Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 19-26 June 2015

“This has nothing to do with building an oil pipeline. It is to build a free and democratic life”

(Fehim Isik, leading Turkish journalist-author, commenting on the US-supported expanded Kurdish corridor in northern Syria – see here)


US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on 17 June, posed to the committee a question: “What if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible?” Carter said. He then went on to answer his own question with: “That is an important part of our strategy now on the ground: If that government [Baghdad] can’t do what it’s supposed to do, then we will still try to enable local ground forces, if they’re willing to partner with us, to keep stability in Iraq; but there will not be a single state of Iraq.” At the same hearing, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underlined Carter’s point by noting that there are limits to what America can do to stabilize a country torn by sectarian strife and the advances of ISIS.

Although the remarks were focused on Iraq, there is little doubt the pair would have said much the same about Syria. And what they were saying essentially, is that they have no policy. They are not advocating partition per se, as a policy, but are facilitating it nonetheless.

The figures (for Syria) speak for themselves: US Centcom data (over the last 10 months) show that of the total 1774 ‘coalition’ airstrikes in Syria, no less than 1,187 (67%) were in the areas where the Kurdish YPG (a Syrian equivalent of the PKK) group has been fighting — only 11% of coalition strikes (191 strikes) have targeted IS’ strongholds in Raqaa and Dier e-Zour. 

Here is an image of the of the original three Syrian Kurdish ‘cantons’: Afrin (on the far left), Kobani in the centre and ‘Jazirah’ (or Island) ‘canton’ on the far right:

With the help of intensive American airstrikes, Tall Abyad now has been taken by the YPG, and Kurdish forces (supported by some non-Kurdish elements) have advanced to within 56 Km of Raqqah, the ‘capital’ of the Caliphate, apparently managing to take control of Ain Issa, an strategic traffic junction cutting the North-South road from Tall Abyad to Raqqa, as well as the infamous East-West M4 ‘Syrian Road’which provided ISIS with a major East to West traffic connection, all the way from Mosul to Aleppo. (Ain Issa is not marked as such, but is represented by the pink shading bisected by north-south and east-west roads lying midway between Tall Abyad and Raqqah).

The map however now looks like this: (after recent YPG successes, where the yellow shading represents YPG ‘control’).

The question now, is will the YPG take Jarabulus (another major crossing point from Turkey into Syria), and will it complete its control of Turkey’s southern border by taking the 110 Km between Jarabulus and the Afrin ‘canton’, and thence to the Mediterranean?  This area between the two ‘cantons’ however, is not predominantly Kurdish, and they can only complete their Kurdish ‘belt’, if they co-operate with other ethnic groups (as they have been doing, so far).

All this fits well with Ashton Carter’s “enabling of local ground forces” discourse before Congress.  The US military became highly impressed with the YPG (disregarding its PKK family association) during the siege of Kobani, where the YPG were integrated into the US military operations, directly calling in American airstrikes on ISIS positions. The American military said at the time that they would continue the connection with YPG in the wake of the conclusion to the Kobani conflict (much to President Erdogan’s anger).

All in all, the YPG ‘enabling’ would seem to represent a successful ad hoc solution to America’s dilemma on what to do about Syria: Cut off ISIS supply lines by using the YPG to create a no-go belt for ISIS along the Turkish border – though Tall Abyad certainly is not the only crossing into Turkey open to ISIS, and there is clear evidence that the “Turkish highway” for jihadist travelers is still in business as other crossings have taken up the slack.

Unsurprisingly, the Turks have exploded with rage: as Turkish journalist, Fehim Taştekin, notes: “When the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) expelled the Islamic State from Tell Abyad, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, other Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders and the pro-government media reacted hysterically. Among their frenzied scenarios: “Kurdish state in the making in northern Syria with US assistance,” “Kurdish ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmens,” “Corridor opening to move Northern Iraq oil to Mediterranean.” One about the Democratic Union Party went further: “PYD more dangerous than [IS].”

In short, what may seem to be a practical solution (in a military way) of ‘doing something’ about ISIS tactically, may well turn out to be a political nightmare: For raising the prospect of a Kurdish state(let) arising in the middle of the Middle East will set off a whole train of political anxieties and consequences well beyond northern Syria: You ‘solve’ one part of a problem, only to have another jump out at you. Not least, this will roil Kurdish politics in Iraq badly, too.

And the same is happening in southern Syria: an ad hoc military “enabling” creates a different crisis – one that threatens greater instability (from the American perspective), rather than less. This relates to the Saudi–Turkish accord by which Turkey would be responsible for assembling an al-Qaida (an-Nusra)-led ‘army’ to take Idlib and to press down on Damascus from the north, and for the Amman southern ‘control room’ (with Saudi and Jordan, as Saudi commentator, Jamal Khashoggi confirmed, “doing their duties”) to manage an al-Qaida (an-Nusra)-led coalition push into the area of Syria adjacent to Mount Hermon (the Golan) with the objective of taking control of the Quneitra – Damascus highway.  Control of this road would supposedly clear the rebels’ path to the southern suburbs of Damascus up to Western Ghouta, from which they would supposedly encircle the government troops defending the capital.

