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The US Plan C for Syria and Iraq: its reckless game with the Kurds

Following the failure of the regime changes wars in Syria and Iraq, and of the attempts to set up a ‘Sunnistan’ there, the US stirs up the Kurds

Alexander Mercouris

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As ISIS fades and as the Syrian conflict winds down, regional tensions in the Middle East are escalating, as the attention of the Great Powers switches to the growing crisis in Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurdish areas.

The latest stage in the seemingly endless geopolitical struggle in the Middle East is currently underway, with the Kurds of Syria and Iraq taking centre-stage.

Though it is important not to attribute more structure and coherence to US policy than it actually has, it appears that US policy over the course the Syrian conflict in particular has evolved through three overlapping stages.

Stage 1 – Plan A: Regime Change in Syria

First, there was an all-out attempt to achieve regime change in Syria, with the US supporting a proxy war intended to overthrow the Syrian government.

This stage lasted from 2011 up to the autumn of 2016, when the Syrian army’s successful defeat of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo made it non-viable.

This stage could be called the US’s Plan A.

Stage 2 – Plan B: Partition Syria by creating eastern ‘Sunnistan’

Secondly, as hopes of achieving regime change in Syria faded following the Russian intervention in 2015, plans for partitioning Syria by setting up a Sunni statelet in central and eastern Syria were gradually substituted in its place.

To that end the US established military bases on Syrian territory at Al-Tanf and elsewhere, and began arming and training various anti-government “Free Syrian Army” militia groups both in northern and southern Syria.

This is the classic US ‘third force’ strategy, applied by the US to many conflicts ever since it was first tested out in Vietnam in the 1950s.  It has always proved a failure whenever it has been attempted, but that never seems to prevent the US from turning to it whenever it finds itself in a losing position.

In Syrian terms this could be called the US’s Plan B.

Support for the ‘Free Syrian Army’ militia groups and by implication for Plan B was always controversial within the US intelligence and security establishment, with the Defense Intelligence Agency strongly opposed, a fact which in 2014 cost its chief General Michael Flynn his job.

In the event the doubts of the skeptics have proved right.  A project initiated in Spring 2015 costing $500 million to set up a Syrian Sunni ‘third force’ was recognised by spring 2016 to have been a total failure – just as the previously sacked General Flynn and his Defense Intelligence Agency had predicted.  This did not however prevent the US from trying to do the same thing all over again in 2016, however with the same result.

In recent months it has become finally clear that this strategy has failed.  The various ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters the US has trained and supported have invariably proved a disappointment, incapable of standing up to the Syrian army or Al-Qaeda or ISIS on the battlefield, and ideologically all but indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda and ISIS (which they frequently defect to) anyway.  It is common knowledge that most of the weapons the US has supplied to these fighters has ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The reason this strategy has failed is because its underlying assumptions are wrong.  It assumes Syria’s people are deeply divided on religious lines between Syrian Sunnis, who are assumed to oppose the government, and the Alawite/Christian/Shia/Druze communities, who are known to support it.

This religious division of Syria’s people has never really existed, at least in a political sense, or at least not to anything like the extent the US and many Western commentators imagine.  The vast majority of Arab Syrians identify themselves as Arabs and Syrians and with the Syrian state, whilst the religious differences which have existed in Syria for millennia have never caused the fracturing of what is in every other respect a single country and nation.  Though most Syrians are Muslims, the prevailing ideology of the Syrian people and state is first and foremost Arab nationalism.

The result is that the sort of Syrians who are attracted to the US’s ‘third force’ ‘Sunnistan’ project are unrepresentative of the great majority of Syrians, and come from Syria’s very small minority of religious extremists.  For those sort of people the real extremism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS will always be more attractive than the phoney sectarianism of whatever ‘Sunni’ “third force” the US tries to cobble together and not surprisingly, whenever they are given the choice, their preference is to join Al-Qaeda or ISIS rather than stick with whatever ‘third force’ the US has conjured up for them.

Plan B’s other problem is that it also ignored the enormous logistical and political challenges of sustaining indefinitely an unrecognised Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the poor and isolated desert regions of central and eastern Syria.

Such a statelet would be cut off from direct access to the sea and would be sandwiched between Syria’s wealthy western coastal regions firmly controlled by the Syrian government and Iraq whose Shia dominated pro-Iranian government would be bound to be implacably opposed to it. It could only therefore survive through US support, which would need to be both costly and indefinite.

Given the enormous cost and the certain opposition of much of the US public to such an expensive long term commitment to Syria, the sheer cost of sustaining a ‘Sunnistan’ in eastern Syria means that in practical terms Plan B was never a realistic strategy.

In the event the rapid advances of the Syrian army into central and eastern Syria since the spring, and the concurrent advances of the Iraqi army through Iraq’s western regions to the Syrian border over the same period, and the emerging Syrian-Iraqi alliance, have acted to kill whatever hopes for Plan B there ever were.

It is now clear that the setting up of a Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the central and eastern regions of Syria adjoining the Iraqi border is no longer possible, and Plan B – the partition of Syria along religious lines – has failed and has had to be abandoned.

