Sunday, August 21, 2016

Plenty of complications in Syria

Turkey's role is one of the chronic complications in considerations of expanding the US military role in the Syrian civil war.

Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus recently opened up a front against the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish PKK. (Konflikt zwischen Assad-Regime und Kurden: In Syrien droht eine neue Front Spiegel Online 20.08.2016; Kurdish militia launches assault to evict Syrian army from key city of Hasaka Reuters 08/21/2016) Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan's government has been a foe of the Assad regime. But Turkey is more concerned about the PKK becoming strong enough to mount an effective secessionist movement inside Turkey.

As Robert Fisk notes in Turkey's hit list of enemies is growing as Erdogan prepares to buddy up with Putin in Syria Independent 08/21/2016, this could presage better relations between his government and Assad's. Not least because of Turkey's current efforts to improve relations with Assad's ally and sponsor, Russia:

Syrian opposition figures in Turkey have been alarmed at reports of secret talks between Damascus and Ankara – through what the French used to call “interlocuteurs valables”, or people trusted by both sides – and an apparently stray remark by the Turkish Prime Minister just before the attempted coup (and before the St Petersburg meeting) to the effect that relations will one day have to be restored with Syria.

Clearly Erdogan’s new love for Mother Russia comes at a price. The Tsar will surely have discussed his own affection for Bashar – and Turkey’s role in trying to crush the Government which Moscow supports with its armed forces – at their mutual summit. Could it be, therefore, that the Sultan is thinking of renewing his old friendship with the Lion of Damascus? Be sure he is.

The Obama Administration has been providing assistance to the PKK as a fighting force opposed to both the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus and the Islamic State.

For public consumption, the Obama Administration has always claimed to be developing a fighting force of Syrian Moderates. Such people seem to be hard to find. That tends to happen in civil wars, I hear.

The closest thing we've been able to claim as Syrian Moderates the last few months has been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition headed up by the Kurdish YPF. (Kurdish-led SDF launches offensive on Syria's Raqqa Aljazeera 05/24/2016) Also awkward given the interests of our NATO ally Turkey.

The US has "embedded" American troops with the Kurds. It's a small commitment of US forces. But it's likely to escalate, especially if Hillary Clinton continues her hawkish stance on Syria when she becomes President. Juan Cole writes (Near-War: US Planes almost tangle with Syrian MiGs, which bombed area of US troop Embeds Informed Comment 08/20/25016):

Since the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh [the Islamic State], the US has allied with it (over the objections of Turkey). Washington has embedded some 200 US troops with YPG units (some were even caught wearing YPG insignia). ...

if you bomb the YPG, you might well hit an American special operations soldier.

Washington minded, and flew its own jets over Hasaka on Friday, apparently scaring off the Syrian pilots (the Pentagon tried to play this confrontation down).

But this US and coalition intervention could have a long tail. Is the US committing itself to a no-fly-zone over Rojava, the area of Syria on which the YPG wants to erect a mini-state? Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.

So not only are US troops in danger of being killed by al-Assad’s mad bombers (as tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been) but US pilots are in danger at any moment of going to war in the skies against the Syrian air force.

Me, I think this is a dangerous flashpoint.
Another group that the US is supporting is the Nusra Front, which is also opposed to both the Syrian government and the Islamic state. The Nusra Front has some rather embarrassing connections, though: "The al-Nusra Front's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda has ended speculation over the suspected ties between the Syrian jihadist group and the Islamist militant network." (Profile: Syria's al-Nusra Front BBC News 04/10/20136) This has been an embarrassment for a while. (Robert Perry, Should US Ally with Al Qaeda in Syria? Consortium News 10/01/2015)

The Nusra Front has recently made a show of renouncing it's Al Qaeda affiliation. Though the sincerity and meaning of that nominal disavowal is quite dubious. (Gareth Porter, Al Qaeda’s Name Game in Syria Consortium News 08/06/2016; Robert Fisk, Don't be fooled by reports that al-Qaeda and Nusra have split for the good of the suffering Syrian people Independent 07/29/2016)

Ray McGovern gives us a sense of the kind of disregard for international law that the Obama Administration too often has in its military policies, not a promising sign for Syria policy (A Lawless Plan to Target Syria’s Allies Consortium News 08/20/2016):

Remember, after the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014, when Russia intervened to allow Crimea to hold a referendum on splitting away from the new regime in Kiev and rejoining Russia, the U.S. government insisted that there was no excuse for President Vladimir Putin not respecting the sovereignty of the coup regime even if it had illegally ousted an elected president.

However, regarding Syria, the United States and its various “allies,” including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, have intervened directly and indirectly in supporting various armed groups, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, seeking the violent overthrow of Syria’s government.

Without any legal authorization from the United Nations, President Barack Obama has ordered the arming and training of anti-government rebels (including some who have fought under Nusra’s command structure), has carried out airstrikes inside Syria (aimed at Islamic State militants), and has deployed U.S. Special Forces inside Syria with Kurdish rebels.
And there is no shortage of actors in the Syrian civil war who would love to see the United States become more deeply involved militarily. Patrick Cockburn reports (There are so many foreign backers in the Syrian war that nothing is changing – rebels hope that Hillary Clinton could change that Independent 08/12/2016):

Each side [in the civil war] responds to any setback on the battlefield by asking and getting greater support from foreign backers. In this case, the Syrian government is looking to Russia, Iran and Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq for reinforcements and air strikes. As they have shown repeatedly since 2011, none of these allies can afford to see Assad defeated and have a great deal riding on his staying in power. They were caught by surprise on 1 August when the rebel umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah, of which the main fighting component is the salafi-jihadi al-Nusra Front, broke through government lines in south west Aleppo. Rebel fighters, numbering between 5,000 and 10,000 men, are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Syrian army, battered by suicide bombers, retreated and their commander has been sacked. ...

Pro-Assad forces are reported to have been reinforced by 2,000 fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias – their military experience, training and morale often making them superior to the regular army. ...

A further factor reinforcing the stalemate in the war is that much of the fighting in Iraq and Syria is conducted on all aides by criminalised warlords with no interest in the well-being or even survival of the civilian population. But such cynicism, while usually realistic, can also be deceptive because it fosters a belief that nobody has a core of firm believers who will fight to the end.

Every fight in Syria takes place in political, sectarian, ethnic and social landscapes so distinct that they falsify generalisations about the course of the conflict. ...

Indigenous factions in Syria are not going to bring an end to the war except by victory on the battlefield and this is a long way off. But the conflict has become progressively internationalised with the US starting its air campaign against Islamic State in September 2014 and Russia doing the same in defence of Assad a year later. ...

... the Syrian Kurds are the main military ally of the US in Syria. ...

It may be ... that Turkish capacity and willingness to help the anti-Assad rebels will be more limited in future. The rebels will hope this does not happen and wait to see if they will be rescued by a Hillary Clinton Presidency. More hawkish towards Assad than President Obama, she might shift from giving priority to destroying Islamic State, but more likely she will stick with his policies. [my emphasis]

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