07 October 2012

Syria and Turkey: Prelude to an Intervention?

It is always tricky to comment about evolving events in the Middle East. Murky doesn't even begin to qualify the current state of affairs.

What We Know So Far

A few days ago, a stray mortar landed in a border town in Turkey and killed five people, including a mother and her three children. Turkish troops retaliated almost immediately and fired at military positions inside Syria. There are some unconfirmed reports that up to 48 people died as a result and most of them were Syrian soldiers.

Turkey also called an emergency meeting of NATO and sent a letter to UN Security Council demanding unspecified actions against Damascus. As a final touch, the Turkish government convened an emergency session of Parliament and passed a bill that authorizes military action within Syria.

If you add to this picture, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been going around and jovially advocating safe zones inside Syria, you might assume that this is the beginning of a Turkish military intervention.

Turkish media outlets are convinced that this is the beginning of the end and that Turkey is getting ready to move in.

A Military Intervention in Syria?

As the resident contrarian, I continue to doubt this eventuality.

It is not that I have access to inside information. I just go by Occam's Razor.

To predict a military intervention requires a very convoluted logic, and its proponents typically refer to shadowy influences (usually an Israeli -read Jewish- conspiracy pushed by the US) without explaining what this would achieve.

Military action, even a limited one, would almost certainly escalate rapidly and lead to a protracted civil war. It would give jihadists and Sunni fundamentalists a very prominent role in post-Assad Syria. That civil war could engulf Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. It would certainly put Israel's security in jeopardy. And above all, there is absolutely nothing in it for Turkey.

Until someone can show me how such a move would be beneficial to some regional or international actors, I will maintain my contrarian position.

However, I can see that something significant is taking place and it looks like it will affect the endgame in Syria. I am not exactly sure what this is but there are a few interesting indications that encourage educated guesses.

From Plan A to Plan K

If you remember, Plan A was a palace coup.

A palace coup would have produced a clean regime change, secure all the chemical weapons, avoid a civil war and get rid of Assad and his merry band of thugs. It was perfect as a plan. In the summer, the Prime Minister and a large number of senior army  officers (including 31 generals) defected. Four senior cabinet members died when a bomb detonated in their meeting room. Things began to crumble around Assad. At that point, his thugs quickly moved to place all high level Sunnis under surveillance and stopped the plot just in time.

Since then, no obvious Plan B emerged. In the early phases of the conflict, the strategy was to let the Free Syrian Army (FSA) wage a war of attrition but Iran and Iraq have begun sending money and arms to Assad's army, making a return to that vague strategy pointless.

Arming the FSA with better weapons is not considered a good option. If they don't succeed, these arms could end up in the hands of terrorists. If they succeed in their improbable mission and topple Assad, they are likely to push for a radical Islamist regime. And that would trigger widespread resistance from Syrian minorities, leading to prolonged instability or worse.

The problem is, without such weapons the FSA doesn't stand a chance.

That leaves the option to turn the rebel movement into a larger front by involving a secular group capable of joining the fight.

Remember what I wrote in May:
From my vantage point, the most important player in this conflict is not the US, Russia, Iran or even Turkey. It is the Kurds. And not just the Syrian Kurds.

Are Kurds Getting Ready to Join the Fight?

At the end of August, Reuters ran a piece that said that the Syrian Kurds were getting united and getting ready to fight for their autonomy in post-Assad's Syria. The article also mentioned the fact that the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs had just met with Syrian Kurdish leaders in Erbil, in Northern Iraq.

In mid-September, National Post declared that Kurds were Assad's other problem.

A couple of weeks later, the New York Times ran an article that announced that the Syrian Kurds were getting trained in Northern Iraq for a fight for their autonomy.

A few days later, Financial Times had a long piece about how Syrian Kurds were getting ready to fight in post-Assad Syria. That article was picked up by the Washington Post and published the same day.

The very next day, the Wall Street Journal ran a story, you guessed it, about Syrian Kurds getting ready for a fight for independence or autonomy.

And yesterday, the Independent has reported that:
Hundreds of Syrian Kurds are training with Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga forces, and there are plans to send the men back to protect the Kurdish regions of Syria should clashes break out in those areas with the government or the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
When there is a preponderance of reporting in major media outlets on an issue that is not time-sensitive, I generally assume that they are being fed a narrative by their sources. This is not idle conspiracy theory on my part, as we learned in the aftermath of the Iraq War how entire narratives could be created with selective leaking to willing reporters.

