By Marco Pasquini, Armadilla director
The history of the Middle East is complex and difficult to interpret; very often, it is said that it is chaos and that it is not possible to really understand what is happening. Analyzes are often conditioned by needs propaganda of the different parties and defending positions and interests that very often have nothing to do with see with reality. Too many wars in which the first victim is always the truth.
Armadilla has been continuously present in the region since 2004, with its own operators. Try to play adequately its role in the context of humanitarian aid and international cooperation, with impartiality, neutrality, and respect for the ethical code of this sector. However, he also tries to understand the causes of so many wars, conflicts, and carnage.
The emergence on the international scene of complex emergencies has created a dramatic simplification of political thought and there is always the risk of being invited or forced to stand as supporters for one part of the conflict. What is clear is that in all wars the violation is continuous, repeated and widespread of the principles of international humanitarian law and, in most cases, with an impossibility sanctions by the international community and the entities specifically appointed for this purpose.
With this note, we try to line up, with a certain logic, information and our point of view on what we have understood of this complicated situation. Hearing witnesses present in the area and comparing the positions of the different stakeholders directly involved.
The regional mosaic and the subjects that compose it are many and difficult to place in a vision of Strategies or strategic positioning defined. Tactical alliances that always need to be updated prevail magazines in a permanent change of context, trying, as in an endless chess game, to predict possible future moves.
It is not easy to identify the immediate geopolitical and economic interests they have in the USA, Russia, China, France and Great Britain (and the European Union) and link these interests to regional hegemonic aims trying to play Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran with their tactical or strategic allies.
Let us try to identify the relevant issues that characterize the current situation:
The defeat of ISIS and the abandonment of the territories belonging to Syria and Iraq that Dāʿish had occupied re-proposes the unresolved question of the control and belonging of vast territories and how to configure existence of states and nationalities (with the various ethnic groups present) that call into question the divisions made from the Anglo-French agreement of Sikes-Picot of 1916.
With the aim of removing Assad from bankruptcy, Syria is today an agglomeration of realities and forces that are of little interest to all: from the Russian-Iranian axis and Turkey (Astana Group) to the United States and its allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel among the most important). The long and difficult mediation carried out for years by the UN has not led so far to a final agreement. We start again with the convocation in Geneva, for next October 30th, of the first meeting of the Syrian constitutional committee, supported by the UN, and of which they are part, after difficult and long negotiations, 50 members of the government, 50 of the oppositions and 50 “independent”.
On October 6, 2019, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the American contingent from the northeast of Syria but this announcement is then denied by other government sources. The news of the withdrawal – apparently decided to allow Turkey to invade the northeast of Syria, expel the Syrian Kurds and create a sort of “zone.” security “buffer on the Syrian Turkish border – has been met by many criticisms. Even members of the Republican Party and members of the same US government have accused the president of “Treason” against the Syrian Kurds, who for years had helped the United States in the war against ISIS. Despite the half-step back from the Defense Department, the New York Times wrote, now for the United States will be difficult to oppose the Turkish military offensive in Syria, especially given that Turkey is an important ally of the Americans and an important member of NATO.
Following the withdrawal of the Americans in three very important locations for Turkey, namely Mambye, Al Arab and Kobane are Assad’s troops and Russian forces. The question remains whether Syria will fight the Kurds like them he asks Turkey to do it or he will make an agreement with Kurdish militias in an anti-turf key.
The characteristic of Turkish geopolitics is this constant oscillation between the American and Russian alliances: operation, however, very risky. Turkey risks being crushed between the two powers because if Putin and Trump close an agreement on Syria, Turkey risks remaining bogged down. It is perhaps this is Trump’s real goal: to get Turkey into the real war in Syria and let it get bogged down there.
Turkey maintains cooperative relations with Russia, which provides for the supply of ss400 missiles, of SU 57 warplanes, after US exclusion from the F35 program and the construction of a new oil pipeline.
