22 September 2013

Syria: What's Next?

An unusually heavy work and travel schedule prevented me from standing on my soap box.

But in the case of Syria, my silence was partly caused by a desire to simply observe the recent events unfold. I have to admit that, for a while, it looked like my working hypothesis was incorrect and the region was going to hell in a hand basket.

I now believe that, at least as far as Syria is concerned, my earlier analyses were not that far off.

What were my main points?

No Military Intervention Is Feasible

To begin with, I always maintained that no one wanted to have a military intervention in Syria. It was always a fragmented society that was held together by Hafez al Assad's authoritarian policies. After a prolonged and bloody civil way, it is now a deeply fractured society and no one wants to be stuck with that particular Pottery Barn product.

And the recent events proved that: Even after the UN report strongly suggested that Assad might have used sarin gas against his own people the most obvious reaction was a desire to avoid any action. In fact, in a first for a US President, Obama denied executive privilege to act and asked Congress to clarify his own red line. The British Parliament told Cameron to stop talking about military option. And Hollande almost caused a constitutional crisis by trying to pretend that he has the power to participate in a military action against Syria.

The only leader who appeared to be itching to get into Syria was Erdogan. If you agreed with my Pipelineistan argument his zealous insistence might have looked rational to you. But in reality, Turkey has everything to lose if it tries to invade Syria. And I am sure Erdogan and his FM Davutoglu know this very well and never considered that option seriously.

(Incidentally, Erdogan's bluster led to a serious regional isolation. He first accused anyone and everyone in the Middle East and Europe for what he claimed to be their blatant hypocrisy first on Egypt then in Syria. Understandably, the regional folks took umbrage. He also hilariously accused Israel and its powerful deep cover agent Bernard Henry Levy of engineering the coup in Egypt. BHL and General Sisi. Right. As a result, in the region -from Iran to Israel- he is extremely unpopular. And he is simply hated in Egypt.)

Russia Benefits from the War of Attrition

I also maintained that a protracted civil war is in the interest of Russia as it delays the Qatar pipeline to Europe and keeps Gazprom the sole supplier to that market.

Putin and his FM Lavrov nicely manipulated the world's evident reluctance to intervene and introduced a nice face saving measure for them. They had Assad pledge the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction. The world exhaled.

The next day, Assad announced that it would take over a year to achieve his pledge. Since it is unlikely that the FSA and the rebel forces will be able to unseat him, Russia has just ensured that the civil war will continue for at least another year.

In the Current Equation all Likely Outcomes are Terrible

In the last few months, it was becoming increasingly clear that the only rebel forces that were capable of fighting effectively were the Jihadi brigades. In other words, it meant that the US and the regional players were faced with two equally unpalatable outcomes: One, Assad remains in power. Or, Al Qaeda and Salafist forces defeat him and they come to power. Since Syria borders Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, you can imagine how desirable this latter outcome would be for the regional players.

In response, the CIA began shipping better weapons to the rebels, something they were previously somewhat reluctant to do. But this is clearly a case for too little too late. The day Kerry and Lavrov signed the Assad deal, fighters from the al Nusra Front and the interestingly named group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) successfully attacked their former allies in Northern Syria and wiped them out. Their aim is to become the sole rebel force to fight Assad and therefore to claim the future of Syria.

The Kurds are the Key

So, when we look at the situation is such stark terms (i.e. no outside force can intervene and all eventual outcomes are equally bad) it becomes clearer why I always claimed that the most important actors in Syria were the Kurds and why I maintained that the Kurds hold the key to the Syrian denouement.

They will have to join the fight to preserve the territorial integrity of their region. And protect the oil reserves that are part of their region.

I am not sure if your major news outlet carried this piece of information.
Yesterday [Aug. 12], 3,000 people entered Turkey through the Akcakale border crossing between Turkey and Syria, following the intensification of artillery fire in clashes at Tel Abyad, a Syrian town directly facing the Turkish city of Akcakale.

A similar situation has been going on in Ras al-Ain, directly opposite the Turkish city of Ceylanpinar. Jabhat al-Nusra militants are fighting the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) for control of the region that has Syria’s oil and gas resources. Jabhat al-Nusra is the Syrian extension of al-Qaeda that has institutionalized terrorism internationally, while the PYD is the Syrian extension of the illegal PKK. In other words, al-Qaeda is fighting the PKK on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The main question in that regard is why it did not happen before.

The reason it took them this long to get involved was a cynical game that was being played by Erdogan and the imprisoned PKK leader Ocalan.

As Ocalan was negotiating a reform package that would give Kurds in Turkey some important freedoms and put them on a path towards greater autonomy, he asked PYD, the PKK's offshoot in Syria to side with Assad forces to put pressure on Turkey.  He was hoping that if rebel forces looked like they were losing ground, Turkey would have to ask Ocalan to order PYD to join the civil war against Assad.

Instead, Erdogan increased Turkey's covert support to Jihadi forces, including the notorious al Nusra Front. He was hoping that if they could become a significant threat for the PYD, Ocalan would have to ask for Turkey's help and soften his stance on the Kurdish peace initiative.

Ocalan countered this move by asking Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan to send his fighters to help PYD. Barzani is an important ally for Turkey and Erdogan has a lot to lose if he puts that relationship to jeopardy.

In other words, Ocalan got the upper hand and put Erdogan in an untenable situation. If he continues to help Jihadi forces, he will have a problem in Northern Iraq and the Turkish Kurdistan. Perhaps more importantly, he will also alienate the United States as it is clear that the Obama Administration would hate to see ISIL and al Nusra Front to become the rulers of Syria. And, needless to add, they would not allow that.

Consequently, the only play Erdogan has left is to renew the peace initiative with the PKK in the coming weeks. When that happens, the Syrian Kurds would join the fight against the Jihadi brigades and Assad forces with US supplied weapons moved through Turkey.

As the Pipelinistan argument goes, the goal is not to have the Kurds defeat both Assad's forces and the Jihadi groups. Realistically, I doubt that they would capable to achieve that even if they agreed to try. And I am sure they didn't. The actual goal is to secure their region and therefore prevent Syria from remaining a unified entity under either Assad or Jihadi forces.

They have every incentive to achieve that goal and with US weapons and PKK forces and Barzani's peshmerges involvement they have a very decent shot to realize it.

The unknown in all this is whether Erdogan will do the rational thing. If the domestic situation in Turkey becomes tense and polarized (as most observers expect) with the revival of Gezi events in early October, he might feel that he could no longer pursue a peace initiative with the PKK.

The combined push coming from the nationalist discourse of the recently unified opposition and the harsh criticism of the nationalist fractions within his own party might provide him with enough incentive to turn his back to the Kurds.

But for the time being, I continue to doubt that.



This is what I read today. I am just relaying it with no comments:
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an Iraqi Al-Qaeda branch that has expanded into Syria, attacked the headquarters of Al-Nusra Front in Shadadi, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. 
"ISIS fighters on Saturday attacked the Nusra Front regional headquarters in Shadadi, taking control of the headquarters and seizing weapons and oil production equipment," the group said.
The two sides clashed, but the Observatory said Al-Nusra had relatively few fighters at the headquarters because they are currently battling Kurdish forces elsewhere in the region.
Interesting, don't you think?

Incidentally, today was election day in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In recent years, the Kurdish government has warned it is prepared to divorce Arab Iraq, and is now laying the final stretch of an oil export pipeline to Turkey that could in theory give the region the financial means to stand alone.

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