Stage 3 – Plan C: Support the Kurds

Following the failure of Plans A and B, most governments would have accepted that there is no realistic way for the US to achieve its maximalist objectives in Syria, and would have cut their losses.  Unfortunately, as has become all too clear in the last few months, the US has no reverse gear, so that in place of Plans A and B we are now seeing the rolling out of Plan C.

This is to manipulate Kurdish national aspirations to undermine the Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian-Hezbollah “axis of resistance/Shia crescent”, which in my opinion had no real existence before the start of the Syrian conflict but which as a direct consequence of US and Israeli policy in Syria and Iraq is now emerging.

The results of this new strategy – which can be called Plan C – are now evident in the form of the escalating conflicts between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army in north east Syria – with Deir Ezzor province emerging as the key flashpoint – and with the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At this point a number of qualifiers are needed.

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.

Kurds are manipulating the US

Secondly, the ‘new’ policy looks to have been ‘made’ by the Kurds as much as by US officials in Washington.

In both Syria and Iraq the Kurds have sought to leverage the conflicts there to their own advantage, using US hostility to the Syrian government and increasingly to the Iraqi government to advance their longstanding national aspiration for an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurds have sought to do this by presenting themselves to the US as the one ‘third force’ in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq which is both consistently reliable and militarily effective.

To a quite remarkable extent they have succeeded, carving out for themselves with US help large oil-rich and all-but independent zones in both Syria and Iraq.

US support for the Kurds in Iraq

Neither of these zones could have been created without US help.

The Kurdish zone in Iraq was created back in 1991 following the US war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The Kurds were never able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army by themselves, even in its weakened post-1991 form, and there is no possibility their zone in northern Iraq could have been created or maintained without US support.

Since then the Kurds in Iraq have used the US’s continued support to expand this zone.  It now includes large areas of Iraq of predominantly Arab population, including the important oil town of Kirkuk.

US support for the Kurds in Syria – a tidal wave of weapons supplies

In Syria the Kurds, especially since the defeat of the US’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies in 2016, have emerged by default as the US’s one remaining ally.  The result is US support on an astonishing scale.

A recent joint report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (“OCCRP”) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (“BIRN”) has revealed the gigantic flood of weapons the US has since September 2015 poured into Syria to support the Kurds there.

Apparently $700 million of weapons have already been sent to the Kurds in Syria, with the Pentagon planning to spend a further $584 million buying arms for the Kurds in eastern Europe up to the end of 2018.

Apparently a total of $2.2 billion in arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is planned, a figure which I suspect exceeds the price of the weapons supplied by the Russians to the Syrian army over the same period.  The OCCRP/BIRN report as it happens says that this figure is an underestimate, and that the true cost of the arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is much greater.

It is at this point that some of the problems arising from the US’s failure to hold a proper discussion of its new Syrian strategy become apparent.

Since the strategy of arming the Kurds in Syria is not backed by any formal consensus within the US government, and has not been formally agreed by the US with the US’s NATO allies, the whole programme to arm the Kurds has had to be conducted informally, without proper control or accountability, though its scale is such as to make it impossible to speak of a covert programme.

The result is that instead of the US supplying US weapons directly to the Kurds in Syria – something which the US government has not formally authorised itself to do – the US is buying former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in eastern Europe, faking documents and (no doubt) bribing officials there to do it.

It seems demand by the US for former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in Syria has become so great that the US’s east European suppliers are struggling to keep up with US demands, so that some of the weapons which have been supplied are past their sell-by date and are substandard and dangerous to those who use them.

A further result of the obfuscation which exists within the programme is the fiction – to a great extent maintained even by the OCCRP/BIRN report itself – that the weapons are going to something called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” even though everyone familiar with the Syrian conflict knows that the “Syrian Democratic Forces” is simply a fig-leaf term used from time to time by the Kurdish militia there.

It is this vast flood of weapons which together with US air support has enabled the Kurds in Syria to carve out and enlarge their zone in northern Syria.

Nominally this is done in order to fight and defeat ISIS, and the Kurdish militia has indeed fought some hard battles against ISIS in Syria, and is currently battling ISIS for control of ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.

However increasingly, as is now happening in Deir Ezzor province, the Kurdish militia is pitching itself against the Syrian army, using – with US encouragement – the Syrian army’s preoccupation with its fight against ISIS as cover to seize territory and oil wells in eastern Syrian in order to bring them under its control and to make them part of its Kurdish zone.

The result is that though the Kurds only account for around 8% of Syria’s population, their zone in north east Syria has expanded until it now covers roughly 20% of Syria’s territory, with Arabs now outnumbering Kurds inside it.

Differences between the Kurds in Syria and Iraq

There are profound similarities between the position of the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds of Iraq.   Both have carved out semi-independent zones in the north of their respective countries; both nominally oppose ISIS; both are increasingly at odds with the governments of their two countries; and both depend heavily on US support.  However there are also profound differences.

The Kurdish militia in Syria is controlled by the leftist YPG militia, which is associated with the PKK (“Kurdistan Workers’ Party”) in Turkey.  Its ideology is Marxist and it is bitterly opposed to Turkey, which it regards as the enemy of the Kurds.  Turkey in turn is strongly hostile to both the YPG and the PKK, which it considers terrorist movements.

