Commentary / World

It's amateur hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian Army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the northwestern border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012. And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

The United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS.

But when Turkey objected, Washington dropped that notion, and is standing idly by while the Turkish Army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. Washington does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t even have a serious strategy. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The U.S. doesn’t want Syrian President Bashar Assad to win, but cannot overthrow him by force without fighting Russia and Iran too. American forces originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as U.S. troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants — the reunification of Syria under him) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Recep Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian Army, by the Russians and even by the Americans. And after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living. Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. now), but those interventions effectively canceled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and U.S. troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic story and it stinks.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.

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