Turkey, Syria, and the U.S. “Withdrawal”
As the war in Syria approaches its eighth year, the dynamics and interests are as complex as ever. Beginning as an Arab Spring popular revolt, large-scale defection from the Syrian army quickly turned it into a civil war. The subsequent entry of several foreign states transformed the conflict into a proxy war among regional and international powers, whose interests and alliances constantly shift.
The U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other states all see their interests tied to the outcome of this war. Their interventions are two-fold, adding an additional layer of complexity: 1) direct, through airstrikes and ground troops; 2) indirect through supplying, funding, and training any of several non-state militias.
Like many, Better Worlds, Brighter Futures became aware of the revolutionary struggle by Kurdish and allied forces through coverage of the Islamic State’s (IS) massacre of Sinjar in August 2014 and the siege of Kobanî the following month. The Peoples’ and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), established long before the outbreak of war, were integral in these battles.
Previously, we discussed the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and YPG/YPJ as the most advanced forces supportive of the Syrian people, and their relations with the U.S. and Bashar al-Assad’s government. There, we noted:
[w]hile the relationship between the [Democratic Forces of Northern Syria (DFNS), administered by the PYD, YPG and others] and the Syrian government has been tumultuous, the two have seldom engaged each other in open combat, at times even cooperating against the Islamic State and Turkish operations within Syria. In addition, Russia has been more diplomatic in its attitude towards the DFNS, helping to temper the outlook of its Syrian proxy.Syria: A Litmus Test for the Left
December’s surprise capitulation by Donald Trump to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria had initially left the future of the DFNS uncertain. The original announcement of a hasty, 30-day withdrawal caused rifts between the U.S. and other allies and resulted in the resignation of both its Defense Secretary and envoy to the regional coalition to defeat IS. Further, it has caused division on the right between interventionist “hawks” (John Bolton, Mike Pompeo) and non-interventionist “nationalists” (Donald Trump) and on the left between statist and non-statist “anti-imperialists” (we have touched previously on the latter).
The announcement also pleased and emboldened Turkey. At present, they are amassing troops and gathering their funded, but feuding, jihadist militias to attack and occupy the YPG-administered city of Manbij.
Turkey has a history of hostility toward both the Kurdish people and the left. They have viewed the success and territorial administration of the PYD and YPG as threatening to the Turkish national interest. Indeed, Turkey incorrectly classifies the PYD and YPG as “terrorist” organizations, vowing to remove them from Syria altogether. Meanwhile, there are strong ties between Turkey and IS, as well as a long history of Kurdish persecution by the Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi states.
Given all of this, the YPG request for assistance from Syrian government forces should not be surprising.
Assad’s government has subsequently reinforced Manbij, with Turkish forces still gathering. This may put a buffer between Turkey and YPG forces, indefinitely postpone a Turkish Manbij offensive, and possibly narrow Turkey’s presence in Syria going forward. Turkey and the Syrian government, mediated through Russia, are currently in discussions.
Accounting for the attitudes of Russia and the Syrian government toward the PYD, as well as negotiations started in July 2018, the DFNS may still be able to secure a more permanent situation for itself as the war winds down.
Facing public and political pressure, two high-profile resignations, and opposition within military and GOP circles, the Trump administration has wavered on troop withdrawal. The initial 30-day timeline was extended to four months. The latest reports indicate an indefinite timeline and conditions for any withdrawal. This marks a 360-degree political spin for the Trump administration, returning things to the original situation. However, the initial “30-day” announcement set in motion a process of realigning political forces that will continue regardless of the shifting U.S. position.
Statements this week from Pompeo and Bolton indicate that guarantees of safety for the Kurdish are needed from Turkey prior to any U.S. troop withdrawal and that, even after “withdrawal” some U.S. forces will stay to offset Iranian presence in the country. Of course, this will anger both Turkey and Iran.
Because of the U.S.’ confused policy, the PYD and YPG, in requesting Syrian government assistance and pursuing ongoing negotiations, have moved closer to Assad and Russia. This will be a vital relationship, as it will determine the conditions under which the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria will be integrated into the larger country.
Turkey is a bad actor in the Syrian war from any of the major sides. They have been reluctant to allow U.S. and other NATO countries to use Turkish bases and often refuse to work with NATO forces. Meanwhile, Turkey has shot down a Russian jet and called for Assad’s ouster even as they attempt to warm to Russia. Lastly, Turkey has actively supported the Islamic State and other Islamic fascist groups.
The situation in Syria is so complex in part because the rulers of the major forces–Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan–engage in a brutally pragmatic politics. Though all can be considered on the “right” politically, they are guided not by ideology, but by the retention, perpetuation, and exercise of power. As such, the “nationalism” and far-right “populism” of these strongmen are actually pragmatic calculations made for the retention of power.
This helps to explain what often looks to be erratic policy from these rulers: Rather than political, ideological, or even theological consistency, they sow confusion and juggle and manipulate competing interests in order to maintain power. Ideological, ethical, or philosophical commitments are only good as long as they are politically expedient. All of this helps to create and reinforce the “post–truth” moment of the geo-political landscape.
The relativism and pragmatism coming into vogue today amounts to an asymmetrical, guerrilla war on truth, coherency, ethics, and ideals. To oppose it is to be unwaveringly factual, with nuanced and intricate analysis, and steadfast (though not dogmatic) in our ethics and ideals. If knowledge is power, regimes upheld through ignorance must end in impotency.