Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

The Syrian regime prevails

Backed by Russian air power, the Syrian military is now in the ascendancy across the country, adding to the anger and frustration felt in Ankara and Riyadh, writes Jeremy Salt

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the Syrian army advances on Raqqa and seals off supply routes to the armed gangs inside Aleppo, it is no surprise that there has been another spike in the propaganda war, this time directed against Russia.

Frustration and anger is driving Turkish cross-border shelling of Kurdish and Syrian army positions. Yet in many respects Turkey only has itself to blame. In helping to destroy the authority of the Syrian government, it created a power vacuum that was filled in the north by takfiri armed groups and the Kurds. Had Turkey not joined the effort to destroy the government in Damascus, it would not be in this position today. It thus shares responsibility for what it is now calling a threat to Turkey’s security.

The fruits of the opportunity handed to the Syrian Kurds are on the map in the form of three autonomous enclaves, something they could only have dreamed of while the Syrian government was in full control of the country. Furthermore, they have the political support of both Russia and the US, something else that could not have been envisaged just a few years ago.

In fighting against the Kurds, Turkey is also at loggerheads with the US. Told by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it had to make a choice between Turkey and the “terrorists,” the US said (yet again) that it did not regard the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) as a terrorist organisation. Thus, the situation has arisen of one NATO state bombing what it calls terrorists and another NATO state regarding them as allies in the fight against terrorism.

The ascendancy of the Syrian Kurds is only part of a spectacularly bad picture for Turkey. Whether Erdogan and the country’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, were badly advised, whether they ignored the advice they were given five years ago, or whether this policy was all their own idea, the intervention in Syria has been the greatest policy failure in Turkey’s history. There is simply no parallel.

Apart from the colossal damage done to Syria, the war has resulted in two million Syrians spilling across the Turkish border and onwards into Europe for those who think they can make it. The bodies washing up on the beaches along the Aegean coast are testimony to the inhuman consequences of this war for which, of course, everyone is blaming everyone else. The need to stop the war right now — today — is not even on the agenda of governments that still want to wrest some kind of victory from the jaws of imminent defeat.

The question of what to do about the refugees — “migrants”, as they are called in Europe, and “people under temporary protection” in Turkey — culminated recently in angry words directed against the UN (Erdogan’s “You are mocking us,” and Davutoglu’s “double standards”) and the EU (Erdogan’s threat to send the refugees into Europe on buses).

The war has spilled back across the border in many other ways, affecting the whole of society, down to Syrians begging in the streets or being used as cheap labour. Turkey has suffered suicide bombings in Istanbul, Ankara and along the Turkish-Syrian border. A recent bombing in Ankara was close to the parliament and aimed at military personnel. For all of this, Erdogan and Davutoglu are not yet prepared to give up on what even many Turks see as a lost and destructive cause.

Backed by Russian air power and supported by Iran and Hizbullah, the Syrian military is now in the ascendancy across the country. It is capturing key positions in the north and the south every day. Every victory only adds to the anger and frustration in Ankara and Riyadh.

Aleppo has been encircled and the supply route from the north through the Azaz Corridor virtually severed, accounting for the shelling of Kurdish positions around the town and the nearby Mannagh air base, which the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurdish and Arab) recently wrested from the control of Al-Nusra Front.

Syrian forces are closing in on Raqqa, and Aleppo is close to being liberated. According to reports, thousands of armed men have already decamped and headed for the Turkish border. Great will be the exhilaration of the citizens when the last of them are driven out.

Watching their Syrian policy finally disintegrate from Ankara, Erdogan and Davutoglu have turned up the heat in a desperate bid to change the momentum of the war. The cross-border shelling does not appear to have intimidated the Kurds. Davutoglu has announced that they will withdraw from their positions around Azaz, but the Syrian Kurdish leader, Salih Muslim, says they will not.

If the shelling was designed to compel the US to intervene, that has not worked either. The US has called on Turkey to stop its shelling of Kurdish and Syrian army positions. Additionally, the current president of the UN Security Council, Venezuela’s Ambassador Rafael Dario Ramirez Carraño, has said that all 15 members of the council have expressed concern at the situation and agreed to ask Turkey to respect international law.

“All” naturally also means the US in another jolt to Turkish amour propre. The following day the ambassador retreated from what he said: there was no consensus and the council members had only expressed their concern at the situation. It is reasonable to assume that he had come under pressure to water down his remarks.

