Doubling down on the fixation with ousting Assad produces another US foreign policy disaster
On 6th October 2017 I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran in which I said that the US’s two previous plans in Syria having failed – Plan A being regime change through US backing of violent Jihadi groups, Plan B being the attempt to set up an anti Assad ‘Sunnistan’ in eastern Syria – the US was resorting to Plan C, which was to establish a US backed Kurdish protectorate in northern Syria, so as to undermine the Syrian government from within.
In that article I outlined in detail how that was being done, with the massive supply of arms to the YPG, the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, and through the permanent deployment of US troops in the Kurdish controlled regions of northern Syria.
I also outlined what I thought the likely consequences of this Plan C would be
Consequences of the US’s Kurdish policy
What are the consequences of the US’s Plan C/’Kurdish’ strategy, and what are its prospects? In summary there are five:
(1) it will prolong the conflicts in Syria and Iraq;
(2) it is delaying the final defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq;
(3) it will make the Iraqi government align itself still more closely to Iran and Syria;
(4) it will strengthen hostility within Turkey to the US, and may make Turkey more inclined to seek regional alignments with the US’s Middle East rivals and enemies: Russia and Iran;
(5) it risks making the Kurds even more isolated in their region, whilst uniting the region against them.
I also said that though Plan C was rather more grounded in reality than Plan B since a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria had rather more coherence and reality than the eastern ‘Sunnistan’ proposed as Plan B, it was nonetheless in the long term unworkable, and the attempt to implement it would set the scene for the next US Middle East debacle.
Just two weeks later, with the Iraqi army’s successful offensive against the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq, and following the Iraqi army’s recapture from the Kurds of the key Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk, it appeared that this Plan C was already failing and on 19th October 2017 I wrote a further article for The Duran in which I said as much.
In the event, with a persistence worthy of a better cause the US despite the failure in Iraq has persisted with its Plan C.
Firstly the US announced that it intended to keep 2,000 US troops stationed (illegally) in Syria indefinitely, supposedly to prevent a ‘vacuum’ emerging there.
In reality the true number of US troops in Syria is much greater, and it is the presence of these troops which by preventing the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority across the whole of Syria is threatening to create a ‘vacuum’ there. Most, though not all, these US troops appear to be based in northern Syria, in territory controlled by the YPG.
Then the US announced that it was building up a 30,000 strong ‘border force’ in northern Syria, which it was clear would be built up around the Kurdish militia, the YPG.
The results have been very much as I predicted in my article of 6th October 2017.
Firstly, the US game with the Kurds in Syria has outraged the major regional powers: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Turkey’s President Erdogan has now launched his army and air force against the Syrian Kurds whom the US has been backing in their north Syrian enclave of Afrin.
In order to launch this attack Erdogan needed Moscow’s permission, the Russians having previously positioned military observers in Afrin.
A Turkish military delegation accordingly visited Moscow and obtained Moscow’s permission, resulting in the withdrawal of the Russian military observers from Afrin and the unimpeded operation of the Turkish air force there.
The Russians for their part attempted to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government as a way of averting the Turkish attack. The Kurds, counting on US protection, however refused, with the result that they have quickly discovered that the US protection that they had counted on is nowhere to be seen, so that they now find themselves facing the Turkish army on their own.
In a bizarre twist, showing the extent of their confusion and possibly highlighting the internal criticism their leaders are coming under for putting so much trust in the US, the YPG is now blaming the Russians for the debacle.
We know that, without the permission of global forces and mainly Russia, whose troops located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin air space. Therefore we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region.
In the meantime, where a few weeks ago it appeared that ISIS in its fastnesses in eastern Syria was close to total collapse after coming under simultaneous attack by the Syrian army and the US backed Kurds, it is now back on the attack and has actually been able to recover some territory at the expense of the Kurds, who are having to transfer fighters to face the threat from the Turkish army in the north.
Meanwhile the Syrian army has been able to capitalise on Turkey’s focus on the Kurds to carry out major advances against the remaining Jihadi enclaves in western Syria near Damascus and in Idlib province, where the key Abu Duhur air base has now been recaptured from the Jihadis, and where large numbers of Jihadi fighters have been surrounded by the Syrian troops.
Latest reports from the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency speak of continuing Syrian military advances deeper into Idlib province, with plans apparently being prepared for an offensive which will bring the Syrian army all the way up to the outskirts of Idlib city.
