Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Third Iraq War: Syria, Turkey and the Kurdish Condundrum.

Britain's decision to join the US in bombing ISIS would appear belated and token. The US started bombing back in August 2014 yet ISIS is reported already to have come within a mile or so of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Whether for or against military intervention, experts consider air power alone as insufficient.

Britain's contribution of only six Tornado jets to attack ISIS positions is more about demonstrating that Britain remains at the forefront of combating terror in the Middle East and defending against the potential threat ISIS poses to the oil producing regions of Iraq from Kurdistan down towards Kuwait.

The aim of  'degrading and ultimately defeating' ISIS is about preventing the phantom caliphate from consolidating its position in Iraq and Syria through the exploitation and sale of the oil which it could use to fund its military operations and greater expansion in the region.

Having started with the mission to take on and destroy 'ISIL' in a long war or a 'generational struggle' against a 'global threat' that is mostly regional and confined to the Middle East, politicians such as Cameron seem intent in giving ISIS the sort of global power status the 'Islamic State' has sought out.

The dangers of 'mission creep' are inherent in the rhetoric about 'ISIL' since it is considered an organisation with which no accommodation can be made and so once the war has started, it follows that it would have to be finished or else the initial and costly bombing campaign would have been to no avail.

The main problem is not even the supposed 'allies' in the Greater Middle East are acting in concert because of shadowy geopolitical interests and the fact Qatar and Turkey are as concerned ( in fact pathologically obsessed ) with overthrowing President Assad in Syria as they are with defeating ISIS.

Qatari and Turkish intransigence on Assad's position in Syria remains one reason why there could not have been a negotiated political settlement between the Free Syria Army and Damascus and, as a consequence, why ISIS remains entrenched in its capital Raqqa as the most powerful 'third force' opposed to them both.

Without a truce between Syrian government forces and the FSA, ISIS, even if defeated in Iraq and rolled back from Sunni Arab regions through the action of Iranian backed Shi'ite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga, would always be able to to retreat and regroup in Syria before attacking once more.

While the US and Britain were prepared to engage diplomatically with Iran over the ISIS threat to Iraq, Qatar and Turkey would be hostile to any attempt to do a deal with an Iranian backed Assad which would affect their regional geopolitical interests. But without it, ISIS in Syria would be difficult to defeat.

Qatar and Turkey would remain reticent about any attempt to roll back ISIS in Syria that would entrench Assad and both Iranian and Russian influence. The Syrian National Council opposed Russian involvement in exploiting Syria's offshore gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and an Iran-Iraq-Syria 'Shi'ite' gas pipeline.

Turkey, a main backer on Sunni Muslim opposition to the Alawi administration of Assad, would like to become an east-west energy hub. A Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline would reposition it in a stronger position against Russia which would prefer to retain its predominance as Turkey's main source of gas.

Turkey has held back from joining in the military effort against ISIS because it President Erdogan wants to make that conditional upon the west renewing its pressure upon Assad to be replaced by a Sunni dominated government led by the Syrian National Council that would ensure Syria's territorial integrity.

Far from being the eastermost outpost of the west through NATO membership, a Cold War hangover, Turkey under Erdogan has reimagined its role as a 'neo-Ottoman' regional power and maintained an open border policy with Syria so as to facilitate the formation of Sunni militant forces.

Turkey was half-hearted about supporting the battle against ISIS at the Paris talks because it remains concerned arming the Kurds in Iraq could stimulate a wider Kurdish irredentist movement in Kurdish Syria and across the border where the PKK has had an uneasy peace with Ankara after a decades old conflict.

Erdogan has sought to draw Kurdish regions closer in the Turkish sphere of influence but not so far as to lead to calls for a separate state enjoining Kurds in southern Turkey, northern Syria and the already autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq, a valued special partner as it has the oil riches Turkey lacks.

Turkey has an oil pipeline stretching from Iraqi Kurdistan in Kirkuk to the port of Ceylan that it would like to make fully operational and has lucrative construction contracts with Erbil. Yet, at the same time, it opposes the wishes of those Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey with far lessoil wanting to join it as part of one state.

