siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria demonstrates the futility of thinking air strikes alone could decisively make a difference to the war on the ground. Sunni jihadists are advancing as opposed to retreating in the absence of any coordinated political response to defeating 'Islamic State'.
The US was prepared to
launch air strikes in Syria because it regards defeating 'ISIL' in Iraq
as the overriding priority. Britain, however, has been reluctant to
because, far more than Washington, London is very anxious about
pleasing Qatar and so its main regional ally in Turkey.
The US is
mostly concerned with ensuring Iraq does not collapse because that would
endanger Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as defeating the main
strategic aim and gain of the Second Iraq War in ensuring increased
Iraqi oil production, stable oil prices and relatively cheap consumer
goods imported from Asia.
While most western states share US energy
interests in this regard, Britain and France are far more beholden to
Qatari-Turkish geopolitical strategies which seek to rival Russia and
Iran in Iraq and especially Syria where there is competition for
influence over the gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean.
in 2009-2010, the Levant basin has led to renewed regional rivalries
which cut across the old Cold War lines and led Turkey into increased
hostility towards Greek Cypriot claims to the Aphrodite gas
fields lying off the coast of Cyprus as well as the enmity shown towards
Turkey has clashed with Israel over its wars against the Sunni Palestinian Muslims of Gaza, one which is crucially concerned with protecting Israeli gas interests as well as over the way Israel has shown interest in cooperating with Russia to exploit its gas and pipe it via Cyprus and so by pass Turkey completely.
Turkey and Qatar from the outset of the conflict in 2011
between Assad and Sunni rebel groups backed the latter so as to realise
such designs such as a Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline and to exert more control over the
development of Syria's offshore gas against Russian influence and
Turkey has developed what Norman Stone calls a
'neo-Ottoman' policy, one in which Sunni Arab and Sunni Muslim interests
are courted by Erdogan to win domestic support and that of regions with
the oil and gas resources Turkey lacks and would like to control from
Lebanon to Syria and into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Yet Ankara, in fact,
has shown reluctance to be involved in any military effort to defeat
ISIS that would empower the Kurdish YGP fighters in Syria. Yet it is courting Barzani's Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq so as to draw it into an economic partnership based on Turkey becoming an major energy
The double game played by Erdogan is about
benefiting from Kurdish oil while trying to keep a lid on moves for independence to the
west in Syria, where the YGP is in battle with ISIS over border regions
with oil, and southern Turkey, where there is little oil and every
benefit in unifying with regions which have it in abundance.
The worst scenario for Turkey would be that their support for Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan and the fate of the Kurds in Syria fighting ISIS along with the US could lead to demands for a Greater Kurdistan, one reason Erdogan and Turkish government officials have compared the terrorist threat of ISIS with that of the PKK.
Kurdish Iraq with its capital Erbil has become one of the globe's most lucrative oil regions and the increased wealth it has developed and its ability to defend itself against ISIS is bound to be regarded as an indication of the sort of security and prosperity the Kurds in Syria and Turkey could have as well.
Already Kurdish Iraq is moving ever closer towards independence from Baghdad and wanting something in return for hosting western multinational oil corporations such as Exxon Mobil and beating back ISIS from the Mosul Dam and so saving the Iraqi state from potential destruction.
The Kurds consist of up to thirty million people spread across the Middle East from Turkey, through Syria and Iraq into the western parts of Iran. They could well be regarded as the world's largest ethnic group without a state in an age when the West has supported self-determination in places such as Kosovo.
As the states of Iraq and Syria created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War by France and Britain disintegrate, Turkey has moved towards asserting its influence in both in opposition to ISIS which has countered the neo-Ottoman strategy with its own version of the Caliphate.
While Turkey's claims as a regional power depend upon retaining a 'state-nation' based on ethnic and religious diversity, ISIS detests the Ottoman Empire as a fake usurper of the caliph's position which became an office absorbed into the Sultan's power when it the 'real' Islamic empire was essentially a Sunni Arab one.
The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 but for Sunni Arabs in Iraq who lost out to the Shia and the Kurds after Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, the symbol of lost unity and the fact ISIS is using oil revenues to fund welfare for Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq is giving it some appeal.
Saddam's regime was one dominated by the Sunni Arabs. ISIS is ruled and run by former members of the secular Baath Party who converted to radical jihadi-Islamist in American prisons where the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdad was also detained. In a sense, ISIS is the expression of a radical Sunni Arab nationalism.
