Shifting Priorities in Syria

January 22, 2018

On January 17, Secretary Tillerson delivered remarks at Stanford University. His topic was “The Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria”. Next to him was Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State during the Bush administration. Mr. Tillerson said that Ms. Rice has been “a great source of help and inspiration” to him.

Secretary Tillerson’s lead-in into his description of US’ Syria policy focused on criticism of the nearly five-decades of Assad dictatorship. He said that the nature of the Assad regime, like that of its sponsor Iran, is “malignant” as if there are “benevolent” dictatorships elsewhere. He avoided the West’s and its regional partners’ involvement in the Syrian conflict through support to the “moderate opposition”. He stated that the US will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot re-emerge. He added that the Trump administration cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS. He thus conveniently overlooked the fact that neither al-Qaida nor ISIS had a foothold there before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq of which both President Obama and candidate Trump were critics.

The Syrian conflict, aggravated through external meddling by major and regional powers, support given to proxies, shifting alliances between regional players as well as different opposition groups and terrorists has never been about the future of the Syrian people. It has been about local, regional and global supremacy.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorist, but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” said US Defense Secretary Mattis in a speech at Johns Hopkins University last Friday. Put together, remarks by the two Secretaries give the impression that Washington sees Syria primarily as an area of major power competition but a front against ISIS as well.

The Russian intervention transformed the Syrian battlefield. Now, Washington is also asserting itself. Thus, while ISIS has lost much ground in Iraq and Syria, with renewed competition between the two major powers and consequently between the Geneva and Astana processes, Syria’s “political transition” may again take a back-seat.

An important development is the new regional realignment. The Trump administration and Israel having re-energized the long-standing alliance between the two countries are now trying to build a regional block with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners to target Iran. Despite frequent references to a united and peaceful Syria, their vision regarding the country’s future is very different from that of Moscow and Tehran.

David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post wrote last week that CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel who oversees military operations from Libya to Afghanistan told him, “We have to let our partners own it. That’s hard for us to do. It’s in our DNA to dive in. But our job is to help our partners fight, not fight for them.”

In August 2014, President Obama had told Thomas L. Friedman,

“…the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.” (*)

Times have changed and particularly with the operations to dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, the PYD/YPG has emerged as Washington’s principal local partner in Syria.

Despite Washington repeatedly saying that Turkey is a valuable NATO ally and a partner in the fight against ISIS, the US and Turkey are no longer on the same page in Syria and it is unlikely that they will be in the foreseeable future. Actually, they don’t even agree on who is terrorist. Turkey regards the PYD/YPG as a terrorist organization but the US doesn’t. During his remarks at Stanford Secretary Tillerson said that the Assad regime has empowered groups that kill American soldiers such as Hamas. Washington designated Hamas as a terrorist organization in 1997 but the Turkish government has a different view.

Russia, having changed the Syrian military landscape, is trying hard to launch a process of political transition in which it would be the principal actor. Foreign Ministry Department Director, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, recently said that neither the PKK nor the YPG are on Russia’s list of terrorist organizations. A Syrian constitution drafted by Russia while underlining the country’s territorial integrity says that “Syria consists of constituent parts.” It also refers to Kurdish cultural autonomy. In other words, while strongly backing the regime Moscow does not wish to leave the Syrian Kurds solely in Washington’s hands.

Iran, having extended its regional reach as a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Syrian conflict is now faced with growing internal dissatisfaction. Despite the loss of life President Rouhani seems to have handled the recent unrest rather well by Middle East standards.

And, Turkey’s focus in Syria has shifted from regime change in Damascus to preventing a PYD/YPG corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border. Relations with the US are at an all-time low. Relations with Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states are no better. Relations with Moscow are far from being fully restored. Ankara, extremely outspoken against the US for its support to the PYD/YPG, remains silent on Russia’s not even including the PKK on its terrorist organizations list. Economic relations including energy cooperation, the weight Russia carries in Syria and the rising cost of “precious loneliness” appear to be restraining the Turkish government.

The last episode of Ankara’s conflicting interests with both the US and Russia is about the Turkish military intervention in Afrin.

Despite some confusing statements, it is clear that Washington opposes the intervention.

Russia’s position isn’t fundamentally different. Moscow doesn’t wish the situation to spin once again out of control at a time when it’s priority has shifted towards Syria’s political transition. Russia, having showed enough muscle on the battlefield, now wishes to emerge as Syria’s peacemaker.

On January 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated the following in response to a question on Afrin:

“This is a common area for our work. We are working for a full compliance with the ceasefire agreements. The Kurds are definitely part of the Syrian nation and their interests should be taken into account in the work we are doing, including in the preparations for the NDC. I have mentioned the new US project to build border security forces relying on the SDF which is mostly formed by Kurdish groups. You know that this has already caused a negative reaction from Turkey. I said that this raises serious questions about respect for Syria’s territorial integrity. But there is also a problem when it comes to the relations between the Kurds and Turkey. This new one-sided ultimatum step and project does little to calm down the situation around Afrin.”

If, however, it had no other option than making a choice between temporarily disappointing the PYD/YPG and driving a new wedge between Ankara and its Western allies Moscow would likely go for the latter.

And, Syrian officials have said that the regime will not tolerate Turkish military aircraft engaging in operations over its territory, probably trying to force Ankara into open cooperation with Damascus.

In a nutshell, Ankara has launched its “Olive Branch” operation in a narrow diplomatic alley. Yes, Russia withdrew its personnel in the area. Damascus, informed of the operations by a diplomatic note delivered to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul, has not raised further objections regarding the use of its airspace for strikes against PYD/YPG targets. The US, despite its strong opposition to the operation has so far remained restrained in its public statements. However, Turkish Prime Minister Yıldırım said yesterday that there about 8 to 10 thousand terrorists in the area. These numbers alone show the scale of the task undertaken. So, those who have lowered their objections but advised restraint may soon become more vocal in their calls. They may also warn the PYD/YPG not to overreach itself.

Military operations have their own measured public language. They have at least some covert aspects. In Turkey, however, everybody is constantly talking about battlefield developments and this is not the right approach. And, Ankara needs to review with cool-headedness the implications of the intervention for Turkey’s internal peace.

Whatever happens with Afrin, Turkey’s political leadership and their supporters should see that our involvement in Syria and the decline of our democracy has proved to be a disastrous combination.

Extracting ourselves from the Syrian conflict will take years and it will be costly. It will have serious foreign policy implications. To meet the challenge Ankara needs to restore its friendships, prioritize diplomacy and address the world not with bravado but with reason.

Underlying Turkey’s regional and global appeal was its secular democracy. To restore that, the government doesn’t have to wait for years. It can start today.




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