28 July 2012

What Could be the Syrian Endgame?

As I write this, a serious battle in and around Aleppo is raging. This will very likely end in massacre and human tragedy.

Most commentators have been saying that this is the final chapter in Assad's rule and he is on his way out. Unless they know something that we don't, I don't see how the opposition can drive his powerful army out.

Which got me to thinking that there must be something else that everyone is counting upon.

Since NATO or the US ruled out military intervention, there are two possibilities. One of them is that Turkey, the only regional power with the military capability, will go in.

Some observers actually believe that Turkey is getting ready to intervene militarily. They point to Erdogan's recent visit to Moscow and then to China as an effort to convince them to change their stance (since both Russia and China used their Security Council vetoes after Erdogan's visit, if that was the goal of his visit, it should be considered a failure).

But I am not sure that this was the goal of his visit. I think the aim was to inform Russia of the endgame being planned and remind Putin that Russia should stay neutral as Turkey is a much more strategically important ally. Besides being an ascendant regional power, Turkey is an important economic outlet for Russia. With their bilateral trade reaching $30 billion in 2011 and over 2000 Turkish companies investing and operating in Russia, it is clearly a more important partner than Syria. 

Moreover, Putin knows that, one way or another, Assad's days are numbered and he is too clever to continue to bet on a losing horse.

But the visit clearly indicates that something is being prepared. As I previously enumerated the reasons for Turkey's extreme reluctance to intervene militarily, I seriously doubt that a military push is in the cards. Besides, a foreign intervention might backfire by changing again the shifting alliances within Syria.

A Palace Coup?

This leaves only the possibility of a palace coup. I have no idea whether this is actually the case but a palace coup is the only way Assad could be removed from power in a short period of time. Operationally, I can see how the upcoming Aleppo massacre could lead to large defections within the ruling elite and how this could topple the regime from within.

I can also see how such a solution that would prevent a protracted civil war might be beneficial for every actor that is involved in this crisis:

- For the US, in the short term, the integrity of the chemical and biological weapons would be secured. This is a major concern for them as these could create serious problems if they ended up in the wrong hands. In the long term, the entities that will rise out of Syria's ashes might contribute to the stability of the region as I kept claiming since the beginning of this blog.
- For Israel, an orderly transition would avoid a long and destabilizing civil war that could engulf Lebanon and threaten its security.
- The same is true for Jordan as such a civil war would be quite destabilizing for the kingdom.
- For Turkey, as the likely architect of such a coup, such a transition would give Ankara the role of kingmaker. They could influence a lot of outcomes, especially in the creation and administration of Syrian Kurdistan (more on that later).

But is such a coup being planned? Some observers think so:
Erdogan's best hope is that the Turkish intelligence could orchestrate some sort of "palace coup" in Damascus in the coming days or weeks. What suits Ankara will be to have Bashar replaced by a transitional structure that retains elements of the existing Baathist state structure, which could facilitate an orderly transfer of power to a new administration - that is to say, ideally, a transition not different from what followed in Egypt once Hosni Mubarak exited.
But Erdogan is unsure whether Turkey can swing an Egypt-like coup in Damascus. His dash to Moscow last Wednesday aimed at sounding out Moscow if a new and stable transitional structure could be put together in Damascus through some kind of international cooperation. (Obama lent his weight to Erdogan's mission by telephoning Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss Syria.)
A palace coup scenario is also evident in a recent event. A few days ago, a senior member of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, said that they might agree to a transitional government led by a member of the current regime. This was quickly denied by their spokeswoman. But it indicates that they were being approached with a scenario and their initial reaction was one of acquiescence.

The same people who believe a palace coup is being readied made note of this coincidence:
But curiously, just before Erdogan went into his scheduled meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, a massive terrorist attack took place in Damascus, killing the the Syrian defense minister and its intelligence chief.
I have no idea whether that bomb was placed with Turkish intelligence assistance (though we never got the full story there). But there are other interesting developments that indicate that a post-Assad Syria is being planned and key players are being prepared.

Realigning Interests

The first important event in this respect was Hillary Clinton's visit to both Egypt and Israel on 14-17 July. It is quite rare to see a US Secretary of State spending three days in two countries. My guess is that she demanded reassurances from Egypt's civilian and military leaders that they would not threaten to act against Israel in any shape or form while dramatic changes unfold in the region. And she conveyed these reassurances to Israeli leadership.

At about the same time, on 16 July, the President of Iraq's Kurdish region Masoud Barzani gathered the feuding Syrian Kurdish fractions in Erbil and convinced them to sign a unity agreement. This was a huge coup for him as the PYD agreed for the first time to sever its ties to Assad and work in unison with the rest of the Syrian Kurdish groups. If you read my previous post on the role of Kurds in Syria you know that this is a very important victory for Barzani and the powers that support him (and it is very much in line with my hypothesis).

