Though it is extremely difficult to get a clear sense of the state of the fighting between the Turkish military and the Kurds in northern Syria in the hotly contested district of Afrin, the growing impression is of a Turkish military offensive which has become bogged down.
This has been a constantly recurring feature of Turkish military operations in Syria over the last two years. Though they invariably begin with confident predictions of rapid victory, in practice they quickly run into the sand as the Turkish military and its Jihadi allies struggle to overcome the resistance of the seasoned fighters of ISIS and of the Kurdish militia the YPG.
The reason for these failures was discussed by me in an article published by The Duran on 19th February 2017 in which I discussed the succession of defeats inflicted on the Turkish military by ISIS over the course of the battle for the strategically important Syrian town of Al-Bab.
The Turkish force that is besieging Al-Bab is comparatively small. It is also unbalanced, with barely any Turkish infantry to support the tanks, and with such Turkish infantry as is there consisting mainly of Special Forces, who are few in number and who are not generally used to support tanks.
The reason for this is that for domestic political reasons President Erdogan’s government is unwilling to send Turkish infantry into Syria. Turkish infantry units are generally manned by conscripts, and President Erdogan does not want to face the public opposition he might provoke if he sent young Turkish conscripts to Syria to fight the hardened veterans of ISIS and the Kurdish YPG.
The result however is that the Turkish military besieging Al-Bab has to rely for infantry support on the Jihadi fighters of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’, who have proved consistently unable to stand up in a fight against any one of their enemies, be they the Syrian army, ISIS or the YPG.
Pictures which have appeared of the Turkish forces which have been sent to Afrin suggest that the same pattern is repeating itself, with the forces looking excessively tank heavy and over reliant for infantry support on Turkey’s local Jihadi allies who have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of standing up in actual fighting against either ISIS or the YPG.
The Turkish military’s moves against Afrin have been made more difficult by the redeployment of YPG fighters from Raqqa and other places where they were previously fighting ISIS to Afrin.
According to some reports these YPG fighters are reaching Afrin by crossing Syrian government controlled territory, indicating the existence of some sort of presumably Russian brokered deal between the YPG and the Syrian government in Damascus.
Meanwhile there are also reports that the US is itself stepping supplies of anti tank missiles to the Kurds.
If the picture on the ground looks excessively complicated and difficult to understand, it has not been made any clearer by the high level diplomacy Turkish President Erdogan has engaged in over the last few days.
On Tuesday 23rd January 2018 Erdogan had a telephone conversation with President Putin of Russia. The Kremlin’s summary of this call suggests that its tone was at least cordial even if it is not at all clear what if anything was agreed
The two presidents exchanged opinions on the situation in Syria, including in Afrin in the northwest Syria, where Turkey is conducting a military operation. They focused on the importance of continuing joint efforts to settle the Syrian crisis based on respect for Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The two leaders also talked about preparations for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which has entered the home stretch. Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan expressed hope that the congress would be representative and would help find a lasting political solution to the crisis in keeping with the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the agreements reached in Astana.
Both presidents pointed out their satisfaction with the positive development of Russian-Turkish relations in various spheres.
The same is not true of President Erdogan’s telephone conversation on the following day with President Trump of the United States.
The Moon of Alabama has discussed the bizarre and contradictory reports from Washington and Ankara about what passed during this call in a masterly way
Yesterday President Trump and Erdogan had a phonecall to discuss the situation. It did not help. The White House readout for the call includes some noticeably harsh language:
President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. President Trump relayed concerns that escalating violence in Afrin, Syria, risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria. He urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.
President Trump also expressed concern about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey, and about United States citizens and local employees detained under the prolonged State of Emergency in Turkey.The Turkish side denied that such language and these issues were part of the talk:
The White House’s written statement differs from the truth discussed between the Turkish and U.S. Presidents’ phone conversation on Wednesday, according to Anadolu Agency sources.Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media, the sources said President Donald Trump did not discuss any concerns ‘of escalating violence in Afrin’ during the phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The sources also stressed that President Trump did not use the words “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey.”
They also said that there was no discussion of the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey.
It is very unusual to dispute the content of such readouts. Is Turkey obfuscating here or did someone in the White House put harsher language into the readout than was actually used in the call?
Trump had in general good relations with Erdogan and the readout language does not sound like him. The Turkish side also added this:
“In an answer to President Erdogan’s highlighting request from Washington to stop providing arms to the PYD/YPG terrorists in Syria within the scope of fighting against terrorism, President Trump said the United States are no longer providing PYD/YPG with weapons,” the sources added.Already in November the Turks had said that Trump promised to stop the delivery of weapons to the YPG forces in east-Syria. But the White House was evasive on the issue and the U.S. military Central Command has acted contrary to that promise. If the Magnier report is correct CentCom also delivered anti-tank missiles to the Kurds in Afrin.