This was to represent the Saudi answer to Obama: ‘Watch us act autonomously of you’ — except that the ‘control room’ for the ‘southern front’ is not a wholly Saudi effort: “The southern rebel front is managed from US Centcom’s Forward Command in Jordan, which is quartered north of Amman and run jointly by American, Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari and British officers.
This command center collected eight oddly assorted rebel militias to build the Jaysh Hermon. Some were chosen reluctantly out of need – despite their undesirable proclivities.  Our sources name them as: The Syrian Free Army, the Sayf al-Sham Brigade; the Jesus Christ Brigade (Muslims respect Jesus as one of their prophets); the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate); Ahrar al-Sham (an extremist group linked to Nusra and ISIS); and Ajnad al-Sham (whose fighters took part in the battle to conquer Idlib)” — so Israeli intelligence-linked web site, Debka, tells us.

But it seems that this ‘reluctantly chosen’ assemblage, last week on their ‘push’ into Syria diverted from their ‘control room’ plan and threatened a village near Jabel Druze, the mountainous, ancestral home of the Druze (who number some 750,000 in Syria). And, with this incident coming in the wake of an-Nusra’s killing of at least 20 Druze in Qalb Lawzeh, a village in the north-western province of Idlib (an-Nusra regards Druze as apostates who should be killed if they refuse to convert to Wahhabism), Syria’s Druze became alarmed; and so did their Israeli kin (attacking an Israeli Ambulance in the occupied Golan, and killing one of its wounded jihadist (likely an-Nusra) patients).

The prospect of this an-Nusra assemblage advancing on villages close to Jabel Druze (to open a path to Lebanon) so alarmed the Druze people that the ‘nation’ mobilised in favour of President Assad and the government. The LA Times quotes Sheikh Yusef Jarboo, a leading Druze cleric in Syria, who said in an interview this month,”We shall resist with all the power we have”. About 27,000 Druze fighters, the cleric said, were being incorporated “under the umbrella” of the Syrian army.

In short, the so-called Army of the Hermon has spun out of control. As Debka further notes, “The Jordan-based command running the rebel effort provides them with arms, supplies, wages and their military plans of action. Its leverage to prevent them stepping out of line consists of threats to deprive them of arms or cut their wages”.  And this is precisely what Israel threatened (to cut the salaries were their proxy ‘armies’ to attack the Druze), but whilst Amos Harel of Haaretzspeaks of a loss of control of Israel’s northern border; Debkais more blunt: “They (the PM and the Defence Minister) are holding their breath for the Jordan command to stay in control of the rebel militias, so that no Druze comes to harm in the course of the fighting in areas around their villages and close to the Israeli border. Keeping them safe is vital if Israel is to avoid a mass Druze stampeded on its border.
However, there is no guarantee that unprofessional militias like the Hermon Army, each governed by its own ideals and methods, will be disciplined enough to stick to any rules. Israel’s leaders are therefore braced for nasty shocks”.

This is an old story: so too, did the ‘control rooms’ overseeing the jihadi war against the USSR in Afghanistan use money to try to ‘impose discipline’ over their mujahidin proxies – only to find that their cash had rented them but for the half-hour (of the face to face meeting): after that, they did as they pleased. This constitutes the very obvious flaw to the attempt to re-brand al-Qaida as “moderate”. It did not work in Afghanistan. Why should it work in Syria? It would be a mistake to believe that Al-Qaida will somehow stand aside – were President Assad to fall — to give place to westernised moderates. Al-Qaida is Al-Qaida, and should be expected to take power. How can we imagine otherwise? As former CIA deputy director, Michael Morell, warned last week: “From my experience following al-Qaida I think and believe that you must not try to cut deals with them. Pakistan tried to do it with these guys telling them: We won’t attack you if you don’t attack us. But it is a dangerous game. Even if you cut a deal with them, they won’t honor it … [A]ctually I believe that al-Qaida poses a greater threat to the US and the West than Islamic State.”

And such is the story of Saudi’s Syrian initiative to date: Turkey duly (and successfully) launched its 10,000 strong, an-Nusra-led ‘army’ into Idlib – only to find them unexpectedly attacked by ISIS, who cut off their supply lines. (The ‘Army of Conquest’ were then thrown into some confusion – and lost its impetus – as the results from Turkey’s parliamentary election trickled out).  Similarly the Jordanian ‘control room’ did its bit, by launching its ‘army’ of the Hermon into southern Syria – only to find that this ‘army’ has succeeded in mobilising most Druze in support of the Syrian army, as well as igniting conflict with ISIS sleeper cells in southern Syria.

When policies fail, it is always tempting to try to conceal the failure through dividing the problem into smaller parts, and suggesting that the solution eventually will come from treating the smaller parts. The problem is that this approach has a dismal record of success, and a reputation for making deeper, and longer, political problems in the future.  One might consider Lebanon as a case in point.

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