The Kurds are Sunni Muslims but would prefer the promise of self determination to be realised in their case as one of the USA's most steadfast allies in the region, one reason Israel as a non-Arab state has gone further than America in calling for Kurdistan to be a made an independent republic.
Turkey, however, has little interest in supporting any western military effort that
would end up empowering the Kurds in Syria such as arming or training
their troops. Arming them would mean the weapons could be
turned against Turkey. But Kurdish fighters are the only force that could
defeat ISIS in northern Syria.
The Free Syria Army is, as Patrick
Cockburn has pointed out, nothing more that a CIA led group since Sunni
militants splintered off from it to fight against both it and Assad and
the Kurds. The idea it could act as a 'third force' to destroy ISIS or
Assad's military is a piece of abstract geopolitical fiction.
only way to defeat ISIS has to involve a truce between Assad and the
FSA and Syrian National Council or else, by default, ISIS and Sunni
militants such as Al Nusra are bound to be the only powerful ground
force in northern Syria apart from the Kurds whose fighters are
deeply distrusted by Turkey.
Indeed, in the summer of 2013 the FSA and
ISIS were aligned in fighting against the Kurds as the YGP had gained
strength from Assad's decision to withdraw government forces from the
north as part of a strategy to divert Sunni forces away from advancing
on to Damascus-and it worked.
Consequently, the YPG and the FSA regard each other as
enemies. The Syrian National Council and its backers regard all oil and
gas resources in Syria as theirs to develop. They have no interest in
either the Kurds or ISIS gaining the Rumelian oil field both are
battling to control.
Moreover, neither Qatar nor Turkey have any
interest in ISIS being destroyed if Assad benefits because of the
ongoing proxy conflict between them and Iran because it seeks a rival
pipeline route from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean and
then on to global markets to export gas.
Britain and France, the two foremost
military powers in the EU, would still prefer Assad to be overthrown. They have
lucrative arms deals with Qatar and would benefit from a gas route which
avoided the export of LNG via the Iranian controlled Straits of Hormuz
and reduced EU dependence upon Russia gas.
That threat of dependence has increased since the fall of Tripoli in Libya into the hands of Islamist militants. It was increased also by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the potential break away of the eastern regions of Ukraine which has removed from potential western control a major east-west transit zone.
Turkey's attempt to become a southern energy corridor, now that Ukraine has descended into conflict is, however, endangered by a similar problem of ethnic irredentism among the Kurds who are fleeing into Turkey in large numbers from Syria as ISIS drives them from their villages and towns.
The Kurds are growing increasing outraged at Ankara's double standards in
having allowed jihadists as violent and fanatical as those fighting for
Al Nusra to enter Syria from Turkey but trying to prevent Turkish Kurds
fighting in support of those being menaced by ISIS in Kobani. This has caused riots on the border
west is hamstrung by Turkey being a NATO member which has no interest
in the Kurds gaining the upper hand in Syria over ISIS. At the same time it remains the
only military force in practice which could repel the jihadists back away from
the border with southern Turkey.
One reason why Turkey created a 20km security zone in Syria was to protect a NATO border from Sunni Islamist militants and be in a position to defend the highly symbolic tomb of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, from being destroyed by ISIS which have threatened it several times.
However, Kurdish factions, especially the PKK with whom Turkey had a conflict with from the 1980s until recently, regards the Turkish security measures as an attempt to create a 'buffer zone' between Turkey and the Islamic state at the expense of the Kurdish people who they are allowing to be ethnically cleansed.
As a consequence, if the Kurdish enclaves
fall, not only would NATO and the west be seen as 'doing nothing' about
the slaughter of Kurds in northern Syria while arming them in Iraq. ISIS
could well advance up to the border with Turkey and try to provoke the
ground jihad with the west they want in Syria and Iraq.
The sad reality is the suffering of civilians in Syria
has always been a secondary consideration to geopolitical energy
interests on all sides in this conflict. The emergence of ISIS would
have led all external powers to unite in defeating it if a ruthless
geopolitical competition over access to resources were not at stake
All these factors have
made for a protracted multi-faceted conflict in which the most brutal
and effective force can win out if it controls Syria's resources and
finance itself to get the weapons and recruits that it needs to have towards
fighting towards that end. There is no end to the bloodshed in sight.