(highlighting in the original)
In contrast to the Moon of Alabama, I think the White House readout does provide an accurate summary of what passed between Trump and Erdogan during the call.
It appears that there was a furious row between Trump and Erdogan, with Trump telling Erdogan to stop his operation against the Kurds in Afrin and with Erdogan refusing to do so.
An angry and humiliated Erdogan has subsequently tried to conceal the extent of the row by claiming that the readout is inaccurate so as to pretend that the row never took place.
This brings up again the question of the seemingly confused state of US policy on the Kurdish question.
The article by the Moon of Alabama discusses this extensively, and analyses in detail and once more in a masterly way the all too obvious split in Washington between pro-Turkish and pro-Kurdish factions.
I have for some time presumed that are different opinions in the White House and especially in the Pentagon with regards to Turkey and the Kurds. The realist-hawks and NATO proponents are on Turkey’s side while the neoconservative “liberal” forces are on the Kurdish side. Yesterday the NYT noted the split:
The White House sent out a message aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.That message was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon, which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds, even as Turkey invaded their stronghold in northwestern Syria.
The former director of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, takes the pro-Kurdish position. Linking to the NYT piece above he says:
Richard N. Haass @RichardHaass – 12:00 PM – 24 Jan 2018
Pentagon right; US should be working w Kurds in Syria for moral and strategic reasons alike. A break with Erdogan’s Turkey is inevitable, if not over this than over other differences. Time for DoD to come up with plan to substitute for Incirlik access.It is not only the Incirlik air-base which is irreplaceable for NATO’s southern command. Turkey also controls the access to the Black Sea and has thereby a say over potential NATO operations against southern Russia and Crimea.
In a Bloomberg oped former U.S. Supreme Commander of NATO Stavridis takes a pro-Turkish position:
At the moment, Washington is trying to sail a narrow passage between supporting its erstwhile Kurdish combat partners and not blowing up the relationship with Turkey. But the room for maneuver is closing and a choice is looming. What should the U.S. do?
[W]e simply cannot afford to “lose” Turkey.
The Turks have a strong and diversified economy, a young and growing population, and have stood alongside the U.S. for much of the post-World War II era. Their importance both regionally and globally will continue to grow in the 21st century. Yes, U.S. officials can and should criticize Turkish actions where they violate international law or human rights — but in private, at least at this stage of the situation.
[T]he overall U.S. strategic interest lies in keeping Turkey aligned with NATO and the trans-Atlantic community. It would be a geopolitical mistake of near-epic proportions to see Turkey drift out of that orbit and end up aligned with Russia and Iran in the Levant.
In passing the article in the Moon of Alabama also confirms what I have said previously, that the US’s Plan C – the plan to use the Kurds to destabilise President Assad’s government in Syria by carving out a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria – was not properly discussed within the US government or agreed within the administration, but was cooked up instead by a small but influential group of Washington officials who did not discuss it with their seniors in the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House
It is unclear where in the Trump administration the split between pro-Kurdish and pro-Turkish positions actually is. (Or is it all around chaos?) On which side, for example, is Secretary of Defense Mattis and on which side is the National Security Advisor McMaster? This clip from the NYT piece above lets one assume that they pull in opposite directions:
For its part, the White House disavowed a plan by the American military to create a Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria, which Turkey has vehemently opposed.
That plan, a senior administration official said Tuesday, originated with midlevel military planners in the field, and was never seriously debated, or even formally introduced, at senior levels in the White House or the National Security Council.
But the Pentagon issued its own statement on Tuesday standing by its decision to create the Kurdish-led force.
(bold italics added)
Compare these words with what I said about the lack of discussion with the US government about the new policy (Plan C) of backing the Kurds in the article in which I discussed this subject dated 8th October 2017
Policy instability in Washington
Firstly, though I have no doubt that Plan C exists and is both calculated and supported by some influential people in Washington – including within the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon – I doubt there is any consensus within the US government behind it.
There has never been any sign of any properly structured discussion within the US government about the sort of strategy the US should be following in Syria, whether conducted through the vehicle of the National Security Council or through any other format. In my opinion the US government is now too disorganised and dysfunctional to be capable of carrying out such a discussion. That was already the case under the Obama administration, and the current political chaos in Washington has made the situation worse.
The result is that many senior officials within the US – including I suspect President Trump himself, and quite possibly his ‘realist’ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – have not been consulted about the new strategy and may not even know about it.
My strong impression is that US policy in the Middle East has for some time been run by a small but powerful cabal of officials inside the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, who have strong links to various neoliberal/neoconservative groups working in US academia, various Washington think-tanks, and the media, and who also have strong personal and organisational links to the governments of the US’s two major allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Needless to say, since policy is made in this way with no proper discussion behind it, the new policy of supporting the Kurds (like the previous policies of seeking regime change in Syria and Iraq, and of partitioning Syria on religious lines) has not been properly thought through, and is not being executed in a consistent or organised way.
