16 May 2017

US Decision to Arm Syrian Kurds and Erdogan's Losing Hand

Today two peas in a pod are meeting in Washington.

You might not be aware of it because not many news outlets will cover it.

The people in question are both paranoid, thin skinned and volatile personalities who rely on their son-in-law to run their respective countries.

I am talking about R. Tayyip Erdogan and Donald J Trump.

It will be a fun meeting especially since both men will be in a foul mood.

Trump must be fuming about the allegations that he disclosed highly classified information to Sergey Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Sergey Kislyak, Russia's Ambassador to the US who had the good sense of timing their visit with the firing of Jim Comey, the guy overseeing the Russian connection.

Which was another yuge headache for the President.

Erdogan must be livid since, a week ago, while a high level Turkish delegation was in Washington trying to convince the Trump Administration not to arm Syrian Kurds, the White House announced that it was indeed going to provide a wide range of arms to Syrian Democratic Forces, a military coalition largely dominated by YPG, the military arm of PYD.

It was, not to mince words, a slap in the face.

Add to this the fact that they both need (and used) to be temperament fluffed and unlikely to do it to the other person, you have a promising setup.

When Trump called Erdogan after his dubious referendum victory -the only Western leader to do so- Erdogan must have thought that Trump would not arm Syrian Kurds. After all, even the Obama Administration refrained from doing so even though there was open hostility between the two leaders, especially during Obama's second term.

But there are good reasons why the Trump Administration decided to provide heavy arms, armoured vehicles and construction equipment to Syrian Kurds.

And most of them are Erdogan's own doing.

Unintended Consequences of Destroying Your Own Army

As I noted recently, after two successive purges the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is a shadow of its former self. With a ridiculously low cockpit seat to pilot ratio, its air force is incapable of providing air support to its own troops.

It took TSK six months to take a small town called al-Bab and it lost a record number of soldiers in the process.

By way of comparison, in same time frame, the Syrian Kurdish forces managed to take back quite a bit of territory from ISIS, including al-Shaddadi and Manbij. And recently, Tabqa, which is 50km from Raqqa.

Consequently, the Pentagon has completely written off TSK and by extension Turkish proposals to try to take Raqqa the Syrian capital of ISIS, without Kurdish involvement.
Ankara proposes to contribute Turkish special forces to the Raqqa operation, to persuade the United States to give up its cooperation with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkish special forces are currently performing coordination, reconnaissance and target-acquisition actions at al-Bab and supposedly could contribute 150-200 personnel to the Raqqa operation.

After al-Bab is captured, selected elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could be deployed to Raqqa.

Arab personnel of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be separated from the YPG elements that constitute the core of that force, and a 10,000-strong army could be set up with those redeployed from al-Bab.
However, these plans were met with open derision.
And when Turkey presented its plans for the Raqqa assault to Washington, military officers and Defense Department officials came away unimpressed. “That’s not something that passed the rigor of the Pentagon,” a former Obama administration official told FP.
There is more.

Towards the end of April Erdogan ordered an airstrike on YPG forces.

The US reaction was swift. After declaring that they were extremely concerned they simply moved American troops into the area controlled by YPG signalling to Turkey that bombing YPG carried the risk of harming US military personnel and therefore US-Turkey relations.

Your Enemy Is My Friend and Your Friends Are My Enemy

Erdogan has a bigger problem.

His enemies are the Kurds and the Syrian regime. His friends are the Sunni extremists. His hidden support to ISIS is well known. He provided them with arms (purchased with Saudi and Qatari funds), logistical support and he pursued an open border policy which allowed ISIS to get supplies, new recruits and free hospital services.

He openly allied himself to Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front (which recently became Fatah al Sham Front) and other Sunni groups in Syria.

As I have been saying since 2013, the aim of the Sunni coalition behind him was to establish a Sunni corridor in Iraq and Syria (that I dubbed Pipelineistan) to transport Qatari natural gas to Europe, an energy market of half a trillion euro a year.

That is why ISIS became Islamic State, the first and only terrorist organization in history to establish a state.

Russia, as the current supplier of that market is prepared to do anything to prevent that from happening. A Kurdish state in Northern Syria would make Pipelineistan a pipe dream.

The US doesn't like Assad much but Sunni terrorism is a much bigger priority than ousting him. And battle hardened Kurds are an invaluable asset on the ground for that purpose.

Consequently, for Russia and the US, the equation is the other way around. They are gunning for ISIS and Sunni terrorists and they rely on Kurds. And while Russia actively props up the Assad government, the US (especially the Trump Administration) has no longer any problem with Assad staying in power.