A couple of days after this meeting, on 19 July, a shadowy Turkish construction company by the unlikely name of Siyah Kalem or Black Pen was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as the sole bidder to build a pipeline to carry the region's natural gas. This comes after a similar pipeline for crude oil (from Kirkuk to Ceyhan) was announced several months ago. That oil pipeline could be operational as early as August 2013.

Both moves infuriated Iraq's central government. But the Turkish involvement ensured that KRG could safely make its most important economic assets an integral part of its regional autonomy. Tellingly, Oilprice called this "carving up Iraq barrel by barrel."

If you are curious about the background of such deals, the same day Siyah Kalem was invited to bid on a pipeline, Chevron announced that it purchased 80 percent interest in two large oil fields (490 square miles or 1.124 square km) just north of Erbil. The Chevron deal came after a similar ExxonMobil deal signed last October. Baghdad promptly blacklisted Chevron.

Chevron, I assume, couldn't care less.

You can see the alignment of US, Kurdish and Turkish interests.

Kurds and Syria's Endgame

Kurdish groups now control most of Northern Syria. If you read pro-Kurdish sources, this was achieved because Assad's administrators did not want to pick a fight with them. If you read Turkish sources, this was done to create a problem for Turkey given PYD's close alliance with PKK.  Chances are, the truth is somewhere in the middle: Assad probably did not have the manpower to fight in another front and thought that this could be a headache for Turkey.

Because the PYD is the most visible entity among Kurdish groups (and given its affiliation with the PKK), most observers assume that Ankara will react negatively and might even strike Northern Syria.
Turkish newspapers have published with alarm pictures of Kurdish flags fluttering from buildings in northern Syria and reported that parts of the region had fallen into the hands of the PKK or its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
And predictably, Erdogan made belligerent statements that could be interpreted that he intends to do just that.

The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that it was impossible for Turkey not to know that post Assad Syria was going to generate a Kurdish region just like KRG in Northern Iraq. If it was so afraid of an autonomous Kurdish region in its border with Syria it would have supported Assad from day one. Without the safe haven provided by Turkey and the arms sent through its borders, FSA would have remained a tiny and powerless force.

Similarly, it could have formed an alliance with Baghdad and squeeze the living daylights out of KRG. It did just the opposite and helped create a powerful, rich and autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq.

Given these undeniable facts, I would venture to guess that what Turkey wants to do is not to prevent the emergence of an autonomous (or semi-autonomous) Kurdistan. Its relations with Erbil seems to suggest that it has finally realized that such a prospect is inevitable.

What it wants is to prevent the control of such an entity by the PKK and its allies. It prefers autonomous Kurdistan regions that would all rely on Turkey (just like KRG) for their protection from their Arab neighbors. And more importantly for their economic development, including, of course, the distribution of their oil and other assets.

Turkey is leaning on Barzani, as the leader of the most prosperous (and oil rich) region of a future Kurdistan to insert Turkey's preferences into Kurdish political formations. Barzani recently called on the PKK to lay down its arms, he has been allowing frequent Turkish incursions into Northern Iraq and now he forced PYD (against the wishes of the PKK) to side with Syrian Kurds and against Assad, effectively aligning it with Turkey.

I believe that this is also the reason why Turkey is rushing to sign up pipeline deals with KRG. There is no oil in Syrian Kurdistan and as far as I know, none in Iranian Kurdistan. There are some oil fields in the Turkish Kurdistan but the production volume is negligible.

Essentially, Turkey is moving to prevent an autonomous Greater Kurdistan to become an oil and gas energy hub. Besides the Qatar pipeline whispered to Robert Fisk, KRG could send its oil and gas through Syrian Kurdistan to Latakia in the Mediterranean sea, bypassing Turkey altogether.

But if Kurdish oil and gas were to go through Turkey, Ankara would have a significant and continuous leverage in Kurdish affairs.

Peace and Belligerence in Tandem

My longtime readers know that I get mildly annoyed when people tell me than Netanyahu said this or Erdogan yelled this to prove that my hypothesis about the likely emergence of a Palestinian and Kurdish state is complete rubbish.

What these leaders say is important in some respects but what they do and the priorities of the players with whom they have to work are far more important.

In the case of both Israel and Turkey, the governments are going along with the statehood scenario. I am sure reluctantly, as the priority belongs to the US (for selfish oil and gas distribution reasons) not to them, but they are going along. However, in the process, they are doing their utmost to shape (and perhaps weaken, depending on your perspective)  their counter-parties by removing certain groups from the equation.

For Israel, this is Hamas and for Turkey this is the PKK (and its affiliated groups). In the short run, both countries will use belligerent rhetoric and even some limited military actions to remove these groups from the final negotiations.

To focus on that would be to miss the massive transformation that might come right after.

In any event, we will see soon enough if my emphasis or theirs are misplaced.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the people of Aleppo who will suffer terribly for better days to come.

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