So within the space of a few days, the United States has, first, commanded the government of Syria to keep its air force away from part of its own sovereign territory, Hasakah, occupied by American soldiers and their Kurdish “partners”; it then, with applause from other NATO countries, provided air support for a Turkish invasion of Syria and seizure of the Syrian town of Jarablus from those “partners”. These are unambiguous acts of war and Orwellian acts of doublethink aggression.
Note that Hasakah, where the incident with the Syrian Air Force took place, is not in an area controlled by ISIS. So whatever American troops were doing there, they were not fighting ISIS. Note also that Turkey’s announced reason for seizing Jarablus—in order to seal the border and prevent ISIS in Syria from receiving recruits and supplies—is a flimsy excuse that, as the New York Times (NYT) reports, the Turks don’t even try to maintain: “Turkish officials made little secret that the main purpose of the operation was to ensure that Kurdish militias did not consolidate control over an area west of the Euphrates River.”
As Al-Qaeda cleric Al-Muhaysin has assured would-be recruits: “The truth is that the Turks don’t prevent anyone from entering Syria.” If the Turks wanted to close the Syrian border, across which they’ve been trafficking ISIS soldiers, arms, and oil for years, they could just close it, on their side. No need to invade Syria. In fact, ISIS was informed of the attack, and left Jarablus before the brave Turks and their Syrian rebel partners arrived. The Washington Post said: “The rebels encountered almost no resistance from Islamic State fighters, who fled ahead of the advancing force.” The blogger Moon of Alabama (MoA) made the point more sharply: “There was no resistance to the move. The Islamic State, which had been informed of the attack, had evacuated all fighters and their families out of Jarablus. … As one commentator remarked: They even left mints on the pillows. The toleration of ISIS by Turkey, which includes some not so secret support, will likely continue.”
Indeed, Al Jazeera reported that, “a small contingent of special forces had travelled into Syria to secure the area before the larger ground operation.” And, Roger Annis cites Kurdish ANF News as reporting that “local residents said there was little fighting. Instead, ISIS forces turned the city over to the Turkey-supported irregulars and calmly withdrew, many traveling into Turkey. Several reports said that in crossing into Turkey, ISIS cadre donned the uniform of the Syrian Free Army.”
Gee, one might be excused for thinking that ISIS is a pawn that the Americans and Turks can move around the board at will. Or even, as Turkish HDP parliamentarian Hişyar Özsoy, echoing a statement from the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), says: “This is not an operation to rescue the town of Jarablus from ISIS… This is an operation to rescue ISIS from Kurdish forces, who just last week captured the town of Manbij and defeated ISIS.”
So this is not about the war on ISIS, although they’ll be an occasional target. It’s about the war on Syria—and for Turkey, the war on the Kurds above all. It certainly is not about saving any part of the world for democracy and human rights. As The Independent reports: the Syrian rebels installed in Jarablus by American planes and Turkish tanks “include the Islamist Faylaq Al-Sham militia and Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement, whose fighters decapitated a child on video in Aleppo last month.” ISIS militants give their seats in Jarablus to the “moderate” headchoppers, and move on to fight elsewhere. Jihadi musical chairs. With Turkey and the U.S. playing the tune.
The harsh note you hear—or don’t, if you only listen to the siren song of the American media—is the discordance between the Turkish and American arrangements of this score. Both want to abolish the Baathist regime in Syria and demolish the secular Syrian state. The U.S.—for various reasons, including its commitment to the Zionist program for the region—has been laser-focussed on that outcome, and has long considered the break-up of Syria into three parts—Sunni, Alawite/Shia, and Kurd—an acceptable path (“Plan B”) to that outcome. In fact, in 2012, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon and another “high-ranking Israeli officer” gleefully foresaw: “Syria’s fragmentation into provinces… the formation of an Alawite district in the coastal region… a Sunni province… and… a Kurdish province in northern Syria.” (And if you don’t think what Israel wants is reflected in what America does, think again.)