On the contrary, there is reason to think Ankara would prefer these regions as a buffer between it and ISIS, one reason a motion in the Turkish parliament to create a 20km buffer zone in Syria between Turkey and Syria to secure passage for both foreign troops and for Turkish troops to secure Syrian-Kurdish enclaves.

While Turkey would be prepared to intervene militarily to secure its borders from ISIS, it would be more unwilling to contribute towards defeating ISIS without Assad being removed because that would free up the Kurdish fighters in Syria to demand an independent state that could stretch into southern Turkey.

Part of US-British strategy to relieve the Kurds in north-west Iraq from the onslaught of ISIS ( Tornados are bombing ISIS positions to this end ) and arming the peshmerga has already led to demands for the same for those Kurds being cleared from northern Syria and military action to defend Kobani.

While Turkey is a staunch ally of Barzani's KNC in Iraq it is concerned about arms falling into the hands of the 'wrong' Kurdish rebels of the PKK which is a major fighting faction of the YPG. Ankara's attempts to block Kurdish refugees from entering and Kurdish fighters from entering Syria has caused riots

As Turkey has no real interest in assisting the fight against ISIS if it would mean a greater impetus towards Kurdish secession in Turkey itself there have been accusations that Ankara could be in league or plotting with ISIS in order to use it as a tool to keep the Kurds divided and ruled from elsewhere-including Iran.

That Iran backs Assad as a Shi'ite co-religionist and a client prepared to accede to grand designs for a gas pipeline through Iraq and Syria to be completed by 2016 is seen as a direct threat to the Qatar-Turkey scheme for a Sunni axis of influence and one reason why Assad was plotting with the Kurds of Syria.

None of the contending regional powers in Syria has any interest in any one of the contending forces with military power gaining the upper hand. As that by default allows the most brutal warring Sunni militant force to win out, the danger is that the failure to destroy ISIS could lead eventually to greater western intervention.

The western states could hardly intervene to assist the Kurds against ISIS in Syria where Turkey regards the the PKK, the largest and most militant faction in YPG struggling against ISIS, as a threat to its territorial integrity of Turkey and one that is growing angry at Ankara's attempt to stop Turkish Kurds fighting in Syria.

The double standard is resented by the Kurds because prior to April 2014, fighters going to assist the Free Syria Army, even the most militant Al Qaida affiliated groups such as Al Nusra, had been facilitated and tolerated throughout 2012 and 2013 before ISIS turned its guns against the Sunni states and the west.

The battle between ISIS and the YPG is critical because, despite Prime Minister Cameron's claim that ISIS makes money from sales of oil to Assad, most of the Islamic State's revenues come from illicit sales of oil across the long Turkish border, a strategic area through which foreign Sunni militants are recruited.

More than that, the borderlands with Turkey contain some of Syria's richest oil reserves such as the Rumeilan oil fields to the east of Serekaniye which are mostly in Kurdish hands: who control these resources also controls the illegal fuel trade which runs through pipelines built during the sanctions on Saddam in the 1990s.

From Ankara's perspective it benefits its security if neither the YPG nor ISIS could win definitive control over these oil resources with which to buy weapons because it regards both the YPG and ISIS as both dangerous terrorist threats and, if anything, the PKK as far more dangerous to it than ISIS.

Turkey's conflict with the PKK date back to 1984 and they were aligned with Assad's Syria: even in 22013 the Kurds of Syria were in league with Damascus because Assad wanted to divert the Free Syria Army northwards away from the capital and both they and the Kurds squabbled over the oil reserves.

The reticence of the Syrian Kurds to either want the restoration of rule from Damascus or to remain within a Sunni Arab dominated Syria being fought for by the Free Syria Army or, of course to an insane degree by ISIS and Al Nusra, means it is highly unlikely either Turkey or Qatar could get their way in Syria.

Yet it is precisely just such a foreign policy which is bound to provoke the Kurds in Syria into further resistance that makes a political settlement difficult to acheive : if the Kurds are thwarted in their quest for autonomy they would align even with Assad against Turkey meaning it would back Sunni militants against it.

No comments:

Post a Comment