Turkey’s agreement to join with the US-led coalition to create an “ISIS-free buffer zone” in northern Syria, and to offer the US its use of Incirlik airbase in the effort, is widely understood to have gained Turkey official US support for its attacks on PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) positions in Turkey and Iraq. This has cost the lives of many Kurdish civilians, and the US press has excoriated the arrangement for humanitarian and strategic reasons.
The regional interests of the NATO allies and coalition partners do not coincide in several areas, most critically concerning the international but stateless Kurds. Tensions occasionally are evident in official pronouncements. In particular, the US has not permitted Turkish pursuit of PKK fighters into areas controlled by the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, the defense arm of the PYD (Kurdish People’s Democratic Party). The YPG, which did most to lift the siege from Kobane, is a US ally and the most effective north Syrian opposition to ISIS. Turkey resents this restriction. Such tensions between the coalition partners has perhaps stymied further effective efforts.
The coalition may be waiting for the cooler weeks of autumn to commence their campaign, but so far little has been done against ISIS. Besides tensions between the partners, the ambivalence of their intents in Syria is another reason activity has perhaps stalled. While we must applaud any factor that delays further coalition military intervention in Syria, the divided intents of Turkey and the US bode no good intent.
All present coalition partners agree in their aims to de-legitimate and oust Assad as in their stated intents to defeat ISIS. On the last count, however, inaction seems to speak louder than words. Turkey has mounted one major attack since the agreement, while undertaking dozens of campaigns against the PKK. it is increasingly evident that a year-long campaign of US attacks have been sporadic and ineffective, and US strategies of concentrating aerial raids on oil-producing infrastructure rather than on ISIS training camps is legitimately criticized.
The two largest NATO allies in the region have long engaged in a complex trading of alliances and support of regional proxies, sometimes in mutual interest, sometimes ‘throwing elbows.’
On the one hand, the second-tier actors include the many Kurdish parties pocketed across several nations. Since the second Iraq war, America has dangled autonomy and independence before Kurdish eyes, to the wary and often resentful gaze of Turkey. But Kurdish autonomy is not really in the works, however many times the Kurds believe an alliance with the US will serve their future. If regarding the Kurds, the allies can’t fully agree on who is a “terrorist” and who is a “freedom fighter” sometimes the same distinction seems confused in US military echelons. General Petraeus now supports arming al-Qaeda (al-Nusra) to take down Assad, who contrary to all evidence and logic, has become Public Enemy No. 1.
But Turkey and the US have long utilized proxy armies and allies in Syria and Iraq. These include the “moderate” rebels trained and equipped by American forces in Turkey, and the invariably immoderate extremists they quickly become upon taking the field. The Free Syrian Army, the great white hope of 2013, were quick to employ suicide bombing in Damascus and elsewhere but inevitably championed by John McCain and other American chickenhawks. The Free Syrian Army has been melting into ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra and yet General Petraeus still believes we can identify and strip the “moderates” from these latter groups to do our bidding.
Both parties have been accused, with some evidence, of materially supporting not just “moderates”, but extremist groups including ISIS. Especially the Kurds have accused Erdogan’s government of funding ISIS and al-Nusra to attack the Kurds themselves. American policy since the Carter administration has been to ‘light wildfires’ with Islamic extremism in areas gravitating to Russia or Iran that it wishes to de-stabilize. Besides the Kurds, the rest of the Syrian “opposition” is a quickly changing landscape of mercenary interests with exchangeable ideologies and sources of support. Syrian de-stabilization is clearly a means to the removal of Assad, but the refugee crisis and export of terrorism is so evidently threatening to Turkey and Europe, that de-stabilzation cannot be pursued as an end, at least in those quarters, even though the Brookings Institute feels Syria’s “deconstruction” is in its best interests.
Contrary policies on Kurds hinders the coalition partners in pursuit of their expressed aims to take down ISIS and Assad. Elbow-throwing amongst allies mainly bruises the Kurds and the myriad populations of Iraq and Syria under the gun of the rebels, but the separate national interests of Turkey and the US are also seriously at stake.
On August 10, as the latest negotiations between Special Presidential Envoy General Allen and top Turkish defense and political leaders were wrapping up, FoxNews reported that a few weeks earlier, on July 24, the Turks gave US commanders only ten minutes heads-up before commencing massive air raids on PKK militants north of Mosul in Iraq. “We were outraged”, said the US military source. US commanders quickly needed to send their planes south of Mosul, and take means to protect US Special Forces members training Kurdish Peshmerga near the target.
On July 29, America’s latest batch of 54 “moderate” rebels trained and equipped at US taxpayer expense, was immediately attacked by al-Nusra upon disembarking in Syria. Some were captured, others killed, in another ignominious episode for America’s “moderates”. On August 24, McClatchey News Service reported that rebel sources, evidently allied with American interests, asserted that the Turks had tipped-off the al-Nusra Front. Both incidents occurred in July, before the latest version of the deal was reached, but were leaked in August, afterwards, suggesting that all tensions have not been resolved.
The coalition’s ineffectiveness against ISIS may be more than a result of their shoving each other towards the door of commitment. Rather, it reflects a shared unwillingness to relinquish their proxies already situated in northern Syria, or to relinquish their games to co-opt proxies from their allies and enemies alike. It also reflects the awareness in Turkey and the US, that to get the job done (whether the ‘job’ is construed as defeating Assad, the Kurds, or ISIS) they may have to send in their own ground troops. In this case, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers will be fighting the rebels they have armed and supported. This suggests why the use of proxies is still the preferred means to whatever nefarious ends the allies, throwing elbows, hope to pursue.
Though Turkish and American officialdom share an aim to remove Assad (quite contrary to all official international law) their differences regarding the Syrian spoils constrain them to keep a tight grip on their proxies. The spoils, it seem, mostly concern Syria’s own oil and gas deposits, but more importantly, the eventual routes of a series of proposed pipelines to supply Europe with its energy needs. Turkey’s renewed enthusiasm for the aims of NATO-Israel axis in Syria and Ukraine has evidently doomed Putin’s outreach, the Turkstream project. The wars over “Pipelinestan” (Pepe Escobar) extend well beyond Syria. They pit NATO powers against Iran and Russia, but also pit ally against ally. This is happening again on both sides, at least potentially. As Iran flirts with the US, so does the House of Sa’ud with Russia. If we extend our view to Yemen where the same actors are at work, and across the straits to the the Horn of Africa, where China now intends a new base in Djibouti, elbowing onto the US presence there, we see Syria now encapsulates a truly global struggle well underway.