This Plan B has become more attractive to the U.S. as the fall of Damascus has been stymied, for a while at least, by Russian military support of the Syrian government. At the same time, the Kurds have a lot of international sympathy. Their legitimate national aspirations have been crushed by the governments of the countries they inhabit—Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. For this reason, and because they inhabit areas with substantial oil reserves, the Kurds have been repeatedly recruited as “partners”—i. e., opportune instruments—in various American and Israeli schemes against the three of those countries they target.
Aware of this international sympathy for the Kurds and too beleaguered elsewhere, since 2012 the Syrian government ceded a kind of semi-autonomy to Kurdish groups in northern Syria. The Syrian army would keep some forces there to demonstrate formal sovereignty, but Kurdish parties and militias would effectively run key towns like Hasakah without interference. This created an opening for American intervention, especially since ISIS wasn’t content to let the Kurds be. The U.S. has armed and supported a number or Kurdish (and other ethnic) groups in northern Syria, helped them organize as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and put American troops on the ground—ostensibly for the purpose of protecting the Kurds from ISIS.
These were the “partners” the Americans were defending from the Syrian Ari Force last week. In fact, the American forces goaded elements of the SDF, particularly the People’s Protection Units (YPG), into breaking the live-and-let-live gentlemen’s agreement and attacking the Syrian government outpost in Hasakah. This provoked the inevitable Syrian response in defense of their troops, and allowed the U.S. to start proclaiming a “no-fly” zone of sorts over Syrian territory. It was also a move by the U.S. to begin creating an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria, completely cleansed of a Syrian government presence. This zone would de facto commence the desired break-up of Syria, and provide a safe haven for favored jihadi groups. The YPG Kurds may have thought they were striking a blow for an independent Kurdistan with this attack on August 18th, but MoA was somewhat more perceptive: “I believe that this is a severe miscalculation by the Kurds which they will come to rue. The U.S. is not a reliable friend and it will not defend the Kurds should the other actors turn against them with their whole might.”
Six days later, Turkey invaded Kurdish Syria and occupied Jarablus. American Vice-President Joe Biden stood beside Turkish President Erdogan and commanded the Kurds to back off and let Turkey have its way—to actually surrender territory they had won from ISIS to Turkey, and to the Free Syrian Army, Faylaq Al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and re-costumed-ISIS jihadis who follow in the wake of Turkish tanks.
A lot of Kurds are in no mood to surrender to Turkey, and are furious. As even the NYT recognizes, Kurdish groups are “reeling from what [they] see as an American betrayal.” The KCK claims that Turkey’s “main target is Syrian Democratic Forces aiming to democratize Syria.” The YPG, who a few days before were attacking Syrian troops in complicity with their American advisors, was shelled by Turkish artillery, with American support, for not moving out of the way fast enough. Within a week, the U.S. supported and attacked the same group.
Probably because, within a month, the U.S. had gone from abetting a coup against Erdogan to being his best-bud accomplice in occupying Kurdish Syria. There’s widespread perception of American complicity in the Turkish coup attempt—which killed 250 people, and which was opposed by every political faction in Turkey. As Patrick Cockburn says: “It is difficult to find anybody on the left or right who does not suspect that at some level the U.S. was complicit.” A quite reasonable suspicion, since the coup plotters were centered at the Incirlik air base, and, as Pepe Escobar puts it “not a pin drops in Incirlik without the Americans knowing it.” Escobar also remarks that: “every intel operative in southwest Asia knows that without a Pentagon green light, Turkish military factions would have had an extremely hard, if not impossible, time to organize a coup,” and cites “a top American intel source” saying that “the Turkish military would not have moved without the green light from Washington.”
This undoubtedly forced the U.S. government to accede to its crucial NATO ally’s wishes regarding its more-dispensable Kurdish “partners”. Bottle spun. Make-up war kiss for Turkey, while the Kurds join America’s betrayed-ally-of-the-week club.
It turns out that Syria’s policy of leaving the Kurds to their semi-autonomy in the north may have opened a door for the Americans, but it also set a time-bomb for Turkey, with a big, flashing display: “If we go, Kurdistan comes.” The longer that went on, and the stronger the Kurdish forces and mini-polities got, the more Turkey felt threatened by faits accomplis. America may find it useful to instrumentalize Kurdish nationalism against state structures in Iraq, Syria, and Iran (to come), but Turkey, which has ruthlessly suppressed any hint of ethnic autonomy, takes that as a threat to its national integrity, and Turkey must be reassured.