On 22 October 2019 in Sochi the Russians and the Turks made an agreement in which “It was established, in the memorandum of understanding signed by the two heads of state, which Turkey and Russia will conduct joint patrols up to 10 km by Syrian territory beyond the Turkish border, to the east and west of the area where the Turkish operation was conducted in northern Syria, excluding Qamishli, the main Kurdish center in the area. The status quo established in the area of the current Operation Peace Source between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, with a depth of 32 km, will come preserved. “
That is what Erdogan asked and that is what he got from Putin. In turn, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the two countries’ delegations reached an agreement to have the military police Russian and Syrian government forces remain outside the area of the Turkish military operation in Syria Northern.
Russia has made Syria the theater of its return to the status of a leading power, taking advantage of the US disengagement begun by Barack Obama in 2013. Russia and Iran at the time, filling up immediately the emptiness created by the US removal, had run to Assad’s rescue, with heavy consequences from a humanitarian and political point of view. Now Putin takes advantage of the eclipse again Washington to affirm its country as the only foreign power present in the field and capable of dialogue with all the actors involved.
Syrian President Assad visiting the north of the country, said, “Erdogan is a thief. He stole us factories, wheat and oil, and today it is stealing the land”. Fire words, bellicose intentions. Everything, though, before the Sochi pact. Now the “thief of Ankara” will become an “ally”, however uncomfortable, and hated.
It certainly makes a mistake when talking about the Kurds as if they were a single homogeneous and unitary force. The Kurds are an Indo-European ethnic group of about 40 million people who live in a divided territory in the current states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and to a lesser extent Armenia. Small Kurdish communities are present also in Lebanon, Jordan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
They are politically divided mainly among those that refer to the PKK (Kurdish People’s Party, whose leader Abdullah Öcalan is in prison in Turkey), the Kurdish Community Union (Kurds from Syria, Turkey and part of Iran) and the Kurds of the Democratic Party of Iraqi Kurdistan (PDK) of Mesûd Barzanî (former president of Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq).
In the north of Syria (in the region called Rojava / Western Kurdistan) the Kurdish militias of the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, which in Kurd means “People’s self-defense unit”), allies of the Americans in fighting ISIS but considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government.
It is interesting to note that there have been Turkish military interventions in Northern Kurdistan (northern Iraq) and that there are also 16 Turkish military bases but this has not created all the clamor of the Turkish intervention in Rojava. This is because the Kurds of Iraq have invited the Turks to sneak into their territories because “The Turks fight their own enemy” which is the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Rojava.
Before this October 2019 war, we must remember that Turkey is already present in Syria thanks to an agreement with Russia had already been conducted three military actions always to the west of the Euphrates:
- Operation Euphrates Shield which led Turkey to occupy the areas of Jarablus, Azaze and At the Bab;
- AFRIN operation that led to occupy the very canton of Afrin in the Syrian west;
- IDLIB operation (after the Astana agreement) where Turkey has twelve observation points military.
These operations are justified by the Turkish need to relocate Syrian refugees (about 4 million) refugees in Turkey and to demonstrate to the US and Russia that Turkey is able on its own to be able to change the balance in the area to ensure its safety.
This suggests that this new Turkish action in Syria is not to be considered temporary. After the Euphrates Operation, which ended two years ago, the Turks did not withdraw from Syria but rather are ready in Rojava of projects to build at least four villages of around 250 thousand people to host at least 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkish land. The relocation of these refugees outside Turkey is at the top of Erdogan’s political agenda. Until these refugees are relocated, his action will not stop. Erdogan has lost the local elections in Ankara and one of the causes is the large presence of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. As for the Syrian Kurds, they may be reabsorbed in Assad’s Syria. However, not it will be easy to talk about autonomy for Rojava. Swept away, first by the American betrayal and now by the “pact of Sochi”.
