Before Turkey openly entered the Syrian conflict, we could have argued that the US partially succeeded in its goal of modifying the geopolitical map of the Middle East. We say “partly” because the initial goal of the International Coalition to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad and establish a neo-colonial regime that would secure the profit making activities of the Western centers of power, has not been achieved. This is primarily the merit of the Russian and Iranian military intervention, which succeeded in halting the military advances of various opposition groups, sponsored by the West to carry out the dirty work.
Due to the inability to establish a secular and controlled leadership of the former Free Syrian Army (FSA), in its intention to secure a physical presence in Syria, the United States then turned to Plan B. In October 2015, it formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed of the Kurdish YPG and several secular groups within the FSA.1 Although the Kurdish YPG dominates this coalition, the Arab part of the SDF was the key to giving an appearance of legitimacy to the rule of the coalition in the territories where the Kurds do not form the majority of the population. Thus, in the Arab cities (that is, what was left of them) that the US and the SDF conquered (like Manbij or Raqqa), the rule of this coalition was established, or to be more precise – they were placed under the control of pro-American forces.2,3
But if the US has not achieved its initial goal, let’s see what they actually have achieved. The Pentagon can boast of as many as 8 military bases in Syria, in the SDF-controlled territory,4 as well as the acceptance (and even an open invitation) of the Kurdish YPG to mark the US troops military presence a long-term one.5 And there’s also the success of occupying the Syrian oil fields by the SDF, including the largest one in Syria, the “Omar” oil field.6 We would say, quite enough for the springboard to the final goal.
The US alliance with the Kurdish Forces (YPG), which do not dispute the association with the PKK, despite the US attempts to present things differently in the public, provoked numerous protests by Turkey, which has an objective reason to fear the potential Kurdish federal or state organization on its southern border. The US temporarily succeeded in convincing Turkey that it had nothing to fear, until the US military budget for 2018 appeared to show that the US is preparing a half billion-dollar military aid for the Syrian Kurds, as well as intending to train 30,000 Kurdish soldiers to perform border affairs.7 Turkey has again expressed its disapproval, and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis amazingly responded that “Turkey should not take it to heart.”8 Thereafter, the Turkish military attacked Afrin – a city under the Kurdish control.
As expected, Russia withdrew its troops from Afrin just before the Turkish intervention,9 which was later followed by a green light for Turkish intervention.10 Russia saw its chance to prevent the finalization of the US project in Syria (or at least damage it) through the direct confrontation between these two NATO members. Longstanding tensions between Ankara and Washington, especially after the failed US-led coup attempt, led to the gradual rapprochement between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran, at least when Syria is at stake.
Afrin was chosen as a target primarily because there were no American troops in it, so there was no fear of a more dangerous response. By conquering this city, Turkey sent two very powerful messages to its NATO allies: 1. Those troops that the Western media continually present as “the most effective forces in the fight against the IS” are not as effective without the support of US aviation, 2. You cannot sit on two chairs, so it’s time to choose a side. This Turkish performance brought the US to a stalemate position. Opposing Turkey would mean to inflict on itself a strong regional power, to put at risk the NATO bases in Turkey and, in further escalation of the conflict, potentially jeopardize the current accomplishments on the ground. Turning back to the SDF would mean to abandon any (apparent) legitimacy for the US military presence in Syria, to discard all military and infrastructure investments in the Kurdish self-government so far and to push well-organized and numerous Kurdish forces into an alliance with the Syrian government.
What choice have the US made? To sit on two chairs even further, at least for a while, until a new strategy is devised. Claims that the US had no coherent strategy in Syria for a long time or that President Tramp fails to see where exactly do the US interests lie, and so these days various experts have been informing him about the reasons why they should retain, even increase the number of troops in Syria, are incorrect. Although what had begun as a classic scenario of the imperialist looting now seems more like a circus, we must understand that objective difficulties have affected such a half-outcome and that the new multi-polar factor will increasingly be determining various geopolitical conflicts. Imperialistic pragmatism therefore modifies the old or forms new strategies.