Of course, (though it will go on pretending it does where convenient) the U.S. has no principled concern for Kurdish national aspirations, and will resolve this conflict of interest in favor of its NATO partner. When Erdogan and Biden together now promise to uphold the “territorial integrity of Syria,” they’re really saying: “There will be no independent Kurdish state.” (“For the moment, at least,” mentally reserves Catholic-schooled Biden.)
This military adventure also reveals, again, the utter incoherence—in terms of the ostensible goals of fighting ISIS, regional stability, or even rational American self-interest—of the savage multi-proxy war the U.S. has been directing in Syria. As the NYT reports, the American-supported Turkish campaign “pits two American-backed Syrian forces against each other”: jihadi groups—backed by the CIA, “allied intelligence agencies,” and now the Turkish army and the U.S. Air Force—against Kurdish militias backed by the Pentagon and American troops that have been the “most reliable partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State.” As one rebel leader expressed his confusion: “We weren’t planning to open a front with them [the Kurds]…I don’t know who is bombing whom.” The Vice-President proclaims his full support of the Turkish campaign one day, and the next day a Pentagon spokesman “want]s] to make clear” that the inevitable “clashes,” which are the whole point of the campaign, are “unacceptable.” The frenemy of my frenemy is my frenemy, seems to be the operating principle of reliable-friend America.
What’s the upshot of the Turkish invasion? It’s bad news for everyone. It won’t end well for the Kurds, for Syria, for Russia, for America (considered in terms of its people’s interests), for the world—or even for Erdogan.
Let’s consider the options, remembering that Erdogan is as fickle an ally as they come. Although, post-coup, he is politically quite strong, having been “propelled…to semi-divine status among his supporters,” that advantage is fragile. You can’t close thousands of schools, charities and other institutions, fire a third of the judiciary, and detain 15,000 people—including 10,000 soldiers and over a third of the general staff (124 of 358)— while pointedly dissing the pro-Kurdish opposition party (HDP) that supported you against the coupsters, without exposing and exacerbating serious faults in the political ground on which you stand. Turkey’s involvement in the war on Syria has been unpopular at home for some time, and the increasing number of horrific bombings attributed to ISIS—a group the Turkish government has been supporting—isn’t helping. Can Erdogan afford to double down on that involvement?
Option one is that Erdogan stays with a minimum program, keeping to a limited territory in northern Syria in order to prevent the emergence of any Kurdish statelet and making no moves toward challenging the Syria-Russia alliance directly over the ultimate fate of the Syrian state. If he confines himself to that, he will probably get away with it—in the near- to medium-term at least.
This is, first of all, a military conquest. The only force that could reverse it right now is Russia, and that would require a full-on confrontation with air power, tanks, and ground troops. Turkey and the U.S. know this, and it is a willful provocation. With this action, Erdogan has taken on, for the Americans, the burden of daring Russia to react. Since the Turkish intervention avoided direct conflict with Russian forces, it is highly doubtful Russia will take the bait, which would require directly engaging the Turkish army, supported by U.S. armed forces. Putin will certainly not commit thousands of Russian ground troops.
Despite the ridiculous portrayal of Putin in the Western media, he has been very careful. He also knows, as The Saker has pointed out in detail, that Russian forces cannot match American and NATO forces in a full-on conflict in the Syrian theater. If anything, Russia will bring this to the United Nations, and try to resolve it on the basis of international law—which won’t work, of course, but will allow Russia to defer, probably forever, any military response.
Of course, neither Syria nor Russia is going to like backing down on this direct military invasion against a sovereign state. This is exactly the kind of exceptionalism for America and its allies that the Russians, since Libya, have been determined to resist. They will be asking themselves: “If not here, where? If not now, when?” No matter how limited, the Turkish invasion will weaken Syria, and, if allowed to stand for even a short time without military cost to Turkey, will likely mean Turkish control of this region for a long time to come.