All of which tells you that Erdogan is squeezed between Russia and the US with no ability to play one against the other. Both countries seem to use largely overlapping playbooks. Kurds good, ISIS bad.

You can see this on the ground.

In March, Russia declared that they were going to train YPG forces even though they are ostensibly US allies. And they did this despite an open Turkish plea to dissuade them from helping Syrian Kurds. At the end of March they had a sizeable deployment in Afrin.

The aim seems to be to establish a de facto ceasefire between Turkey and YPG. Kremlin knows that after the downing of a Russian jet and the killing of a pilot Turkey can ill afford the accidental death of a Russian soldier.

Then on 2 May Russia announced that it was building two more military bases in Kurdish-held territory.

More significantly, when TSK began pounding YPG positions in Afrin with Howitzers a Russian convoy was moved there to protect them from Turkish aggression.

The map above is actually an app designed to update the Syrian theatre on an hourly basis. According to the events listed there, the Americans began patrolling the Syrian Turkish border after the late April bombing. They were occasionally accompanied by YPG soldiers.

Since May it is the Russian troops doing the same. In fact, Turkish media reported that on 10 and 11 May Russian flags appeared in Afrin region.

This is partly because Erdogan and his surrogates were dropping hints about an accidental bombing of US troops embedded in Kurdish forces.
If Kurdish militias “go too far, our forces would not care if American armor is there, whether armored carriers are there,” Cevik said during an interview on Turkish radio station CRI TURK Wednesday. “All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them,” he said, referring to US forces.
Russian answer was to declare the territory as theirs by hoisting their flag. It is a "go ahead, make my day" move.

But the real reason might be the heavy Turkish military build up in Sanliurfa a border town in southeastern Turkey.
Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks and military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency reported that the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 30 miles from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.
Basically both the US and Russia realized that Erdogan was desperate enough to make a move in Syria to create his own safe zone in the Kurdish controlled areas.

And they both said over our dead bodies.

Symbolically at least, Russia is now Turkey's northern and southern neighbor.

Safe Zones, What Safe Zones?

Ever since the Syrian civil war began, Erdogan has been calling for safe zones. Donald Trump declared his intention of creating very great and very beautiful safe zones in Syria. But somehow, Erdogan was not giddy.

That's because he was hoping that Turkey would control those areas and could use them to harass Syrian Kurds and prevent them from establishing an autonomous region.

It turned out that the American safe zones were a lot like the Russian safe zones. They were there to provide Kurds with autonomy.

In fact the Russians went a step further and got Turkey to join the Astana process. The three guarantor states Russia, Iran and Turkey meet in Astana, Kazakhstan and they let Syrian groups discuss a solution. You can already see how the deck is stacked against Erdogan. Sunni Turkey is working with Iran. Imagine how this would look in the region. Nato member Turkey is working with Russia. Why worry?

From a Turkish perspective it makes no sense to be part of a process where two countries out of three are siding with your declared enemies and they do not like you at all as they have nothing to gain from you.

Tellingly, the US was invited to join and they said, thanks we will observe from a distance.

On 3 and 4 May they met again in Astana in Kazakhstan and decided to create four de-escalation zones where no military activities would be allowed. It is a meaningless resolution as it is binding only for Turkey. Russia is already there and if its troops did something who is going to stop them?

Similarly, if the local thugs broke the ceasefire who is going to punish them?

But if Erdogan moved Turkish troops into these areas there would be hell to pay.

As I mentioned at the outset, the day after the Orange Man fired his "showboat" FBI Director Jim Comey, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were at the White House to explain these safe zones to the Orange Man.

Meeting With #The Real Donald J Trump

Given The Donald's thin skin, his inability to receive briefing and his unexpected brain farts no one knows what will happen in today's meeting with Erdogan.

Since he signed off on arming the Syrian Kurds Turkish pundits expect a low key affair.

Having painted himself into a corner, Erdogan has a lot to lose but so does businessman Donald Trump. His name on two buildings in Istanbul brings him roughly $6 million a year. He might be tempted to come up with an unscripted offer.

This is not just idle speculation. The YPG deal was pushed by the new National Security Adviser General McMaster.

Apparently, the knives are out for H.R. McMaster to use an actual title from Foreign Policy. Bannon is trying to push him out or neutralizing him.

So I interpret Lavrov's visit last week as Putin's way of bringing The Donald up to speed. In the end Putin is da Man.

My guess is that Trump will say something about the need to keep Kurds in check, his desire to work with a Nato ally or similar platitudes that pro-Erdogan media can repeat for many news cycles.

But the reality on the ground will not change.

Because for the first time in their history, Kurds bought two insurance policies and they got lucky that Trump became POTUS.

No comments:

Post a Comment