The Kurdish militia in Iraq by contrast is controlled by Masoud Barzani, a conservative Kurdish tribal leader and head of the aristocratic Barzani family, who is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In contrast to the YPG Barzani has until recently enjoyed good relations with President Erdogan’s Turkish government in Ankara.  There are persistent rumours of close and and even corrupt business dealings between members of Erdogan’s and Barzani’s families, and Erdogan and Barzani treat each other as friends.

On the face of it that should preclude cooperation between the YPG led Kurds in Syria and the Barzani led Kurds in Iraq.

In practice it is likely that some limited cooperation between the two does take place, with arms and fighters probably moving freely between the two ‘Kurdistans’, and it is likely that there is some level of political coordination between them as well.

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.

(1) Prolonging the conflicts in Syria and Iraq

This is of course part of the purpose of the policy, its intention being to weaken the Syrian and Iraqi governments by setting up powerful pro-US Kurdish statelets on their territories.

Presumably the US hopes to use these statelets to leverage influence for itself in Damascus and Baghdad.  Even if it is not successful in that, the calculation presumably is that the Syrian and Iraqi governments will have their hands full dealing with the Kurds, and that this will limit their ability to act in concert with each other in a way that is contrary to US wishes and interests.

This objective has to some extent already been achieved.  Just a few weeks ago the simultaneous and coordinated advances of the Syrian and Iraqi armies to their joint border appeared to be on the brink of establishing for the first time a genuine land bridge running through Syria and Iraq all the way to Iran.  Following the actions of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, those advances have significantly slowed, and the establishment of the threatened land bridge has been postponed, even if it has not been averted entirely.

In the longer term the Kurdish statelets which are emerging in Syria and Iraq possess a coherence and viability that a Sunni statelet in eastern Syria never would have done.  They do therefore provide a genuine possible route for the US to maintain a presence and even some influence within Syria and Iraq, even contrary to the wishes of the governments of those countries.

The emergence of these statelets also means that the Syrians and Iraqis to a great extent will at least in the foreseeable future be tied down dealing with their respective Kurds rather than coordinating with Tehran and with each other in a way that might be contrary to US wishes and interests, and in a way which might threaten the regional positions of the US’s two key Middle East allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

(2) Delaying defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS

This ‘achievement’ has however come at some cost, and the extra lease of life given to Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq is the most immediately obvious.

Until just two weeks ago ISIS in particular, both in Syria and Iraq, was visibly on the run.  After a prolonged siege it was driven out of Mosul by the Iraqi army, its position in central Syria appeared to be on the brink of total collapse, and following a whirlwind advance the Syrian army successfully broke its siege of Syria’s strategically important eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which ISIS had appeared to be close to capturing just a few months ago.

The tensions between the Kurdish militia in Syria and the Syrian army, and the political crisis caused by the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, have however forced the Syrian and Iraqi militaries to redeploy their forces to deal with the challenge of the Kurds.

The result is that ISIS in particular has been provided with a new lease of life.  The reduction in the number of Iraqi troops in western Iraq in particular has enabled ISIS to redeploy fighters from Iraq to Syria, enabling ISIS to launch fresh attacks on the Syrian army.

The result has been a succession of ISIS counter-offensives aimed at recapturing the strategic town of Al-Sukhnah – liberated from ISIS by the Syrian army in August – whose recapture by ISIS would place Syrian communications to Deir Ezzor in jeopardy.

Further west Al-Qaeda has used the Syrian army’s focus on its conflicts with ISIS and the Kurds to launch new offensives against the Syrian army in Syria’s Idlib province.  The Russians – some of whose troops were targeted by these offensives – have made it clear that they suspect a US role in them.

Elsewhere the Kurds’ own increasing focus within Syria on their escalating conflict with the Syrian government appears to have slowed the momentum of their advance against ISIS in ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.

Though the number of ISIS fighters still fighting in Raqqa is now put at no more than a few hundred, ISIS still controls around a quarter of the city, with the Kurds so far failing to inflict on ISIS a final knock-out blow despite the heavy air support they are getting from the US.

Though these renewed offensives by Al-Qaeda and ISIS show how these two terrorist organisations have been able to exploit the conflicts between the Syrian and Iraqi governments and the Kurds to their advantage, it should be stressed that their final defeat in Syria and Iraq has been delayed, not prevented.

Latest reports from eastern Syria suggest that the Syrian army has successfully contained ISIS’s counter-offensive against Al-Sukhnah and is continuing to score gains against ISIS in the remaining pockets of its resistance in central Syria.

It seems that units of the Syrian army may also be closer to capturing the important ISIS held town of Mayadin on the Euphrates river, which following the evacuation of ISIS’s ‘government’ from Raqqa has been made by ISIS its headquarters.

As for Al-Qaeda’s offensive in Idlib province, heavy Russian bombing and the intervention of Russian Special Forces has ensured that it too has been defeated with heavy losses.  Latest reports suggest that Al-Qaeda’s leader in Syria – Abu Muhammad al-Julani – has been injured in a Russian air strike and is in a coma though Al-Qaeda is denying this.

(3) Iraqi realignment with Syria and Iran

Iraq has been in the process of re-aligning with Syria and Iran for some time, its rapprochement with Iran having started following the election of a predominantly Shia government in Iraq as the US occupation of Iraq began to wind down.