Turkey has now entered into some kind of alliance with Saudi Arabia, which is like leaning on a rotten wooden railing thinking it is going to support you. Unable to suppress the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Saudis seem to think they can risk taking on Russia in Syria. Their foreign minister says that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has to be removed through a political process or he will be removed by force. This is plain hot air and indicative only of the delusional state of mind of the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia has sent planes to the US/NATO air base at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey in preparation for a war in which its role would be entirely inconsequential. Even in Yemen it has had to rely on Arab allies and mercenaries because its own armed forces are not up to the job. Like the Turkish government, the Saudi regime has invested heavily in the Syrian war, spending billions on supporting its proxies, only for everything to go wrong.

Turkey is now calling on other governments to join it in a ground operation across the Syrian border, which it argues is necessary to set up a “safe zone” for the refugees piling up from the effects of the war and to prevent the Kurds from imposing “demographic change” at the cost of Turkmen and Arabs. The word “invasion” is nowhere to be seen in the Turkish media, although in international law that is very clearly what it would seem to be.

This “safe zone” would extend 10 kilometres from the Turkish border and would include the town of Azaz. Erdogan and Davutoglu have wanted to establish such a zone from the beginning of the conflict. Perceptions are all-important: in Moscow and Damascus it would be taken for granted that such a zone could or would also be used to relieve the “rebels” in and around Aleppo. Hundreds of armed men are reported to have crossed the Turkish border in recent days to escape their rapidly deteriorating position.

The response to the Turkish government’s appeal to other governments to join it in this ground operation has been a deafening silence. Turkey claims some European governments are in favour without saying who they are. France and Britain would be safe bets, but both are likely to support such a venture only as long as they do not have to commit troops. They will not go where the US will not take the lead. It concedes that there is no consensus.

The US has long been against any attempt to set up a safe zone and has made it clear that it will not be sending ground forces to the Middle East again, at least for the foreseeable future. Neither does it want to be pulled into an open confrontation with Russia through the actions of its regional partners. At the same time, Turkey has to be careful not to be lured into a war which could only further the strategic designs of the US and Israel.

Were the US and its allies to accept defeat, the war could soon be over. But they evidently intend to string it out even longer in the hope of pulling their irons out of the fire. After the crisis in Ukraine, the US cannot allow another Russian triumph as this would reset the geopolitics of the Middle East, with spin-off effects around the world.

When the so-called Islamic State (IS) group pulled down the border fences between Syria and Iraq, it said it had finally destroyed Sykes-Picot, the 1916 pact that divided the Middle East between Britain and France. In fact, by destroying Iraq as a unitary state within the post-1918 boundaries and by attempting to destroy Syria, it is the US that destroyed Sykes-Picot. What suited the British in 1918 did not suit the Americans by 2003.

The word “pivot” sits at the centre of current US strategic thinking. There is the “pivot” towards China. Ukraine was to be a “pivot” against Russia, and in the Middle East a Kurdish state created at the expense of the Arab states and even Turkey would be a “pivot” serving US and Israeli strategies across the region. Israel has long cultivated the Kurds on the basis of common interests — “We are both outsiders whom no one likes” — and it strongly supports Kurdish independence. And in all but name, this is what the Iraqi Kurds already have.

They have taken what they call their Jerusalem — Kirkuk — and now they have Mosul in their sights, which could be why Turkey has set up a forward base near the city. It wanted Mosul in the 1920s, but the city was allocated to Iraq (i.e., to Britain) by the League of Nations (dominated by Britain and France). To the victor will go the spoils, but as yet it is not clear who will have the capacity to liberate Mosul and which of the contenders the US will favour.

The breakup of Iraq and the attempt to break up Syria fully accords with the long-term Zionist goal of partitioning the central lands of the Middle East into manageable statelets. The usual point of reference is the Yinon Plan of the 1980s, which set out in detail Zionist planning to break up the entire Middle East, but this has been Israel’s aim from the beginning. The former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, made it clear that Israel would rather see the IS in Damascus than the present government. It has supported the takfiris through aerial attacks, arms supplies and medical treatment in its hospitals.

These plans are now close to defeat. The ability of the Syrian government and military to withstand the violent assault of the past five years is a tremendous development. Like iron tempered by fire, Syria will emerge from this ordeal stronger than before. These are historic moments for the Middle East, which is why the powers that have controlled it for so long are determined to stop the clock.


The writer taught at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specialising in the modern history of the Middle East.

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