An article in the Guardian has now confirmed the critical role of the British government in egging the US on with Plan C as well as the extent of US and British dismay with the latest developments
The problem for the west is that, as an endgame possibly approaches in Syria, it cannot afford to lose Turkish diplomatic support since Ankara has been the vital countervailing force to a Russian-imposed peace.
The Turkish preoccupation with the Syrian Kurds on its borders could lead to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reaching a deal with Damascus and Moscow.
The speech – in which the UK Foreign Office had a big hand – was something of a watershed and was under-appreciated in Europe. Previously, Trump’s policy on Syria was simply the destruction of Isis and an aversion to talk of nation-building. But the Tillerson speech has been widely criticised because it was long on aspiration but short on detailing the credible levers the US and the west have to pressure Moscow to abandon Assad.
Western diplomats say they have some stakes in the ground: the threat to withhold EU and US reconstruction funds, the promise to keep 2,000 US troops inside Syria indefinitely and a slightly confused commitment to help the Kurds form a border force inside northern Syria. British ministers also repeatedly warn that a Russian-imposed peace that simply leaves Assad in charge would not only be morally reprehensible but unstable…..
There is so much wrong with the thinking in this article that it is difficult to know where to start.
Firstly, it is grotesque to say that “a Russian-imposed peace that simply leaves Assad in charge would not only be morally reprehensible but unstable” when it is Western policy to use the Kurds to prolong the war in Syria in order to increase pressure on the Russians so as to get them to agree to having President Assad ousted which is the true and obvious cause of the continuing instability there.
Secondly, to suppose that Turkey would stand idly by whilst the US armed the Kurds to fight President Assad’s government when Turkey is already fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its own territory was beyond farfetched. It should have been obvious that any policy of this kind that relied upon both Turkey and the Kurds in order to succeed was bound to fail.
Thirdly, the idea that the Western powers can ‘pressure’ Russia into ‘abandoning’ President Assad now that President Assad is in secure control of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, all of Syria’s main cities, and in fact every part of what constitutes ‘useful Syria’, when Russia previously refused to abandon him when the territory under his control was reduced to a small coastal strip and he was about to lose control of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo, is beyond delusional.
Now that the Turkish army is pressing deep into Afrin, with the US and the Western powers as the Guardian article says unable to stop it, the Guardian article refers to what is rapidly becoming the default Western position in northern Syria: abandon the Kurds and hand over to Turkey and its Jihadi allies a strip of northern Syria as a ‘security zone’ at the Kurds’ expense
The US can argue it tolerated Kurdish territorial expansions across northern Syria, and specifically west of the Euphrates river, only so long as the Kurdish militias inside the Syrian Democratic Forces were needed to defeat Isis, but now that battle has been won the US priority is to stop the freefall in its relations with Turkey. If that means a temporary Turkish foothold in the patchwork that is Syria, so be it.
One might even call it Plan D.
That this is indeed the emerging policy – though some US officials still seem to be unaware of the fact – has now been confirmed by Rex Tillerson, the US’s hapless Secretary of State, who speaking of Turkey is reported to have said the following
Let us see if we can work with you to create the kind of security zone you might need.
What this ignores is that this policy is every bit unworkable as the Plans A, B and C which preceded it.
Firstly, the duplicity towards the Kurds is nothing short of staggering. Having armed the Kurds and encouraged them to create their own statelet in northern Syria in order to fight ISIS and destabilise the government in Damascus, the US is now preparing to abandon them to Turkey as soon as the going gets difficult.
Needless to say duplicity of this order is going to shatter trust in the US both amongst the Kurds and even in Turkey, which is not likely to forget any time soon the game the US attempted to play with the Kurds in Syria at its expense.
Secondly, Turkey’s Jihadi allies have repeatedly shown their lack of military effectiveness. It is all but inconceivable that they can control territory in northern Syria in the face of opposition from both the Kurds and the local Arab people without the protection on the ground of the Turkish army.
However whether the Turkish army would be prepared to remain entrenched forever in northern Syria facing what is likely to become before long a guerrilla war waged against it by both the Kurds and the local Arab population backed by the Syrian government in Damascus is problematic to say the least.
My opinion is that that is all but inconceivable, in which case Plan D is as unworkable as Plans A, B and C.