Although permitting Turkey to partially satisfy its appetites and regain some pride in the conquest of Afrin, the US has decided to halt the further progress of Turkish forces towards Manbij (which Erdogan has repeatedly announced11 ). Such an attitude should in the short term satisfy, or at least simmer down both Turkish and Kurdish sides. However, the US decided to transfer the responsibility for the potential conflict and the necessary temporary alignment with the Kurds to other members of the International Coalition, specifically France. Although the US and British forces sent reinforcements to Manbij, where they’ve built a new base,12,13 France is the one who took on itself the verbal conflict with Turkey and the credit for protecting the Kurds, by sending a small number of troops to this city.14
But, have the United States definitely pushed Turkey towards a coalition with Russia and Iran? Of course not. With Turkey, nothing is definite. Despite Erdogan’s recent meeting with Putin and Rouhani,15 where the focus of the talks was on Syria and where certain important decisions on co-operation were made, Turkey is also negotiating with the US about the status of Manbij.16 Turkey’s position within the world capitalist economy is the one of a growing semiperipheral force, whose only “anti-imperialist” moments respond to the pressure on the Core countries for restructuring the monopolies of capitalist reproduction and imperialist exploitation. Such requests, as a result of objective economic growth, may reach the consent or resentment of the Core countries, which in turn shapes Turkey’s foreign policy. They imply the demand for a greater influence on the regional geopolitics, but also the integrity and security of the country, eliminating any possibility of potential future destabilization. The Coalition of Russia-Iran-Syria may not be able to secure Turkey with instant answers to these demands, but it can help it achieve them where they conflict with the interests of the Core countries. Simply put, Turkey is pursuing its own interests in order to further relocate within the world capitalist economy, and they may occasionally coincide with one or the other side. Even simpler than that, Turkey also temporarily sits on two chairs.
Can the International Coalition led by the United States offer Turkey a better deal than the one offered by the Russia-Iran-Syria coalition? Regarding the north of Syria, the so-called Rojava, obviously not, which is confirmed by the readiness of the International Coalition to counter any further Turkish attacks on the Syrian Kurds. It may possibly arrange a gradual withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij, since it is a town where the Arabs make up the majority of the population and perhaps transfer the city to those forces that the Turks now call the FSA (Syrian Turkmens). But if the International Coalition succeeds in securing a ceasefire between the Turkish and Kurdish parties and focuses both sides’ attacks on the primary enemy – the Syrian government, the cake that everyone would share would be much bigger. This is now the basis of the new US strategy. To that end, negotiations with Turkey are undergoing, reinforcements are being sent to Syria, new chemical attacks by Damascus are being fabricated, and diplomatic pressure on Russia through sanctions and expulsions of diplomats exerted. In this scenario, therefore, the escalation of the Syrian conflict is yet to follow. As all opposition groups experienced military defeat on the ground, this scenario would have to include the SDF and Turkey’s land forces on the side of the International Coalition, but, be sure that it wouldn’t leave Israel out of the conflict, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the Iranian influence in Syria and the complete defeat of Russia-Iran-Syria coalition.17
But the other side has an answer, or rather a series of answers. In addition to focusing on the liberation of the remaining opposition held enclaves, the Russia-Iran-Syria coalition is continuously working to confront Turkey with the International Coalition by playing the Kurdish card, trying to win over Turkey on the long run through economic and military agreements and even encourages and supports the indigenous Arab resistance to imperialism in the US-controlled territories.18 Also, during the last Israeli military incursion in Syria, Russia for the first time gave the Syrian government a green light to respond by using Russian anti-aircraft weapons, which resulted in shooting down of an Israeli aircraft.19 In the case of more serious Israeli attacks, Russia has a joker card. It could instigate and even coordinate the military actions of the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel. This is also the main reason why Hamas has been avoiding military action against Israel lately and in spite of frequent Israeli provocations waiting for a convenient moment to form a broad front. All this is the result of Russian diplomatic actions and successful forecasts of possible further moves by the imperialists.
Faced with a partial defeat in Syria, the International Coalition led by the United States increases the stakes, which naturally increases the risks of an even broader and bloodier conflict that threatens to cover the entire Middle East. As an alternative, the US is offered a diplomatic solution with half-outcome, but it should imply accepting multipolarity as the real state of affairs in today’s world politics. Although, diplomatic solutions are always more convenient for the non-imperialist side, since they never represent the final state of things, because on the territory under imperialist rule, conditions emerge for the indigenous anti-imperialist tendencies that can reshape the original agreements.
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