The chances of any military reaction, if Turkey keeps to the Kurdish areas, are also extremely unlikely because Putin is smart enough to know that, whatever happens to Syria, this is very quickly going to turn into a liability for Turkey, for the United States, and for Erdogan personally.
There’s the international embarrassment for Turkey and the U.S. for having invaded another sovereign county, though American leaders are likely confident they can control the media spin on that—in the West, at least. (The irrelevant dust of Crimea will be frequently thrown in the world’s eyes.)
For Turkey, the real cost is going to be the burden of a war against, and occupation of, a resistant and organized Kurdish population. Erdogan’s post-coup honeymoon will end fast and nasty. There will be more and fiercer acts of resistance by Kurdish nationalists, more attacks on Turkish interests, and increased political opposition. All the weaknesses that were simmering beneath the coup will boil over again in unpredictable ways. In reaction, Erdogan will undoubtedly become more autocratic than he already is, which won’t help his relations with Europe, or the image of NATO.
For America, too, for all the reasons mentioned above, it will become increasingly difficult to hide how completely phony are all of the ostensible reasons for its war on Syria— a threadbare quiltwork of excuses that tries to cover a rats’ nest of bad actors. It will also mean another instance of support for “occupied territory” in the Middle East, and for an ever-more-obvious autocrat in a country with serious, organized political opposition. America’s various allied Kurdish organizations will split—those the Americans buy off against those that maintain a principled stance. The U.S. will be paying various high prices, over and over again, to maintain something resembling a passable situation in the occupied Kurdish territories and in Turkey. Good luck with that.
Those are the considerations if Erdogan sticks to the minimum program.
His second option is to go all in with the American assault on the Syrian government, and push on to strategic objectives like Aleppo, directly attacking Syrian forces. Even if, as he and the Americans would likely arrange, he avoids initial contact with Russian forces, Erdogan would be getting in Russia’s face in a way that Putin would be less likely to ignore. The U.S. would like nothing more than to force Putin into attacking Turkish, rather than American, forces, so it can portray its own response as the defense of a weaker ally. Getting Iran involved, and obliterated, would be even better.
Pursuing this option would be enormously dangerous. The costs to everyone, including the costs to Erdogan and the people of Turkey and the U.S, would be magnified exponentially.
The Syrian stage—one of many—is filling with players fed up with American regime-change arrogance. Iran is a player here, and knows it’s the next target, so it will be even less inclined to abide any extension of this invasion. And Iran has as much right to be in Syria as Turkey does. China is seeking closer military ties with Syria and already has military advisors “on the ground in Syria.” Somewhere, at some time, some countries are going to decide it’s time to resist American exceptionalism, with whatever level of force they can muster. A scenario in Syria where Iran commits significant ground forces, with Russian air, and Chinese logistical, support is not impossible. So, downing Russian aircraft and sinking Chinese ships? Then we are really in unchartered, dangerous territory, facing. a risk of regional or world war, including a nuclear conflict.
That’s why, presuming any rationality, the option of Turkey throwing its army directly into overturning the Syrian government is very unlikely. But I cannot entirely put it past either Erdogan, who may believe in his semi-divine status at the moment, or the U.S., which always has.
Three years ago, Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, exhibited either his precognitive powers or the fact that everybody in the deep-state-know has known for a long time what plans were in motion, and the dangers they entailed:
I could paint you a scenario where we start a NATO no-fly zone over Syria, and wind up, in a year or two, with a general regional war, and then, within a year or two of that, possibly lots of big players fighting each other, first through surrogates, and then their own troops…I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Russians… begin to sell their most sophisticated air defense missiles to Syria. Then they’re going to start shooting down NATO airplanes; not one or two but lots of them.
Did I say this situation was bad for everyone? Not quite. There is one party for whom it’s a blessing. Israel is happy with everything that causes chaos, confusion, and division in and among the Arab and Muslim states of the region and increases the likelihood of American military involvement in destroying Syria and Iran.