Thirdly, despite the Kurdish complaints about ‘betrayal’ by Russia, the likely consequence of the latest events is that over time it will oblige the Kurds to rein in their regional aspirations and seek to come to terms with the government in Damascus, just as the Russians have been urging them to do.
By any objective measure the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have in recent years grossly overplayed their hand.
They used the US induced internal crises in Syria and Iraq to forge all but independent areas within those countries. They then expanded these zones far beyond their natural limits, bringing under their control large areas with predominantly Arab populations.
Then as the internal crises within Syria and Iraq abated, instead of leveraging the strong position they had achieved to come to terms with the governments of those countries so as to hold on to their gains, the Kurds went for broke, and gambling on US promises of support, they pitched for what amounted to outright independence, in Syria de facto, in Iraq de jure.
As a result they antagonised all the regional powers and Russia, bringing down upon themselves the wrath of Iraq and Turkey, and finding themselves isolated, when they discovered in Iraq in October and in Syria now that the promise of US support had no reality behind it.
The result is that when they were attacked by the Iraqi army in October and by the Turkish army now they found that they had no one to look to but themselves.
Pressure of events if nothing else will now probably force the Kurds in Syria to come to terms, however grudgingly, with the Russians and with the Syrian government in Damascus.
That would obviously mean accepting the overall authority of the government in Damascus in return for whatever form of autonomy the Russians can negotiate for them.
That is the only realistic way that the Kurds in Syria – who ultimately account for no more than 8% of Syria’s population – can secure protection for themselves from Russia, which as recent events have shown is the only secure form of protection that can be relied upon in this region.
As for the US and its Western allies, the time has come – in fact it is long overdue – for them to commit themselves to some serious rethinking.
The strategy of regime change in Syria which was launched in 2011 has decisively failed.
There is no realistic possibility of the US persuading Russia to abandon President Assad and agreeing to regime change in Syria, and no realistic way the US can bring about regime change in Syria without Russia’s agreement.
That means that regime change in Syria is impossible and is not going to happen.
With the Syrian government in Damascus now secure and gaining daily in power and confidence, it is now only a matter of time before it regains full control of all Syrian territory.
All the various plans to keep Syria weak and divided by playing Sunnis against Alawites, Kurds against Arabs, and Turks against Kurds and Syrians, can only delay this outcome, not prevent it, and can only do so only at horrific cost, whilst setting up the US for further humiliation
This is because the only practical effect of these plans is to increase the Syrian government’s dependence on Moscow and Tehran, thereby strengthening Syria’s alliances with Russia and Iran and weakening the regional geopolitical position of the US.
In reality if the US’s objective really were to limit or even extinguish Russian and Iranian influence in Syria – as it claims – then the only way it could do this would be by coming to terms with the Syrian government in Damascus, which is the legitimate government of Syria recognised as such by the overwhelming majority of Syria’s people, so as to persuade it to limit or cut its ties to Russia and Iran so as to reduce or extinguish the influence of these countries in Syria.
That would involve giving the Syrian government security guarantees that it could trust and economic aid to rebuild Syria, in return for its agreement to limit or close the Russian and Iranian bases which are now starting to appear on Syria’s territory.
Whether such a thing is now possible is another matter. However the modern history of the Middle East is such an appalling catalogue of duplicity that I for one would not say it was impossible if it were ever seriously attempted.
Already there are rumours that some officials within the Syrian government in Damascus are uneasy about the over close relations (as they see it) which Syria now has with Iran, and the problems which they think these are causing Syria.
However if the US is going to embark upon this genuinely realistic foreign policy then it must end its maniacal fixation with the person of Bashar Al-Assad, and it must tell its allies in Britain, Saudi Arabia and Israel that they must do the same.
Putting aside the disaster this fixation has caused to the people of Syria, who have had to endure seven years of war because of it, its only result has been to strengthen Syria’s alliances with Iran, Russia and more recently Iraq, thereby weakening the geopolitical position in the Middle East of the US.
As ought to be obvious, doubling down on this fixation can only spell more disaster further down the line, and the latest debacle in northern Syria which has resulted in fighting between the US backed Kurds and the US’s NATO ally Turkey ought to underline this fact.
However because this obvious truth is one which continues to be passionately resisted in Washington – not to mention in London, Jerusalem and Riyadh – it looks to be rejected, opening the way for still more disasters to come.
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