The shelling of Syrian soldiers by the Turkish military is one more step back into Great Power politics — historic Turkish-Russian enmity played out over Kurds and Syrians. The U.S. appears to believe 21st century wars cannot be won by military force and that battling parties can be induced to set aside their national and religious aims for a negotiated “peace.” Meanwhile, the parties to the conflict are using their armies to pursue victory.
Last week, Turkey attacked Kurdish fighters who were struggling to connect Kurdish territory in northern Iraq with a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The Kurds, backed by Russian air power, want to oust Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from the Azaz region, in order to create contiguous territory from northern Iraq to Syrian Kurdistan, and prevent the Syrian rebels from being resupplied by Turkey. The net effect is to boost Kurdish-Russian cooperation; to provide relief for Assad’s army in the north; to increase Turkey’s hostility toward Russia; and possibly to put Turkey on a collision course with the U.S. — if Ankara believes its position in NATO will protect it from Russian fallout. (It should be noted that although Turkish troops attacked Syrians, they stayed clear of threatening Russia directly.)
The U.S. has urged both Turkey and the Kurds to decrease hostilities, but Turkey dismissed U.S. calls for a ceasefire. Attacks on the Kurds continued as Turkey began to fire on Syrian forces, and Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdogan did not rule out a ground attack inside Syria.
The history is Sunni Muslim Ottomans vs. Orthodox Christian Russians, beginning in 1568. The Armenian genocide, Russian massacres in Chechnya and Dagestan, and the desire for revenge on both sides of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan are just recent occurrences. The Kurds, oppressed by the Ottomans and then the Turks, had believed the U.S. would be their sponsor, both in Iraq and in the larger region claimed as Kurdistan. But for the non-jihadist and non-anti-Assad Kurds, anti-Turkish Russians are an equally compelling ally. Hence last week’s Russian air strikes against Turkish allies on behalf of the Kurds.
To drive home the public relations point, the Russian media outlet RT ran a long article Sunday on the economic collapse of Northern Iraq (also known as Iraqi Kurdistan). The article focused on corruption, Turkey’s control of Kurdish oil and how the Kurds feel abandoned by the West as well as by Baghdad.
Where is the U.S. in this? Muddled, as usual, without a clear goal, clear allies or fixed positions beyond support for a “political process.”
The U.S. regards some Kurdish groups as terrorists, but agrees with Russia that the Kurds are an ally against ISIS. Closer U.S.-Russia cooperation means less American patience for Turkey. Russian — and in particular Syrian — tactics are appalling. Washington would rather not be associated with them, but has a horror of the vacuum that might emerge if Assad is swept aside. Mainly, the U.S. has hung its hat on the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which last met in Munich on February 11 and 12.
The ISSG is a mélange that includes Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the U.S., the Arab League, the EU and the UN. The Assad government, the Kurds, and various Syrian rebel groups are not included, and Russia vetoed the participation of U.S. allies Australia and Japan.
Like any large group with disparate aims, the ISSG has no leverage, and while demanding the “cessation of hostilities” and delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, it did not condemn attacks against ISIS and the Nusra Front. The ISSG also did not mention halting Russian bombing raids on Aleppo. The communiqué produced on February 12, at the end of the meeting, called for plans and reports, and made unenforceable demands that all parties live up to UN Resolutions on the table. It called for:
The reaching of agreement within six months on a political transition plan that establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.
U.S. President Barack Obama, perhaps sensing futility, called Vladimir Putin last weekend. The Kremlin’s report of the phone call posits the U.S. and Russia getting closer — although, it appears, on Russia’s terms.
According to reports, President Obama pushed for humanitarian aid and a halt to Russian bombing of “moderate opposition groups.” The Russian president said his forces would bomb only “terrorists,” emphasizing “the importance of creating a united anti-terrorist front while giving up double standards,” according to Putin’s spokesman. As the Russians insist that the Assad government is the only legitimate government, all anti-Assad fighters — ISIS, al Qaeda-related, or U.S.-backed or Turkish-backed “moderates” — are, by definition, terrorists.
According to the Kremlin, Mr. Obama “emphasized the need to establish close working contacts” between Russian and U.S. military officials to fight the Islamic State “and other terrorist organizations.” For the U.S. military to move toward closer working contacts with the Russian military implies political as well as military coordination, regardless of American distaste for Russian/Syrian tactics.
The White House readout of the call sounded as if a different conversation had taken place. The readout started with Ukraine, not Syria, stressing, “full implementation of the Minsk agreements by all parties” and local elections in the Donbass region. The readout noted as well the need for a strong international response to North Korea’s missile launch and, oh yes, the “necessity of taking steps to foster productive discussions between representatives of the Syrian opposition and regime under United Nations auspices, principally by reducing violence and addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.” There was no mention of Obama asking Putin to refrain from bombing Aleppo.
ISIS will continue to come under attack by the U.S. and its allies, but Russia will continue to roll up the non-ISIS opposition, including groups the U.S. had supported. Assad is breathing easier. Iran is viewing the Shiite Crescent as a done deal, and Hezbollah can be assured of Iranian resupply. The Kurds will try to strengthen their territorial gains while Sunni Syrian civilians will continue to flee the Assad/Russian/Iranian assault.The U.S. is looking less and less relevant, as historic Great Powers do what they have historically done best — fight for their national interests as they define them. President Obama appears to be conceding the lead to Russia and Russian aims.
The end result may be “peace,” but of the Machiavellian sort. “Peace,” Machiavelli wrote, is the set of conditions imposed by the winner on the loser of the last war. The Turks and the Russians understand him. The Americans? Perhaps not so much.