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US & Erdogan in Collision Course: The Consequences of Ceding North Syria to the PKK

Just days after Secretary Rex Tillerson announced that Assad will stay, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the US has to recognize realities on the ground (including the rule of Assad over Ayria), the Syrian President showed his obsession with punishing his own people for daring to say “no” by using the very chemical weapons that President Obama forced him to give up, killing over 100 civilians including many children. Announcing he US policy change gave Assad a green light to do what he wants, knowing that he is recognized, safe and secure, in his palace in Damascus.

Chemicals were used on a residential area – Khan Sheikhoun – south of Idlib. Now, we will see if Russia or international community in general will do anything. If not, the use of chemical weapons will be repeated, not only in Syria, but in other regional conflicts. The cowardice, hypocrisy, and empty speeches about human rights will be more evident to all. Those who defend Assad should think again. They are defending someone who is not different from any terrorist thug, they both kill children and civilians blindly.

And Syria’s tragedy is going on. Quite a bit of developments took place in the last few days, starting from the evolving position of the Turkish government.  

The assessment that Turkey does not intend to leave Syria was right. On April 3, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that there will be multiple Turkish operations in north Syria. “We have completed the first phase of the Euphrates Shield Operation with the cleaning of Syria’s al-Bab from terrorists. It is now over and there will be [operations] from now on. Right now, we are preparing for new operations to walk all over terror organizations in other regions. We will give new names to new operations. We have very good surprises for all terror groups, including the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] YPG [the People’s Protection Units], DEASH [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], FETÖ [Fethullahist Terror Organization], waiting for the spring. With God’s will, the upcoming months will be the dead winter of terrorists while it will be the spring of Turkey and the Turkish nation,” Erdoğan said.

In fact, dissolving the Turkish backed small army of Euphrates Shield (ES) is a step towards a bigger operation. Signs on the ground, including information exchanged by Arab Sunni Syrian opposition groups confirm that Erdogan is serious, though this will put him in a collision course with his NATO ally the US and possibly the Russians if Turkey is eyeing Afrin as well.

Erdogan seems to be targeting the base of US-PKK cooperation in that area by offering his and Syrian opposition’s alternatives. The US refused the trade for multiple reasons. Nevertheless, Erdogan decided to go ahead.

Erdogan’s argument is as follows: These are Arab Sunni territories and it should be liberated by the Arab Sunnis not the Kurdish YPG. The US argument goes as follows: The opposition forces did not prove that effective in several fights (e.g. Al Bab), and they include radical Jihadists. We feel more comfortable with the leftist YPG.

But Erdogan sees this as helping the YPG to spread further outside of historically-Kurdish regions. The PKK demands the separation of south east Turkey to join Iraqi, Iranian Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdish regions.

The US says, in response, that the territories liberated from ISIL will be controlled by Assad, not the PKK, and they will be liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include Arabs and Kurds. But giving these territories to Assad makes it even worse for Erdogan for two reasons: Assad does not have the muscles to control that region, and his presence would be symbolic at best. And Assad may join the PKK in making the Turks pay for their intervention against his regime. In other words, Erdogan will face two adversaries not one: Assad and the PKK. Furthermore, almost everyone following Syria knows that the SDF are controlled by the YPG, with some Sunni Arab decorative items here and there.

However, the central cause of this futile ping-pong dialogue is what the US did not do when it was supposed to do- that is to limit Kurdish expectations from the start. The absence of a cap on Kurdish ambitions in Syria and the failure to reach a firm deal with the PYD before the serious lifting began brought about some ridiculous hopes in the part of the Kurds. They are falling now in the trap of territory grab, digging in history books to prove that this or that area were Kurdish hundreds of years ago, but the Arabs took it, then they have to take it back. It is another Israel-Palestine problem in the making by shortsighted commanders and politicians.  

The project is to establish a Kurdish independent region extending from Iran to Iraq, Turkey and Syria and with coastal window on the Mediterranean if possible. True that the Americans are starting now to timidly talk louder in opposing this project, but words are just words. Actions point to a different direction.