More recently Iraq and Syria have also edged closer together as they have coordinated their forces to fight their common enemy: ISIS.

I have previously discussed this evolving Syrian-Iraqi alignment and have pointed out that it represents a break in the historic pattern of relations between these two countries, which were previously marked more by hostility than friendship

Since the Second World War Syria and Iraq have more often been in bitter conflict with each other than allied with each other.

In the 1960s the antagonism between the two countries sharpened when they each came to be led by rival branches of the Baath party.  There is nothing more calculated to intensify hostility than an ideological split as the history in the twentieth century of the world Communist movement can testify, and in the case of the hostility between the rival Baathists of Syria and Iraq the antagonism became murderous, with former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein loathing each other.

However this rapprochement, should it become permanent, has the potential to reshape fundamentally the geopolitical picture of the Middle East.  As I have written previously

There has been some lurid talk in recent years of a supposedly menacing ‘Shiite crescent’ stretching all the way from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran.

This is a wild fantasy.  The Syrian government is not Shiite but secular, and is supported by many and probably most of Syria’s Sunnis.  Though there are Shiite sectarians in Iraq, and though they are for the moment in the ascendant, opinion polls show that the majority of Iraqis – Sunnis and Shiites – reject religious sectarianism, and oppose attempts to divide them on religious grounds.

I would add that the supposed conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East is anyway largely misunderstood in the West, which wrongly interprets it through the prism of early modern Europe’s very different Protestant-Catholic conflict.  In reality non-Salafi/Wahhabi Sunnis – who are the great majority of Sunnis – have theologically far more in common with Shia Muslims than they do with the Salafi/Wahhabi Sunni Muslims who make up the various Jihadi movements.

Though it is wrong therefore to speak of a ‘Shiite crescent’, it does seem that an evolving geopolitical alignment pitting Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria against Israel and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia may be in the process of forming.

The long history of rivalry and even hostility between Syria and Iraq does however beg the question of how strong and lasting a rapprochement between Syria and Iraq can be?

Though this remains a question only the future can answer, it is difficult to think of anything more likely to solidify Iraq’s new alignment with Iran and Syria than the threat of secession by Iraq’s Kurds.

With both Iran and Syria implacably opposed to such a Kurdish move – not just because of the challenge it would pose for the relations of these two countries with their own Kurds, but also because of the threat of an independent Kurdistan aligning itself with the US and Israel – the threat of Kurdish secession has provided Syria, Iraq and Iran with a fresh challenge and enemy for them to face together once ISIS is defeated.

As such it is likely to bring them closer together, and to bind them together more firmly, than might otherwise have been the case.

(4) A Turkish realignment?

Even as Iran, Syria and Iraq have united to condemn the latest Kurdish independence moves in Iraq, they have found themselves joined in their expressions of concern by the US’s militarily most powerful regional ally, Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurdish problem is possibly the most intractable of all, with Turkey already fighting a low level guerrilla war on its own territory against the PKK, the Kurdish leftist group aligned with the YPG, which has become the de facto leader of the Kurds in Syria.

The close links between the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria must make Turkey extremely nervous not just about the YPG’s success in carving out a semi-independent zone for itself in northern Syria with US backing, but at the vast flood of weapons the YPG has been receiving from the US.

It is precisely this hitherto unreported flood of weapons to the YPG which is probably the single most important reason why over the last year Turkey has slowly shifted its policy in Syria away from seeking regime change there towards working with the Russians to try to bring an end to the war there.

For the Turks a Syrian government – any Syrian government, even one led by Bashar Al-Assad – in full control of Syria’s territory is preferable to the existence of a powerful heavily armed Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s southern border, which is ruled by the YPG.  Once it became clear to Turkey following the Jihadi defeat in Aleppo last year that the overthrow of President Assad’s Syrian government was not going to happen, preventing the emergence of a YPG led Kurdish statelet in northern Syria became for Turkey the priority.

That points to the need for Turkey to cooperate with Russia to settle the conflict in Syria, even if that means abandoning some of Turkey’s Jihadi allies there, and even if that results in President Assad continuing in power in Damascus.

However whilst Turkey is implacably hostile to the YPG in Syria, it has hitherto maintained cordial relations with the Barzani regime in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Masoud Barzani, the leader of this regime, has now acted to call that relationship with Turkey into question by holding the independence referendum.

This referendum appears to have been called for internal reasons: to shore up Barzani’s domestic support within Iraqi Kurdistan as Barzani has faced increasing criticism for corruption, authoritarianism and economic mismanagement.  However it has been deeply unwelcome in Turkey, which though tolerant of a Barzani led autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state being established there.

Latest reports suggest that Barzani – who depends heavily on Turkish support – is trying to patch things up with the Turks, sending a strong delegation to Ankara to try to reassure Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish government of his friendly intentions.

Whilst the cracks may be papered over for a while, the effect of Barzani’s referendum has however been to place the whole question of Kurdish independence from Iraq back on the international agenda.  Given the extent to which the Turks regard the Kurdish question as an existential issue for themselves, that is bound to cause alarm in Turkey.

