Once the US leaves Syria, its decline will be irreversible.
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher and C.G.B
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