The PKK does not realize that this will make its presence the target of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The US would have gotten the head of ISIL and will be busy congratulating itself. Do they think it will come to their rescue?

This may fuel the continuation of the conflict very long after ISIL is gone and may turn it even into a regional issue with the participation of other countries.

The issue of framing Kurdish aspiration has become too pressing to be delayed further. We saw that even the KRG in Iraq raised its flag side by side with the Iraqi flag on government buildings in Kirkuk. And we see how the YPG is boldly speaking about keeping Manbij forever. Both Kirkuk and Manbij are outside the historical Kurdish regions. Then comes Raqqa, which has always been an Arab, not Kurdish, town.

It goes even beyond that. Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, the Syrian sister of the PKK, which is cooperating with U.S. forces against ISIL, said in a telephone interview with Reuters on March 25 that he expected that Raqqa could join a Kurdish-led federation in Syria once it is cleared of ISIL. The following day, the U.S. commander in region said that in the northern sector of Syria next to the Turkish border, only 10 percent of the population are Kurds, and that the US mission was not to facilitate a Kurdish federation in Syria but defeat ISIL. Well Sir, you adopted an “ISIL First” strategy and we will see how events will judge this approach. And we expect that it will be clear to all that this approach was a terrible mistake. And we also expect to hear then all the usual excuses and blame games.

Muslim’s statement is translated as follows: We will take Raqqa, an Arab Sunni town, from ISIL with the help of the Americans, but not to return it to the Syrian Arab Sunnis, instead, we will keep it Kurdish under our flag. What do the Americans expect Syria’s Arabs, or the Turks, will do? Say “Bon Appetit Monsieur”?  

One can say that when all dust settles, there will be one storm still raging: The Kurdish question. If the objective is to ultimately stabilize this region, it is crucial to have a diplomatic approach to reach a formula approved by all relevant players: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. There is already an agreement between Russia and the US on the limits of Kurdish aspirations at this moment in their history. It may be time for the two countries to coordinate an effort to reach an understanding between the Kurds and the concerned governments in order to avoid the complexities that appear already on the horizon right now. Or, if this is difficult to do, it may be time to trim Kurdish aspirations and fit them within geographically defined self-administered regions, among others. Else, we will find a time bomb getting out of control.

But due to the current US conviction, the objective is not to stabilize that region. It is to defeat “ISIL first”, then to see the rest. It is as if defeating ISIL and the rest are separated. We all know they are not. We all know that the real problem is the way of thinking, not this or that Commander. And we all know that, rarely, the US military learns from its own mistake. Simple division of a mission is easier. Expediency is profitable in the short term. And very few think of the longer-term. Moreover, we know that politicians have their own drum beats and demands. But the military’s role is to inject those guys with a dose of reality, not to march helplessly according to their pace, without saying a word.

Once the objective was limited in “ISIL first”, it was clear that the outcome will be superficial and temporary. It was even clearer that this approach will leave enough debris to create bigger problems in the future as we already see happening. Once a surgeon opens a patient, he has to finish the job, clean and close. This partial approach will go in history as another blunder similar to that of invading Iraq, though it is covered now by everyone’s wish that ISIL is eradicated. ISIL has become another Saddam. But you cannot cheat reality. It always has the last laugh.     

What will happen, then, after forming Erdogan’s ES-2?

ES-2’s mission is to fight the PKK on Syrian territories. The difference between this fight and the fight in south-east Turkey, where the majority is Kurds, is that there are Syrian Arabs in the north-east Syria who will see the PKK annexing areas of their own territory. Syria’s Arabs will support ES-2 and inject it with a flood of fresh recruits.

And if the Russians and the Americans pressured Turkey to disband its new force at one point in the future, it will be Syria’s Arabs who will carry on. Will this reproduce ISIL-like groups? No question. This strain of cancer needs a state of armed conflicts and chaos to spread. Even if these territories are given back to Assad, this will be a too thin of a paint to hide the facts on the ground. And even if Assad is assisted full force, this will mean a continuation of the conflict.

It is a nightmare.   

April 6, 2017

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