The result is the hurried announcement of joint Iranian-Turkish military exercises along their common frontier, a step taken in direct response to Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish independence referendum, and the threats from Turkey of an economic blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan if the results of the referendum are not rescinded.

Those announcements were preceded by high levels talks in Moscow between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia over the course of which the two leaders spoke of each other as “friends”, Erdogan calling Putin his “dear friend”.  Significantly the talks were attended by General Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, with the final agreement for the sale by Russia of its sophisticated S-400 anti aircraft missile system to Turkey being agreed just before them.

I have previously made known my doubts that any deep realignment of Turkey’s relations with Russia is likely.  It has always seemed to me that Turkey is too anchored in the West and too closely tied to the US for that ever to happen.

If any single thing could however make such an otherwise improbable realignment happen, it would be US and Western support for Kurdish national aspirations that failed to take into account Turkey’s concerns and interests.  Given the importance of Turkey to the Western alliance, it is baffling that US and Western leaders seem unable to see this, and are drifting into a policy that is risking their alliance with Turkey, without it being properly thought through.

(5) Kurdish isolation

The Kurds both in Syria and Iraq have since the 1991 Iraq war been extremely successful in leveraging their usefulness to the US to promote their national aspirations.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, and in seeking their own state – or at least a secure homeland of their own – the Kurds are not aspiring to anything illegitimate.  However they are now in serious danger of overplaying their hand.

From a position of great influence in Iraq, which they successfully achieved following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurds now risk finding that they have made an enemy of the increasingly powerful Iraqi government in Baghdad.

From a situation of de facto alliance with the Syrian government in the war against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which might with Russian help have been leveraged to secure for the Kurds at the very least significant autonomy and influence within a future Syria, the Kurds now find themselves drifting into confrontation with the Syrian government at just the moment when the Syrian army is sweeping all before it and stands on the edge of victory.

More to the point, by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.

If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.

Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue.  On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.

Rather than risk all by making an outright bid for independence, which has the potential to end catastrophically, the Kurds would be far better advised to work with the regional powers so as to consolidate the already considerable gains they have made.  The Russians, who are becoming the major power brokers in the region, have historically been sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.  Were the Kurds to take this approach there would be a reasonable chance that with Russian help they could negotiate for themselves a position which would leave them in possession of most or all of their gains.

That would of course fall short of outright independence.  However realistically that may not be achievable at the present time.  Attempting to achieve it risks a catastrophic outcome which would put in jeopardy all the gains which since the 1991 Gulf War the Kurds have made.  That hardly seems a worthwhile risk.

Conclusion

Unlike the US’s previous projects of regime change in Syria (Plan A) and the partition of Syria along religious lines (Plan B), the latest US ploy to maintain US influence in Syria and Iraq – the creation of pro-US Kurdish statelets there (Plan C) – is grounded in a certain reality.  The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are a powerful and coherent force, and they do have longstanding national aspirations the US can exploit in its own interests.

Like all the US’s other Syrian and Iraqi projects this latest one involving the Kurds does not however appear to have been properly thought through.  Though it has succeeded in delaying the final victories of the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their respective conflicts, that delay is likely to be short, and the price of achieving it is already looking high.

Instead of drawing Syria and Iraq away from each other, and drawing both away from Iran, US meddling in Kurdish affairs in Syria and Iraq is instead bringing Syria, Iran and Iraq even closer together.

Worse still it is increasing Turkey’s disenchantment with the US, a fact which ought to be of major concern to the US given Turkey’s importance to the US as a key NATO ally, but which incomprehensibly it doesn’t appear to be.

Last but not least, the policy threatens to involve the US in a Kurdish conflict in a region where apart from the Kurds themselves it would be without friends.  At a time of growing popular disenchantment in the US with the interventionist war policy that the US has been following since the end of the Cold War (see Glenn Greenwald’s discussion of this here), that has obvious potential for disaster.

There are signs that some US officials understand this.  Though it is difficult to believe that Masoud Barzani would have gone ahead with his independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan without receiving at least an amber light from the US, Rex Tillerson, the US’s ‘realist’ Secretary of State, has condemned the move, calling the referendum illegitimate.  That suggests that there are at least some people in Washington who understand the risks, and who are concerned.

The problem is that though there are plenty of people in the US who can see the dangers and want to pull back, the initiative in the US always seems in the end to rest with the hardliners.  The consistent lesson of the last few decades is that these people have no reverse gear, so that the very fact that the US’s latest Kurdish ploy is for the moment achieving some ephemeral gains is likely to embolden them, causing them to press on, ignoring the risks which lie before them.

All the signs therefore point to a deepening of US involvement in Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurdish areas and of the prolongation of the wars there.

In other words the scene for the next US foreign policy disaster in the Middle East is now being set.

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The real reason Western media & CIA turned against Saudi MBS

The problem with MBS isn’t that he is a mass murdering war criminal, it is that he is too “independent” for the United States’ liking.

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Forces are aligning against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, lead by elements within the CIA and strong players in the mainstream media. But what is really behind this deterioration in relationship, and what are its implications?

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The Guardian was not alone in its condemnation. “It’s high time to end Saudi impunity,” wrote Hana Al-Khamri in Al-Jazeera. “It’s time for Saudi Arabia to tell the truth on Jamal Khashoggi,” the Washington Post’s Editorial Board argued. Politico called it “the tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Even shadowy think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Atlantic Council released articles criticising Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.