Expanding the analysis to a wider horizon and considering the interests and positions of other actors involved we are still obliged to put elements that make the overall picture more complex:
There is an objective alliance between Turkey and Qatar based on a common closeness to the Muslims movement and today seek an agreement with Iran. From this, it must be deduced that there is no Sunni block united against the Shiite. Turkey’s interests today are closer to Shiite Iran than to Saudi Arabia, Sunni (in Waabita version).
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys the support of Turkey but also of Iran and Qatar. When Morsi was elected President of Egypt, the first trip does not do it in Turkey but in Iran. It should be borne in mind that the military coup that brought General Al Sissi to power was supported and financed by Saudi Arabia and from the United Arab Emirates with the US approval against the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict also concerns the war in Libya and in Sudan where the same sides are opposed to different allies locals.
Qatar also has strong common economic interests with Iran for the exploitation of the largest field of gas existing in the world “South Pars / North Dome – gas condensate field” which is located in the Persian Gulf and alone these two countries have the possibility to extract it.
In 2000, Qatar proposed building a gas pipeline to its close allies (Saudi Arabia and Turkey). 1500 km through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria to arrive in Turkey and Europe to Bulgaria or also across the Mediterranean. This operation would have linked Qatar directly to European markets energy through distribution terminals in Turkey, guaranteeing the latter enormous revenues from taxes of transit. The Qatar / Turkey pipeline would, therefore, guarantee the total supremacy of the Gulf to the Sunni countries Persian for the world natural gas markets and strengthened Qatar, the closest US ally in the Arab world. Let us not forget that Qatar is home to two huge American military bases and is the headquarters for the Middle East of the Central Command of the United States.
A problem arises when the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad does not grant the passage permit of the gas pipeline in its own territory. The rejection stems from a historic positioning of the Syrian alliance government with Iran (Shiite) and with Russia. This is one of the main causes of the war in Syria. Conflict that also extends violently in Yemen and for the first time Abqaiq and Kharais in Saudi Arabia are attacked on September 14, 2019, with drones from the Yemeni Hutus (allies Iran).
The war in Yemen directly involves Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are the real strategic power center. The war is funded by the Saudis but is directed by the UAE, which has reached the own objective to control the major ports of the gulf: Aden and the island of Socotra (in Yemen) and the coast Somali. Important is the role that the Prince of the Emirates Mohammed Bin Zayed has who strangely stands treating a truce with the Hutus (Yemeni Shiite militia) who are present all along the Yemen border and Saudi Arabia while the UAE has no border with Yemen.
When some tankers are hit in the Gulf of Hormoz, the concern of an uncontrolled extension of the conflict, undermining the region’s oil production and government Saudi Arabia, through the Iraqi one, has called for a truce in Iran.
The main objective of the USA is to prevent a leading actor from avoiding to emerge in the Middle East that the two non-Arab powers of the Muslim world, Turkey and Iran, divided the sphere of power over all the area. Look at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Emirates, whose influence can be seen in the conflict suddenly reduced. Undoubtedly, they feel betrayed by the Americans, for not having even heard them. Perhaps what is less intelligent in this “design”, to which Washington is not a stranger, is precisely this: like a blanket too short, American intelligence has left uncovered and worried traditional allies and friends, all in one way or another alarmed both by the “US betrayal” and from Turkish adventurism.
Israel has also criticized the Turkish maneuver these days, as Turkey is now the true bulwark Iranian expansion in the area. Israel finds itself with the only non-hostile regional entity, the Kurdish entity precisely, at the mercy of former Turkish friends, whose growing aversion to the Jewish state is no longer not even hidden.
The problem of the presence of ISIS fighters remains unsolved. The number of people is indeed growing actors who are interested in a revival of ISIS even if with different initials and modes: Turkey for to legitimize his standing and perhaps expand the area of action in Syria; Assad to try to regain the land lost in Syrian territory; the Kurds so that they can become active and re-legitimized actors; the Americans to show that their presence is fundamental to global security.
Only time will tell how a situation evolves that is always difficult to decipher but that deserves to be always designed for the importance it has on the global agenda.