But all of this doesn't mean that Kurds are getting to join the FSA in a fight against Assad. There is a very delicate and complicated chess game behind this.

Kurds Divided and United

It is a huge oversimplification but for the purposes of this post, you could say that the Kurds in the region are divided into two categories: the groups who view Turkey as their enemy and the groups who view Turkey as their ally.

The former category includes the PKK and its extensions in Syria (PYD) and in Iran (PJAK). As the PKK is the founding entity of these groups, its policies and perspectives significantly color their decisions and actions. The latter category consists of KDP of Northern Iraq and KNC (Kurdish National Council) in Syria.

Following the PKK's lead, early in the conflict, the PYD aligned itself with Assad. It was a mutually beneficial deal, as it allowed the PYD to replace Assad's military and security apparatus and to gain control of the Kurdish region effortlessly. And, in turn, it gave Assad the ability to move his troops elsewhere to fight the rebels without worrying about the Syrian Kurdistan. (Again, I am oversimplifying for brevity, as KNC was involved in the "liberation" of Syrian Kurdistan but ultimately it was PYD's pro-regime stance that convinced Assad not to contest the move).

The downside for the PYD is the animosity and suspicion this arrangement created among local Kurdish groups. PYD has become the Kurdish entity that would support an oppressor of Kurds like Assad just because it wants to please an outside group like the PKK. Locally, it meant that they were putting their allegiance to the PKK above their concern for Syrian Kurds.

Barzani the Uniter

Massoud Barzani is the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq and the leader of the KDP. He is a wily politician.

To ensure that his region remained autonomous, he sided with two important allies. He selected American oil companies for the exploitation of oil and gas in Northern Iraq. And he opened up its economy to Turkish companies, including the construction of pipelines to carry the region's crude and gas to Turkish ports.

Baghdad was furious with Barzani's dealings but it was powerless to stop them. In fact, it was through the rumblings of Baghdad that I found out that Barzani allowed several Turkish military bases inside Northern Iraq. Note that these are bases to fight fellow Kurds (the PKK).

In the process, and thanks to his oil and gas revenues that permit acts of largesse,  Barzani became the undeclared leader of the Kurds in the larger Kurdistan. He has been arming and training Syrian Kurds, getting them ready for an eventual fight. As the New York Times noted a week ago:
Much of the Syrian Kurds’ efforts are being guided by Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, whose autonomy and relative prosperity serves as a model for Syrian Kurds. The men at the camp are being trained and provided weapons by an Iraqi Kurdish special forces unit that is linked to Mr. Barzani’s political party.
He also forced all Syrian factions to sign an agreement of unity in July, including the PYD:
Mr. Barzani has sought to play a kingmaker role with his Syrian brethren by uniting the various factions, like he has in the sectarian and ethnic tinderbox of Iraqi politics. In July he reached a deal to organize more than a dozen Kurdish parties under the Kurdish Supreme Council, and many of the officials work out of an office in Erbil, in a mixed-use complex of cul-de-sacs and tidy subdivisions called the Italian Village.
Barzani is holding up his own path as a model to follow.

In Northern Iraq, instead of asking independence and fighting a brutal civil war with Iraqi troops, he asked for autonomy and gradually positioned his region as a de facto autonomous political entity. He also used his oil and gas to get US companies involved in Northern Iraq and he opened the region's economy to his powerful neighbor, in exchange for protection from Baghdad.

He is urging the Syrian Kurds to do the same. Syria does not have as rich oil and gas fields as Northern Iraq. It is estimated that its oil reserves are 2,5 billion barrels. But, significantly, most of it is in the East of the country, next to the Iraqi Kurdistan, that is to say in Syrian Kurdistan (al Hassaka region).

The annual oil revenues represent a little over $3 billion for the Syrian government. While this might be chump change for larger economies, this sum represented a quarter of Syrian government's revenues. Imagine what this oil income could mean for an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan.

And what the loss of this revenue would mean to Damascus.