A number of companies began backing away from Saudi money after the journalist’s death, including the world’s largest media companies such as the New York Times, the Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes, Arianna Huffington, CNN, CNBC, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Google Cloud CEO, just to name a few.

The CIA concluded that MBS personally ordered Khashoggi’s death, and was reportedly quite open in its provision of this assessment. Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, also took time out of his schedule to express concern over Saudi Arabia’s confirmation of the killing.

At the time of the scandal, former CIA director John Brennan went on MSNBC to state that the Khashoggi’s death would be the downfall of MBS. Furthermore, the US Senate just voted in favour of ending American involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen (a somewhat symbolic victory, though this is a topic for another article), but nonetheless was a clear stab at MBS personally.

The only person who appeared to continue to uphold America’s unfaltering support for MBS, even after all the publicly made evidence against MBS, was the US president himself. So after years of bombarding Yemen, sponsoring terror groups across the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific and beyond, why is it only now that there has been mounting opposition to Saudi Arabia’s leadership? Let’s just bear in mind that western media had spent years investing in a heavy PR campaign to paint MBS as a “reformer.”

Former national security adviser under Barack Obama’s second term, Susan Rice, wrote an article in the New York Times, in which she called MBS a “partner we can’t depend on.” Rice concludes that MBS is “not and can no longer be viewed as a reliable partner of the United States and our allies.” But why is this? Is it because MBS is responsible for some of the most egregious human rights abuses inside his own kingdom as well as in Yemen? Is it because of MBS’ support for groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda? No, according to Rice, we “should not rupture our important relationship with the kingdom, but we must make it clear it cannot be business as usual so long as Prince Mohammad continues to wield unlimited power.”

One will observe that the latter segment of Rice’s article almost mirrors former CIA director Brennan’s word on MSNBC word for word who stated that:

“I think ultimately this is going to come out. And it’s very important for us to maintain the relations with Saudi Arabia. And if it’s Mohammed bin Salman who’s the cancer here, well, we need to be able to find ways to eliminate the cancer and to move forward with this relationship that is critical to regional stability and our national interests.”

In reality, this is probably the issue that western media and government advisors have taken up with MBS. Aside from the fact he allegedly held a huge hand in the brutal murder of one of their own establishment journalists (Saudi Arabia reportedly tortured and killed another journalist not long after Khashoggi, but western media was eerily silent on this incident) MBS is not opposed for his reckless disregard for human rights. With insight into Rice’s mindset, we actually learn that if the US were to punish MBS, he would be likely to “behave more irresponsibly to demonstrate his independence and exact retribution against his erstwhile Western partners.”

You see, the problem with MBS isn’t that he is a mass murdering war criminal, it is that he is too “independent” for the United States’ liking.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and the other major oil producers met in Vienna at the year’s final big OPEC meeting of the year. As Foreign Policy notes, Saudi Arabia remains the largest oil producer inside OPEC but has to contend with the US and Russia who are “pumping oil at record levels.” Together, the three countries are the world’s biggest oil producers, meaning any coordinated decision made between these three nations can be somewhat monumental.

However, it appears that one of these three nations will end up drawing the short end of the stick as the other two begin forming a closer alliance. As Foreign Policy explains:

“But Saudi Arabia has bigger game in mind at Vienna than just stabilizing oil prices. Recognizing that it can’t shape the global oil market by itself anymore but rather needs the cooperation of Russia, Saudi Arabia is hoping to formalize an ad hoc agreement between OPEC and Moscow that began in 2016, a time when dirt-cheap oil also posed a threat to oil-dependent regimes. That informal agreement expires at the end of the year, but the Saudis would like to make Russia’s participation with the cartel more permanent.”

Russian officials have been signalling their intention to formalise this agreement for quite some time now. Given the hysteria in western media about any and all things Russian, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that this is the kind of news that is not sitting too well with the powers-that-be.

Earlier this year, Russia and Saudi Arabia announced that it would “institutionalize” the two-year-old bilateral agreement to coordinate oil production targets in order to maintain an edge on the global market.

While US president Trump has been supportive and incredibly defensive of MBS during this “crisis”, the truth is that the US only has itself to blame. It was not all too long ago that Trump announced that he had told Saudi King Salman that his kingdom would not last two weeks without US support.

Saudi Arabia is learning for themselves quite quickly that, ultimately, it may pay not to have all its eggs in one geopolitical superpower basket.

Saudi Arabia has been increasingly interested in Moscow since King Salman made a historic visit to Moscow in October 2017. While Trump has openly bragged about his record-breaking arms deals with the Saudis, the blunt truth is that the $110 billion arms agreements were reportedly only ever letters of interest or intent, but not actual contracts. As such, the US-Saudi arms deal is still yet to be locked in, all the while Saudi Arabia is negotiating with Russia for its S-400 air defence system. This is, as the Washington Post notes, despite repeated US requests to Saudi Arabia for it disavow its interest in Russia’s arms.

The economic threat that an “independent” Saudi Arabia under MBS’ leadership poses to Washington runs deeper than meets the eye and may indeed have a domino effect. According to CNN, Russia and Saudi Arabia “are engaged in an intense battle over who will be the top supplier to China, a major energy importer with an insatiable appetite for crude.”

