On Principle and Expediency in Syria and Iraq

The intervention of Turkey in Syria has come as a “FINALLY” moment for many of us watching the Syrian Crisis, for good or for ill. The reasoning behind the long delay of Turkish movement to counter ISIS is easy to understand: a desire to move openly against Assad frustrated by a lack of firm American support and a desire not to allow the Syrian Kurds to consolidate their early gains for fear that these would form a bordering rear-area for the Kurdish Workers Party to harbor Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. Still, following the ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc, the Turkish government have hit both ISIS and the Kurds with airstrikes and declared an intention to ally with the United States in creating safe havens for Rebel forces along the northern borders of Syria. Air support would theoretically allow rebel forces to firmly consolidate their recent gains, and for the pressure delivered on Assad’s forces in the four corners of the country to reap greater results.

The ensuing campaign will be worth monitoring as an example of how multinational coalitions sponsor and enable/abet a variety of rebel formations working towards a common goal, save of course that a common goal is not present in the rebel formations nor in their state-sponsors. The US wants ISIS degraded and destroyed in Syria so as to enable a victory over ISIS in Iraq, and the Turks want Assad defeated and the Kurdish Separatist threat removed.  The FSA itself is a pan-political organization that contains al Qaeda affiliates as well as conservative Sunni political and religious factions and secular nationalists. The US struggle finding the prodigal “moderate rebels” is well known, and the preferential treatment that these formations may receive from American air support has potentially bad implications for the unity of a coalition whose best troops are openly hostile to the West.

Alliance formation was perhaps the inevitable result of the success that Assad Regime homogeneity had over the rebel’s divided political and religious agendas, though thus far it has mostly been at the tactical level within limited areas. Operationally speaking, however, the rebels have recently coalesced their efforts into coordinated headquarters which are offering greater command and control over larger, more successful efforts. The most pronounced example of more permanent rebel consolidation has been the Jaysh al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, a military operations headquarters in the northern rebel forces that have allied Jihadists and Salafi Conservatives to take the City of Idlib, which remains the largest concrete rebel gain of the war to date. There has even been limited coordination with the successful Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, an alliance of over 50 minor fighting organizations, though it met stalemate at Da’ra in late June.

With the victory at Idlib and the potential for Turkish air cover, there is the potential for fresh momentum which will not allow the Assad Regime the breathing space it enjoyed to reverse and hold up Rebel gains at a time when the FSA began to splinter in 2013-2014 and the dramatic expansion of ISIS threatened the balance of rebel alliances and the promise of foreign support against Assad.

What is lacking now is a strategic framework for the control and unification of coercive violence for the pursuit of a political endgame on a larger front. The comprehensive rout of Syrian Regime forces is not apparently imminent, bolstered as they are from Hizbollah, and now with the potential of fresh cash injections from Iran. While there may be fissures, especially with the formerly pro-regime Druze population, the Assad Regime is politically and geographically solvent. It will likely be able to offset its declining manpower by consolidating its territory to defending Regime-supporting areas and indicting important corridors, and it still has some tactical and operational advantages, especially when it comes to airpower. Hence Turkish, American, British, and other NATO airpower may come to represent a decisive factor in the operational success of better-coordinated rebel forces. Yet, those same rebel forces are issuing statements of mourning for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, so that alone gives NATO pause to think about who they may be supporting and to what end. If now is the time to determine who will ultimately triumph over whom militarily, there is also urgency to figure out the political endgame in Syria.

Turkey’s more active entrance into the war is partially a calculated decision to steer events towards a strategic endgame that suits it. ISIS has been a threat to Turkey, but not nearly as much of a threat, so it is reckoned, as the more successful Kurds have been. Unilateral support the FSA proved political difficult for the Turks, and the Government has been accused of turning a blind eye to the transit of jihadist forces over the borders into Syria and Iraq in order to get a little strategic depth on both the Kurds and Assad. The American propensity for supporting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has made Ankara consider it sound to take control to enable a Sunni Rebel victory before the Americans decide that rewarding success and punishing failure in a war against ISIS requires arming the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria so that their fighters can defeat ISIS in the upper Tigris and Northern Iraq, carving out the way for independent Kurdistan. That end would represent the set loss for the ruling Justice party under Tayyip Erdogan, and the recent death of the PKK-Turkish peace process shows the Government’s determination to maintain Neo-Ottomanism by military support for the Sunni Opposition (some argue ISIS as well until recently) at the expense of the Kurdish nationalists.

