Due to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, which is in both Iran’s and Russia’s interest, the U.S. is now on its own.
Judo master Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has his amateur opponent, Barack Obama, in a headlock. The countdown has begun. This is how recent events are presented by the Russian media. The fighting mat is Syria. And matters are not made particularly difficult for Putin either. In the north of Syria the Pentagon’s forces are fighting those of the CIA: the Kurdish YPG, a sister party to the terrorist Turkish PKK, versus the Sunni Arabic rebels backed by the CIA and Turkey.
More than ever before, Washington is in danger of losing its way in the Middle East. After Russia and Iran, Erdogan has come forward as a third key player in the Syrian drama. Not even a year ago Putin declared Turkey enemy number one after it downed a Russian warplane. At present, Moscow is looking on favorably as Turkish tanks and planes are invading Syria. A staggering turnaround, even in the wondrous world of the Middle East. How is this possible?
Erdogan’s countercoup has left the Turkish soldiers in his grip. Most of the pro-American generals have been apprehended. He did not waste any time taking this liberty. The Syrian PKK blatantly ignored the Turkish red line prohibiting them from crossing the Euphrates. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) served as the Kurdish-American cover, which consists of a few local Arab, and other, units. But the PKK makes up the core of the SDF. After the city of Manbij was recaptured from the Islamic State group, which is situated beyond the Turkish red line, the PKK crept toward Afrin, a Kurdish enclave which lies further west. Turkish public enemy number one, the PKK, had the possibility of establishing a contiguous territory along the whole southern Turkish border — despite powerless American containment efforts. This saw the nascence of Rojava, a Syrian Kurdish PKK state. The PKK Kurds in Turkey could have followed. So Erdogan intervened.
The U.S. struggled to keep its head above water. Vice President Biden visited Ankara and received a figurative walloping. Obama considers the victory on the Islamic State group his “legacy,” along with the Iran nuclear deal. The PKK Kurds were to provide the ground troops in order to capture Raqqa, Syria’s Islamic State group capital, preferably before the elections in November: this would be of help to the Democrats. It would also come to the benefit of Obama’s glory — even though almost all experts warn of there being no readily available solutions for the day after. That is no longer Obama’s concern, however.
It goes without saying that the Syrian Kurds were expecting something in return for their services: American support for their autonomous region and protection against the Turks. That plan fell apart. As always, the Kurds are the cheapest commodity on the Middle Eastern market. The Assad regime in Damascus took matters further, with a nod to Ankara, and bombed the Kurds for the first time in Hasakah, the eastern provincial capital. Moscow and Teheran already seemed to be in on the Turkish plans.
The PKK Kurds and the Americans are the losers. This explains Moscow’s and Teheran’s silence on the Turkish operation. Turkey is putting pressure on the American-Kurdish alliance. The Kurdish region is the American foothold in Syria — as was the case for Iraqi Kurdistan in the time of Saddam Hussein. By checkmating the Kurds, the U.S. is being checkmated as well. During their reconciliation in St. Petersburg, Erdogan and Putin found common ground on this.
The anti-American atmosphere in Turkey that followed the failed coup provided Erdogan with sufficient support at home. The people remain divided on Assad. But on this principle they all agree: Syria cannot be divided. That is to say, there will not be an independent Kurdish Rojava.
Moscow and Tehran are also making headway. Iran has its own Kurdish problem. It is no longer inconceivable that Turkey, Iran and Russia will come to an understanding about Syria that will exclude the U.S. To Erdogan, this is a trump card to play against Washington after Obama’s departure. Moscow and Tehran are rubbing their hands with glee: The U.S. once again proves itself to be an unreliable ally, unable to conduct a coherent Middle East policy. Erdogan is helping them to deconstruct the American position.
Due to Obama’s one-sided focus on the Islamic State group, the U.S. is stumbling about with a blinkered view. The consequences of this are now being felt. Assad and Putin are bombing the rebels against Assad in Aleppo and elsewhere. The fact that the Islamic State group is detracting attention away from their ruthless violence suits them fine. What is more, all parties are using the Islamic State group as a cover-up. Turkey, by its own account, invaded Jarablus in order to drive away the Islamic State group, but above all, did this to impose its red line on the PKK. Russia, the U.S., Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime all say they are fighting the Islamic State group. But in the meantime, for all of them save the U.S., this is in fact about the terrorists in their own countries. In the Middle East, “terrorism” justifies any military goal.
The Syrian Kurds of Rojava may befall the same fate as the Sunni regions in Syria and Iraq — a Kurdish Gaza, where every Turkish soldier who is killed is avenged by means of multiple Kurdish victims. Where the “victory” on the Islamic State group is leaving behind a wasteland without water, oil revenue or other natural resources, and which is home to a traumatized population. In short, a breeding ground for despair, hate and extremism until the next crisis.
Marcel Kurpershoek is a senior fellow at NYU in Abu Dhabi.