(And maybe even Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for that matter. The same intel source who told Pablo Escobar that the Turkish coup could not have happened unless greenlit by America, says: “The same thing was planned for Saudi Arabia in April 2014, but was blocked at the highest levels in Washington by a friend of Saudi Arabia.” No one should be surprised if Erdogan learns one day, as his Kurdish cousins just did, what should be obvious to everyone: There is only one true love, one country in the region for whom the U.S. is a reliable ally—and it’s neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey.)
As I’ve said many times before, those who think all this constant churning of frenemy warfare makes no sense need to understand that there are those for whom it does. The American policy in the region is completely incoherent until one understands the extent to which it’s Israeli policy. It’s a program that was developed over thirty years ago, in the Yinon plan, which articulated “the Zionist hope that sectarian-based states become Israel’s satellites and, ironically, its source of moral legitimation.” It was repeated earlier this year by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who said “I prefer ISIS” in Syria over Iran and Hezbollah; it was repeated again a few weeks ago by a Zionist theoretician who, in a paper entitled, “The Destruction of Islamic State Is a Strategic Mistake,” called ISIS “a useful tool,” and reminded his audience that: “Stability …is desirable only if it serves our interests.” It has been carried out in practice, with Israel providingfield hospitals for jihadi rebels, where they are fixed up to “ensure their safe return” (to combat, of course).
As the man said: The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous.
Really, who wants this? Besides, of course, the weapons industry, which makes billions off it. Have the American people been clamoring for war on Syria? Conservatives and liberal interventionists—lately Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristoff—have been trying to raise that clamor for years. But why? In terms of American self-interest, Syria poses no danger; Assad joined the American attack on Iraq in 1991, and imprisoned and tortured suspects for America in the wake of 9/11. The idea that we’re in this war, along with the likes of Saudi Arabia and “good al-Qaeda,” to promote democracy, defeat ISIS, or save the children, is patently incoherent and dishonest. If, however, you keep your eye on the other, often-stated but seldom-reported, reason—to keep the pot boiling, and to create instability that serves “our” interests—it becomes clear and comprehensible. And you understand that everything about it—from Iraq to Libya to Syria, and from Al Qaeda to ISIS to Al Qaeda 2.0—is a smashing success.
With the proliferation of self-contradictory actions like the American-Turkish invasion, it’s getting harder and harder not to notice the one consistent “interest” at play throughout. Roger Van Zwanenberg, founder of Zed Press noticed it in an essay last year, when he asked the obvious question: “So why do the great powers continue with these policies?… [Is] the cock-up theory… really sufficient to explain the chaos that we are witnessing and [are] our foreign policies really are conducted by idiots?” He went on to remark on the Yinon plan, and “how close Israel is to the U.S.A,” and that “There is no equal to these nations’ fraternal relations in the world. There is no doubt that American policy toward the Middle East and Israel’s policy in the region are powerfully coordinated.” One true love.
There’s a blind spot in the thinking of many Americans, certainly including educated liberals, who know very well that the American deep state and foreign-policy apparatus is populated from bottom to tippy-top with personnel for whom there is no greater interest to be served than that of Israel and the Zionist project. They know, and would probably acknowledge, that the U.S. would do nothing in Syria without assuring the Israelis that the result will be a net benefit to them. If pressed to think about it, they might understand and acknowledge that this ipso facto means the entire process of intervention must be coordinated with Israel from day one and throughout. But what they will never allow themselves to consider, no matter how well it explains what nothing else does, is the entirely plausible proposition that, in this “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel” political culture, the interests of Israel were present and paramount at the conception, a primary reason for, America’s policy in Syria and the Middle East, since at least the Iraq War. What elephant?
If Americans don’t start confronting all the interests that are behind the push for war with Syria, if they believe the phony narratives being peddled about the war, and continue to accept reckless military adventures like the Turkish invasion, assuming that the aggressions of the U.S. and its allies will be cost-free at home, they will eventually get an expensive and deadly awakening. Unfortunately, the head-in-the-sand combination of media mythology, elite arrogance, and popular non-chalance with which the latest events are accepted, makes it hard to think such an outcome is avoidable.
Jim Kavanagh edits The Polemicist.