It is in fact all too easy to understand what has happened.
As happens all too often now, a middle ranking group of influential people on the ground in Syria and in Washington have committed the US to a policy aiming at the fragmentation of Syria which was never fully or properly discussed within the US government. As a result the obvious flaws in the policy went by undetected.
Now however that those flaws have risen to the surface – threatening a major crisis between the US and its key NATO ally Turkey – the US finds it impossible – or at any rate extremely difficult – to change course.
Rather than do so resort is made instead to the classic Washington bureaucrat’s device of putting the US President on the telephone to President Erdogan to try to warn him off so that the policy can continue unchanged.
Needless to say that is more likely to aggravate the crisis than to end it.
By contrast in Moscow – where policy most definitely is discussed thoroughly within the government and is properly thought through (Russia’s Security Council met to discuss the gathering Afrin crisis as well as Ukrainian developments on 19th January 2018) – a clear policy has been agreed, enabling President Putin to have a cordial and constructive discussion with President Erdogan on Tuesday (see above).
As a matter of fact the first indications have now emerged of a possible resolution of the crisis.
The BBC is now reporting that the Kurdish authorities in Afrin are calling on the Syrian government to deploy its troops to Afrin to defend the local population from the Turkish military
Kurdish authorities in Syria’s northern Afrin enclave have called on Syrian troops to defend the region’s border, as a Turkish offensive continues there.
They said the “aim of this (Turkish) aggression is to cut more Syrian land by occupying Afrin”.
Turkish-led forces began their assault in north-western Syria on Saturday.
Ankara regards Kurdish YPG fighters in Afrin as terrorists, and says they are linked to Kurdish PKK guerrillas who operate in Turkey itself.
Forty-eight Turkish-backed rebels and 42 YPG fighters have been killed in the fighting since Saturday, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.
Immediately prior to the Turkish attack on Afrin there were what appeared to be reliable reports that the Russians had advised the Kurds to transfer Afrin to the Syrian army’s control in order to avert the Turkish attack.
The Kurds – over confident of US protection – rejected this advice, with the result that as the promise of US protection has proved to be a dead letter they have been left to fight the Turkish military in Afrin on their own.
The BBC report does not say that the Kurds have reversed their position and are now accepting the Russian advice.
The Russian proposal was that the Kurds hand over control of Afrin to the Syrian army, whereas what the Kurds are now asking for is that the Syrian army come to their defence in Afrin by sending its troops there to fight alongside them against the Turks.
It is inconceivable that either Moscow or Damascus would ever countenance such an idea.
However the Kurdish plea to Damascus for Syrian protection does represent an explicit acknowledgement of Syrian sovereignty over Kurdish controlled territory.
As such it is also an implicit acknowledgement that ultimate authority over Kurdish controlled territory belongs to the Syrian government.
However cynical or opportunistic this move is, it appears to accept that independence or even semi independence for a YPG governed Kurdish statelet carved out of Syrian territory is not an option.
That does suggest a possible way out of this crisis.
It is probably too late now to save Afrin. Erdogan’s prestige is too bound up in its conquest for him to be persuaded to back off.
However it is conceivable that the Russians could persuade Erdogan to stop at Afrin if the Kurds fully accept the authority of the Syrian government in Damascus and allow the Syrian army into the rest of the territory which they control.
In return the Russians might be able to secure some sort of representation for the Kurds in the Syrian peace conference which they are trying to arrange in Sochi, as they have in fact been trying to do for some time. Possibly in return for a Kurdish withdrawal from Afrin they might be able to persuade Erdogan to agree to it.
In return the Russians would redeploy their observers to Afrin to provide protection to the local Kurdish population who are understandably enough nervous of the Turkish military and its Jihadi allies.
Whilst there would be many difficulties in the way of such a compromise, brokering it is precisely the sort of diplomatic work at which the Russians excel.
Moreover working in favour of such a compromise is the fact that every party to it would come away with something: Turkey would have gained control of Afrin and would have prevented the emergence of a large heavily armed YPG controlled Kurdish statelet on its southern border; the Syrian government would have restored its authority over the fifth of Syrian territory which is presently controlled by the YPG; and the Kurds would have gained safety from Turkey and a say in the future of Syria.
After a time further negotiations – in Sochi or Astana rather than in Geneva – would restore Afrin to Syrian control, in return for some sort of role for Turkey in northern Syria.
A big step would thereby be taken towards restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the whole of its territory, something to which the Russians – as the Kremlin summary of Putin’s telephone conversation with Erdogan shows – attach high priority (see the Kremlin’s summary of the call above), bringing closer a final end to the war.
The one obvious loser from such a compromise would of course be the United States.