The unveiling of China’s petro-yuan poses a major headache for Washington and its control over Saudi Arabia as well.According to Carl Weinberg, chief economist and managing director at High-Frequency Economics, China will “compel”Saudi Arabia to trade oil in Chinese yuan instead of US dollars. One must bear in mind that China has now surpassed the US as the “biggest oil importer on the planet,” these direct attacks on the US dollar will have huge implications for its current world reserve status.

If Saudi Arabia jumps on board China’s petro-yuan, the rest of OPEC will eventually follow, and the US might be left with no choice but to declare all of these countries in need of some vital freedom and democracy.

Therefore, ousting MBS and replacing him with a Crown Prince who doesn’t stray too far from the tree that is US imperialism may put a dent in pending relationships with Saudi Arabia and Washington’s adversaries, Russia and China.

Once we get over the certainty that the US media and the CIA are not against MBS for his long-list of human rights abuses, the question then becomes: why – why now, and in this manner, have they decided to put the spotlight on MBS and expose him exactly for what he is.

Clearly, the driving force behind this media outrage is a bit more complex than first meets the eye.

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The Indiscreet Charm of the Gilets Jaunes

Nothing scares the Identity Politics Left quite like an actual working class uprising.

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Authored (satirically) by CJ Hopkins via The Unz Review:


So it appears the privatization of France isn’t going quite as smoothly as planned. As I assume you are aware, for over a month now, the gilets jaunes (or “yellow vests”), a multiplicitous, leaderless, extremely pissed off, confederation of working class persons, have been conducting a series of lively protests in cities and towns throughout the country to express their displeasure with Emmanuel Macron and his efforts to transform their society into an American-style neo-feudal dystopia. Highways have been blocked, toll booths commandeered, luxury automobiles set on fire, and shopping on the Champs-Élysées disrupted. What began as a suburban tax revolt has morphed into a bona fide working class uprising.

It took a while for “the Golden Boy of Europe” to fully appreciate what was happening. In the tradition of his predecessor, Louis XVI, Macron initially responded to the gilets jaunes by inviting a delegation of Le Monde reporters to laud his renovation of the Elysée Palace, making the occasional condescending comment, and otherwise completely ignoring them. That was back in late November. Last Saturday, he locked down central Paris, mobilized a literal army of riot cops, “preventatively arrested” hundreds of citizens, including suspected “extremist students,” and sent in the armored military vehicles.

The English-language corporate media, after doing their best not to cover these protests (and, instead, to keep the American and British publics focused on imaginary Russians), have been forced to now begin the delicate process of delegitimizing the gilets jaunes without infuriating the the entire population of France and inciting the British and American proletariats to go out and start setting cars on fire. They got off to a bit of an awkward start.

For example, this piece by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian‘s Paris Bureau Chief, and her Twitter feed from the protests last Saturday. Somehow (probably a cock-up at headquarters), The Guardian honchos allowed Chrisafis to do some actual propaganda-free reporting (and some interviews with actual protesters) before they caught themselves and replaced her with Kim Willsher, who resumed The Guardian‘s usual neoliberal establishment-friendly narrative, which, in this case, entailed dividing the protesters into “real” gilets jaunes and “fake” gilet jaunes, and referring to the latter fictional group as “thuggish, extremist political agitators.”

By Sunday, the corporate media were insinuating that diabolical Russian Facebook bots had brainwashed the French into running amok, because who else could possibly be responsible? Certainly not the French people themselves! The French, as every American knows, are by nature a cowardly, cheese-eating people, who have never overthrown their rightful rulers, or publicly beheaded the aristocracy. No, the French were just sitting there, smoking like chimneys, and otherwise enjoying their debt-enslavement and the privatization of their social democracy, until they unsuspectingly logged onto Facebook and … BLAMMO, the Russian hackers got them!

Bloomberg is reporting that French authorities have opened a probe into Russian interference (in the middle of which report, for no apparent reason, a gigantic photo of Le Pen is featured, presumably just to give it that “Nazi” flavor). According to “analysis seen by The Times,” Russia-linked social media accounts have been “amplifying” the “chaos” and “violence” by tweeting photos of gilets jaunes who the French police have savagely beaten or gratuitiously shot with “less-than-lethal projectiles.” “Are nationalists infiltrating the yellow vests?” the BBC Newsnight producers are wondering. According to Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick, “a beast born almost entirely from Facebook” is slouching toward … well, I’m not quite sure, the UK or even, God help us, America! And then there’s Max Boot, who is convinced he is being personally persecuted by Russian agents like Katie Hopkins, James Woods, Glenn Greenwald, and other high-ranking members of a worldwide conspiracy Boot refers to as the “Illiberal International” (but which regular readers of my column will recognize as the “Putin-Nazis“).

And, see, this is the problem the corporate media (and other staunch defenders of global neoliberalism) are facing with these gilets jaunes protests. They can’t get away with simply claiming that what is happening is not a working class uprising, so they have been forced to resort to these blatant absurdities. They know they need to delegitimize the gilets jaunes as soon as possible — the movement is already starting to spread — but the “Putin-Nazi” narrative they’ve been using on Trump, Corbyn, and other “populists” is just not working.