Barzani is also asking them to join the fight to overthrow Assad. Once this is achieved, his plan calls for Kurds to jealously guard their autonomy and to keep the lion's share of oil and gas revenues.

Barzani also knows that neither goal can be achieved without the backing of a superior military power. Hence, he recommends Syrian Kurds to stop listening to the PKK and PYD and learn to form a delicate alliance with Turkey just as he did.

His plan makes sense, his autonomous region is living proof that it can be done and he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. So, it is not surprising that he found eager listeners among Syrian Kurds.

Syrian Kurds

Rudaw in English, an Erbil-based media outlet, published an interview with Salah Bahruddin, the former head of the Kurdish Popular Union Party. Coming from a Syrian Kurdish politician, his comments were quite interesting as they highlighted the main elements of the Barzani plan:
Badruddin believes that Kurds should first focus on toppling Assad rather than demanding independence or federalism. “Now it is important to topple the regime. After the toppling of the regime you can struggle for anything you want.” 
This Kurdish politician does not harbour anti-Turkish sentiments and he believes Turkey will have a role in the future of Syria.

“Why should I be against them and oppose them?” he said. “We should cooperate and work with them. The PKK says the US and UK are imperialistic powers, etc. But they are friends of Syrian people, why should I be against them?”
And this:
“Both [Turkey and Kurdistan Regional Government] are worried about the situation in Syria,” he told Rudaw. “The Iraqi Kurds have ties with the Kurds in Syria and both are working to solve the Kurdish issue in Syria. Not that I am not worried. We do not want Turkey to intervene in Syria. Our conflict is with Assad and not the Turkish government.”

So this is what I call the Barzani plan.

But the PYD is not happy with this plan. As an extension of the PKK, they are dead set against any alliance with Turkey.

There are recent reports that the PYD is now blocking the freshly trained Syrian Kurds from coming back into the country. They control a new police unit called the YPG (Popular Protection Units) and apparently they stop the new Kurdish militia at the Northern Iraqi border.

If the PKK-PYD insists on this approach, Kurds could find themselves in serious jeopardy. As the Independent reported:

However, there are fears that it is only a matter of time before the chaos that has enveloped much of the country reaches Syria's Kurdish areas, particularly given that the Al-Hassaka province in which they are concentrated produces most of the country's oil. 
The inevitable spillover has already begun. Oil pipelines have been attacked and last Sunday a bomb in a cement truck detonated outside a government building in Al-Hassaka's regional capital of Qamishli, killing four people.

PKK - PYD Axis

From the above summary, you can see that Kurds are critically important to what will happen in Syria and the key is not just the Syrian Kurds but Kurdish groups in Iraq and Turkey as well.

Without coming to terms with the PKK, Massoud Barzani and its patron saint (Turkey) will not be able to achieve their goals in Syria. And this is why the PYD is acting the way it has been acting.

Last week, Turkish PM Erdogan announced that he would seek new talks with the PKK. He offered to resume Oslo talks that took place between 2009 and 2011. This was rather startling as it came after a brutal military campaign that lasted several months and led to heavy casualties on both sides.

I took this as a sign that besides the overall goal of agreeing on a peace plan, the Turkish government wants to get the PKK ease up its grip on the PYD and let the Syrian Kurds unite and implement the Barzani plan.

If they succeed, expect to see a radical new phase in the Syrian situation.

But there is a critical issue.

Two days ago, Osman Ocalan, the brother of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said that negotiations would be welcome and the PKK was ready to talk. But he declared that the sine qua non condition would be Abdullah Ocalan's direct participation.

The PKK is a highly hierarchical organization built around a serious personality cult. I read a lot of texts produced by Ocalan and my personal impression is that he is the kind of leader who would let the whole region burn if he is not allowed to get his way. I know my Kurdish friends will not like this but this is my view.

Unfortunately, Erdogan is also a highly arrogant and intransigent leader. He has become even more so after three consecutive electoral wins and decade-long multi-sourced adulation.

Despite these extremely high stakes either man could refuse to move forward.

We'll see how this goes in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: I found out after I posted this that Massoud Barzani has just given an interview to L'Essentiel, a French international relations magazine. Here is the transcript of the interview in English.

Notice how close his views are to what I presented as the Barzani model (and by extension) Barzani plan.

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