Erdogan and Trump at Loggerheads over Syria

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The war in Syria is one of the most complicated problems facing the Middle East, involving major world powers and their regional surrogates. Nominally, the US is leading a coalition of 60 nations to uproot ISIS from its perch in Raqqa, Syria. But the infighting among the coalition partners is hampering the efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

All forces involved in the war claim their intent is to crush terrorism of Islamic extremists, but on the way to achieving that goal, there are many subtexts that drive the entire issue into a quagmire.

To call the Syrian problem a “civil war” is a misnomer because Syria was on the map of the Arab Spring planners, who had intended to neutralize all potential hostile powers to US and Israeli interests in the region. Hillary Clinton in a 2012 email summed up that policy in a message divulged by Wikileaks: “Bringing down Assad would not only be a massive boon to Israel’s security, it would also ease Israel’s understandable fear of losing its nuclear monopoly. Then, Israel and the United States might be able to develop a common view of when the Iranian program is so dangerous that military action could be warranted.”

All the rest of the rhetoric and the analyses concocted by pundits amount to fluff.

After the destruction of Iraq and Libya, Russia, partly recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, tried to draw the red line and came to the rescue of President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s intervention was also self-serving, because its only military base in the Mediterranean, located in Tartus, Syria, was threatened. Equally self-serving was Iran’s intervention because the Lebanese Hezbollah party was participating in the war, also in support of Assad. The militant group is Iran’s proxy in the region, challenging Israel.

In the above convoluted scenario, there is also the alignment of Syrian domestic forces and regional governments.

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While the US goal is purportedly to uproot ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it would never allow Russia to call the shots, even if they are on the same side. Therefore, while all the forces are nominally fighting ISIS, in the interim, they are settling old scores amongst themselves. When push comes to shove, the US will not allow a victory for Russia and Iran, which thus far have been keeping Assad in power.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan are involved in the war for a variety of reasons; all the above parties, with the exception of Turkey, are in it at the bidding of the US. Those shaky monarchies owe their stabilities and existence to US support.

One may wonder if the intent of the Arab Spring planners was to bring democracy to Arab countries, then why not begin with the ones which have unelected medieval governments, such as Saudi Arabia, a major US ally that has long been known to aid extremist terrorists.

Turkey was participating in the Syrian conflict to try to recover some of the territories and resources it lost after the end of the Ottoman Empire, while fighting Kurds in Iraq and Syria, which are inspiring the Kurds in Turkey.

ISIS would not have existed without the support of Turkey in collusion with some of those regional monarchies. The latter would fall in line at Washington’s first indication but Turkey has intervened in Iraq and Syria against the vehement protests of the respective governments.

The European Union and the US know full well that Turkey has had a major role in the creation of ISIS but they keep cajoling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to join the battle against ISIS. The Turkish leader pretends he is doing just that while in reality all parties are engaged in a mutual game of pretence because each has overlapping or competing interests in the region.

The Kurds are large minorities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. They are notoriously divided and those divisions are exploited by the respective governments to dampen Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. President Erdogan has been using that division masterfully to his advantage. When the Kurdish-majority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the vote at the last parliamentary elections, he suspended previously successful talks with the Kurdish Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in the country’s southeast and launched attacks on Kurds in Diyarbakir.

During negotiations with the European Union, the latter was almost at the verge of removing the PKK from the terrorist list, but when Erdogan opted for war, the EU backtracked.During that war, which is still continuing, the Turkish government displaced 350,000 Kurds and killed many others. Because Western media is banned from that region, it cannot give accurate figures on the casualties.

Erdogan is arming loyal Kurds and placing them as village guards, so that the Kurds would kill each other in the conflict. Turkey has also bought the loyalty of the Iraqi Kurds. Before, it was raiding the Kurdish area to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish region, fearing that the breakup of Iraq may end up creating an independent Kurdish state on its border. But provisional international guarantees preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity, along with bribing he Kurdish leadership in the autonomous region — through illicit purchase of oil and other economic incentives — drew Ankara and Kurdistan closer. Today, Kurdistan’s leaders are bitter enemies of the PKK and their counterparts in Syria and Iraq, much to Erdogan’s relief.

Besides the PKK, the Turkish government is fighting the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in Syria, which has carved an autonomous enclave in Rojava on the Turkish border. The YPG is an offshoot of the Democratic Union Party, which was formed to represent the 10-percent Kurdish minority in the Syrian Parliament before the war. During the war, the YPG proved to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS. The New York Times reports that former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter decided that the YPG was the “only ground force willing and able to take on the minions of the faux Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his capital, Raqqa.”

Then Carter integrated the YPG into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operating under US command.

The New York Times article further comments that “Washington has been deeply frustrated by Turkey’s unwillingness to devote significant resources to rolling up ISIS. Erdogan’s priority has been attempting to destroy the PKK and attacking what he sees as its Syrian Kurdish allies. Ankara fears that for the sake of defeating al-Baghdadi in Raqqa, the US is helping to create an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, which in turn may act as a model for Turkish Kurds.”

On April 24, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish fighters — and US allies — in Iraq and Syria, complicating the US campaign against ISIS in Syria. The Turkish government announced that 70 PKK operatives had been “neutralized” while YPG sources said 18 were killed and 20 wounded, including six pesh merghas. The latter are part of a militant group defending the Kurdish autonomous region, at odds with both the PKK and the YPG.

The Trump administration recently had sent 500 US troops to reinforce the SDF, which is mostly composed of YPG Kurds and has further authorized Defense Secretary James Mattis to increase the number of US forces as the situation warrants.

The Erdogan government claims that it had informed the US forces about the raids in advance. The US replied that they were indeed informed only an hour before the attack and had asked for the suspension of the plan, to no avail.

“The bombings are a bloody example of the diplomatic challenge facing Donald Trump as the US tries to rally its allies for a final assault against Raqqa,” according to a story in the Telegraph, a UK daily.

Following the bombing, the US military commander walked to the YGP headquarters to assess the damage, angering the Turks. On the other hand, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry denounced the attack, while the Masoud Barzani administration in Kurdistan blamed the PKK for having provoked the raid.

Two erratic leaders, namely Trump and Erdogan, are now facing each other. But as of now, the US side is unusually subdued. It has only claimed the US was “concerned,” instead of facing off with Turkey for attacking the toughest opponents of ISIS.

An article in the Nation by Juan Cole is headlined “Is Turkey’s War on Syrian Kurds Becoming a War on the United States?”

No one can tell what the ultimate reaction might be. Mr. Trump, shooting from the hip, launched 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria when he learned about the deaths from chemical weapons, without getting to the bottom of who was responsible for killing the civilians. This time around, he is quiet. But politically he is at loggerheads with Erdogan. “Erdogan appears to believe that he can bully Trump into abandoning the Syrian Kurds as allies. It remains if he has calculated correctly,” concludes Cole in his article.

Erdogan will be visiting Washington soon; Gulen, arms purchases and the Syrian Kurds are on his agenda.

Let us wait and see which leader will blink first.