No one believes the Russians are behind this, not even the hacks who are paid to pretend they do. And the “fascism” hysteria is also bombing. Attempts to portray the gilets jaunes as Le Pen-sponsored fascists blew up in their faces. Obviously, the far-Right are part of these protests, as they would be in any broad working class uprising, but there are far too many socialists and anarchists (and just regular pissed-off working class people) involved for the media to paint them all as “Nazis.”

Which is not to say that the corporate media and prominent public intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy will not continue to hammer away at the “fascism” hysteria, and demand that the “good” and “real” gilets jaunes suspend their protests against Macron until they have completely purged their movement of “fascists,” and “extremists,” and other dangerous elements, and have splintered it into a number of smaller, antagonistic ideological factions that can be more easily neutralized by the French authorities … because that’s what establishment intellectuals do.

We can expect to hear this line of reasoning, not just from establishment intellectuals like Lévy, but also from members of the Identity Politics Left, who are determined to prevent the working classes from rising up against global neoliberalism until they have cleansed their ranks of every last vestige of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and so on. These leftist gatekeepers have been struggling a bit to come up with a response to the gilets jaunes … a response that doesn’t make them sound like hypocrites. See, as leftists, they kind of need to express their support for a bona fide working class uprising. At the same time, they need to delegitimize it, because their primary adversaries are fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and assorted other isms and phobias, not the neoliberal ruling classes.

Nothing scares the Identity Politics Left quite like an actual working class uprising. Witnessing the furious unwashed masses operating out there on their own, with no decent human restraint whatsoever, Identity Politics Leftists feel a sudden overwhelming urge to analyze, categorize, organize, sanitize, and otherwise correct and control them.

They can’t accept the fact that the actual, living, breathing working classes are messy, multiplicitous, inconsistent, and irreducible to any one ideology. Some of them are racists. Some are fascists. Others are communists, socialists, and anarchists. Many have no idea what they are, and don’t particularly care for any of these labels.This is what the actual working classes are … a big, contradictory collection of people who, in spite of all their differences, share one thing in common, that they are being screwed over by the ruling classes. I don’t know about you, but I consider myself one of them.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. According to The Guardian, as I am sitting here writing this, the whole of Europe is holding its breath in anticipation of the gilets jaunes’ response to Macron’s most recent attempt to appease them, this time with an extra hundred Euros a month, some minor tax concessions, and a Christmas bonus.

Something tells me it’s not going to work, but even if it does, and the gilets jaunes uprising ends, this messy, Western “populist” insurgency against global neoliberalism has clearly entered a new phase. Count on the global capitalist ruling classes to intensify their ongoing War on Dissent and their demonization of anyone opposing them (or contradicting their official narrative) as an “extremist,” a “fascist,” a “Russian agent,” and so on. I’m certainly looking forward to that, personally.

Oh… yeah, and I almost forgot, if you were wondering what you could get me for Christmas, I did some checking, and there appears to be a wide selection of yellow safety vests online for just a couple Euros.

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Washington Is Changing The World Order Against Its Own Interests

Any country sufficiently stupid to ally with the US is allied with a dead man walking.

Paul Craig Roberts

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Authored by Paul Craig Roberts:


The hubris and arrogance of Washington have been at work since the Clinton regime to destroy the power and relevance of the United States.

This website has an international audience. The most asked question from this audience is the world order. There is a realization that Washington’s control might weaken, a development people abroad see as hopeful. They ask me for verification of their hope.

Here is my answer:

The world order has already changed.  China has a larger and more powerful industrial and manufacturing based economy than the US, and China’s potential domestic consumer market is four times larger than that of the US. As economies are consumer based, China’s potential is an economy four times larger than that of the US.

Russia has a far more capable military with weapon systems unmatched by the US. The US is drowning in debt, and the illegal and irresponsible sanctions that Washington tries to impose on others are driving the world’s largest countries away from the use of the US dollar as world reserve currency and away from Western clearance systems such as SWIFT.  The United States already has one foot in the grave.  Any country sufficiently stupid to ally with the US is allied with a dead man walking.

President Eisenhower, a five-star general, warned Americans 57 years ago to no effect that the military/security complex was already a threat to the American people’s ability to control their government. Today the military/security complex is the Government. As Udo Ulfkotte documented in his book, Journalists for Hire: How the CIA buys the News—no you can’t buy a copy unless you can find a used copy in German in a German book store, the CIA has seen to that—journalism independent of official explanations no longer exists in the Western world.

Much of the world does not understand this. Aside from the material interests of Russian and Chinese capitalists, a portion of the youth of both superpowers, and also even in Iran, have succumbed to brainwashing by American propaganda. Gullible beyond belief, they are more loyal to America than they are to their own countries.

The United States itself is extremely unsuccessful, but its propaganda still rules the world. The consequence is that, based on its propagandistic success, Washington thinks it still holds the balance of economic and military power. This is a delusion that is leading Washington to nuclear war.

Considering the hypersonic speed, trajectory changeability and massive power of Russian nuclear weapons, war with Russia will result in nothing whatsoever being left of the US and its vassals, who sold out European peoples for Washington’s money.

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