Their concerns are not unfounded. A recent article in Foreign Policy contained a frank admission by Lt. Gen. Vincent Morrow, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, that Iraq might not “come back as an intact state”. That, in fact, is probably a fair assertion about what is achievable with the means the United States is currently employing to fight ISIS, but it is a reminder that for certain policy makers “nothing is inconsistent which is expedient”. NATO may have Article 5 obligations to Turkey against attacks on it by ISIS and Kurds alike, but the US also has a war to fight with ISIS in Iraq and against al Qaeda, and, with the news that al Qaeda Syrian rebels have just massacred many leaders of the US-backed Syrian Moderate rebels, the question of aiding the northern coalition which includes it would present something of a clash of interests. If these forces then form a post-Assad governing structure, what then?

What principle do Americans seek to defend in Syria and Iraq, or is it just nakedly about interests?  The first goal of the Obama administration’s strategy is attempting to surgically fight terrorism, both by targeted low-profile operations and by bolstering allies to control territories that might germinate threats to the homeland. If, regionally-speaking, the United States has to balance the consideration of containing Iranian hegemony with the need to fight Sunni Salafist terrorism, then the Kurds seem to represent the middle ground of having a friendly power which can moderate both. Furnishing them with weapons independent of Baghdad, however, essentially casts a die in favor of at least autonomous home-rule, or at most independent statehood.  Creating nation-states to essentially hold others in check is a time-honored imperial tradition (and no doubt many view it as such) of managing territory indirectly by incentives to local proxies, or in this case “clear and hold” without building up central authority. Pursuing that course argues for devolving control of violence to where it is effective at achieving desired results, namely by giving the Peshmerga the weapons to act unilaterally against ISIS and supporting their efforts with promises of recognition and continued support.

At the same time, this is interventionism at its most insidious. Frustrations with Baghdad are understandable given the swift collapse and repeated defeats it has suffered since last summer. Criticism of the Obama Administration’s inability to get the Iraqis to agree on enduring US forces aside, it has proven extremely difficult to work with Baghdad, especially as it is bolstered by sectarian militias. The Peshmerga seem the natural choice, yet that also means formally condoning Kurdish nationalist ambitions outside the current political system. Even if done for reasons of peacemaking, it is inconsistent to arm non-state actors independent of the goals of that state, however weak it may be, while proclaiming to support an international system based on respecting the sovereignty of national law and order. Doing so, in effect, says that Baghdad has, to use the Chinese phrase, “lost the mandate” to centrally govern within the borders it has held since 1918, borders imposed upon Baghdad’s government by the  Treaty of Versailles and that mandate system.

Those like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who want to bypass Baghdad in order to achieve results are arguing for doing the utilitarian thing and stop wasting time and lives fighting ISIS with the restraints imposed by respecting Baghdad’s authority (even if it cannot impose law and order). Yet this has a knock on effect on what is happening in Syria, which likewise cannot be ignored. While the US opposes the PKK because of its use of indiscriminate terrorism, it must tread a fine line between that stance and the aspirations of Autonomous Kurdistan across northern Iraq and eastern Syria. While competent Kurdish forces would surround and attack ISIS in its lair, they would create a renewed security crisis for Turkey if they formed a Kurdish majority block (as some claimed they are doing by ethnic cleansing) for future consolidation in negotiations and military action. Even if Kurdistan disowned the PKK reminiscent of the Irish Republic’s disowning of the IRA, this does not answer for the question of what role an autonomous Kurdish area will play in Syrian politics in a post-Assad world.

The outcome is bound to leave nobody truly satisfied, and in creating new formations we are sowing the seeds for future conflict in the region. The immediate goal of ending this generation’s nightmarish wars may simply generate the foundation of future ones. Yet maybe, as we struggle to find a solution to the evils which have emerged from Syria’s ulcer, we must be willing to accept an imperfect solution in order to preserve what little hope may be left for settlement within our lifetime.

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