A version of this article was published at The Arab Weekly.
The beginning of Turkey’s third incursion into Syria on Wednesday, this time dubbed Operation PEACE SPRING and aimed at the areas east of the Euphrates River, is the culmination of an American policy started under Barack Obama that has been continued by Donald Trump. That it is inevitable makes it no less tragic for the innocents caught up in this mess. It does mean that the emotive posturing on social media, and attempts by Obama era officials to cast the blame for the Syria catastrophe onto Trump, are more-than-usually grotesque.
Obama called on Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to depart in August 2011, and then spent nearly six years running away from this pronouncement. Relations with the Iran—the principal supporter of Assad—were to be mended, and American troops were to be brought home. Obama’s legacy would be “ending” America’s wars in the Middle East and leaving a new system where the local states “share” the region without the American policeman.
Unfortunately, the revolutionary Islamist regime in Iran had no interest in sharing. Tehran took the chance to fill any and all vacuums left by American power—before pushing on, supported by an emboldened Russia that had taken Obama’s measure and flush with cash from Obama’s nuclear deal, to challenge America in core areas. Hence the recent attacks on the shipping lanes of the Gulf and the missile barrage against ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. finally had to intervene in Syria in 2014 after the Islamic State (ISIS) declared its caliphate and began beheading American hostages. The U.S. chose the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its anti-ISIS partner. The issue was and is that the PYD/YPG is the name for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when it operates on Syrian soil. The PKK is a U.S.-listed terrorist organisation that has waged war against NATO’s Turkey for decades.
Obama officials—and not a few analysts—defend the alliance with the PKK as a matter of practicality. “The YPG is a foreign terrorist organization” with “no hard distinction” between it and the PKK”, wrote Andrew Exum, who served in Obama’s State Department, in early 2017, when Trump was preparing to publicly arm the YPG. But, Exum added, “arm[ing] people we consider to be terrorists … [is] in the best interests of the American people.”
The problem with this argument is that it makes no sense. Whatever ad hocery there was in helping the PKK save—after initial hesitation—Kobani (and Sinjar) from falling to ISIS in late 2014, that argument expires once the emergency has passed. Nor was there any mystery what tensions would be stirred with local Arabs and Turkey by expanding PKK control over vast areas of north-eastern Syria. So why do it?
If it was about durability, there were locally-legitimate rebel groups to work with. Even if one accepts the Obama apologist argument that all the rebels available were weak and penetrated with extremists, then a local force could be built. If it was about exigency because of the ISIS foreign attacks campaign, then the duty is to send in American and Allied forces directly to destroy ISIS.
Then-CENTCOM chief Joseph Votel was more precise when he recently wrote in The Atlantic that the PKK was “the right partner” because it would “help us defeat ISIS without getting drawn into” a conflict with Assad, whose overthrow was the publicly-stated U.S. policy. In other words, the PKK fulfilled the two key political desires of Obama: to avoid offending the Iranians and to avoid “boots on the ground”—a proxy that would not damage Assad.
When ISIS’s caliphate was finally swept away in March, the PKK was in control of a third of Syria, most of which had been rebel-held territory that ISIS had taken from them in 2013-14. Internal to Syria, this had radically redrawn the political balance of power in a war the U.S. was supposedly not involved in, and it left a statelet controlled by Turkey’s nemesis on Turkey’s border. Counterterrorism had yielded a geopolitical disaster that would undo even the counterterrorism mission—and this result was a built-in to the strategy laid down by Obama.
Trump could have turned off this course by not sending the PKK into Raqqa, and for just a moment in early 2017 it seemed that he would. But his plans for an Arab expeditionary force to defeat ISIS in its capital were thwarted.
Since the U.S. was never going to realistically side with the PKK over Turkey in the long-term, the next step was either for the U.S. to withdraw in short order and see the PKK statelet dismantled by Turkey, or to stay on until a Turkey-PKK settlement was reached that allowed the U.S. to retain both its ally and partner force. Trump has never made a secret of his desire to get out of Syria once ISIS no longer held territory, so here we are.
It is unlikely Turkey will stray too deeply into north-eastern Syria, so it is possible the U.S. will remain in a shrunken PKK statelet further south, or else Trump might finally get his way and the U.S. will pull out entirely, leaving the areas of “Rojava” not taken by Turkey to the Assad/Iran system.
Both sides have a sense of grievance with the other. Turkey’s support for jihadi-adjacent forces like Ahrar al-Sham caused problems beyond Syria and the Turks themselves must rue the decision not to move into Kobani and crush ISIS’s nascent caliphate. As well as forestalling a PKK statelet, the military foothold and political windfall from such action would have left Turkey substantially able to dictate events in Syria. But this is what happens when U.S. allies are left to go it alone. And Turkey was left alone, even when her jets were shot down and she in turn brought down Russian warplanes.
When this abandonment of an ally, to use the parlance of the week, was added to by active support for Turkey’s sworn nemesis—the equivalent of the U.S. building up Hizballah on Israel’s border as a “counterterrorism” force—the U.S.-Turkey relationship naturally suffered.
There is no need for the hysterical claims that Turkey will commit “genocide” against “the Kurds” in Syria; the reality is quite grim enough. Though Turkey’s record with military incursions in Syria is of relatively low civilian and property destruction, there is no guarantee that if this operation east of the Euphrates bogs down or a panic ensues that there won’t be a terrible displacement. The threat is primarily to Iraqi Kurdistan, from both a destabilising wave of refugees and a movement of PKK operatives into northern Iraq.
The aftermath of the Turkish operations is the more worrying aspect. In Efrin, the last Turkish operation, not only was there looting in the immediate aftermath, and continued lawlessness overseen by predatory militias, but 200,000 displaced Kurds have been unable to return, while Arab refugees from Damascus and elsewhere have been settled in the province, altering the demographics. There are indications something similar is coming east of the Euphrates.
The Turkish government’s announcement that it will be returning a million refugees—mostly Arabs from areas held by Assad—to the areas captured east of the Euphrates would be a similar act of ethnic engineering and would run roughshod over the state’s non-refoulement obligations. The actual process of “repatriation” is likely to be ugly, closer to forced deportations, since many Syrians expect that the Assad regime will re-enter areas currently held by the PKK, and the refugees will resist being placed back under the rule of the regime they fled from.
All the sound and fury of this week was unavoidable, but it was an argument over the ruins. The strategic collapse of the U.S. position in the northern Middle East happened some time ago, and Trump’s contribution to that was modest.