Grinding towards peace in the Middle East as America looks inward – I
by Omar Kassem on 08 Feb 2017 1 Comment

It’s early 2017 and there’s a chance for peace in Syria, but it’s complicated. One regional superpower and two regional powers in the Middle East - Russia, Turkey and Iran - have agreed to a trilateral monitoring commission to monitor the Syrian ceasefire at Astana in Kazakhstan. The UN is in attendance, but the US absent, apart from the formality of the presence of the local US Ambassador.


Surely, this is a historic state of affairs, especially since the absence of the US isn’t the choice of the new isolationism of a Trump administration; it is outcome of the abject failure of Obama’s globalism in the face of Russian opportunism, long-term Iranian strategy, and the reaction by Turkey to its changed circumstances.


But the Middle East isn’t just Syria; another war grinds on in Yemen. However, the increasingly unwinnable nature of this conflict contributes at great cost to the Yemeni people to growing stability in the rest of the Middle East.


Rebel forces go to Astana except Fath el-Sham and ISIL


Jaysh al-Islam’s Mohamed Alloush leads the delegation of Syrian rebel groups to Astana. His fighting force, along with Jabhat Fath el-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), and Ahrar el-Sham, has acted as a national ‘magnet’ for the plethora of ever-changing local rebel groups in Syria over the past five years.


Of course, there is also the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL if you substitute Levant for Syria): an equally if not more impressive fighting force, always standing apart for reasons which will become clear below.


Alloush is the brother of prominent Saudi jihadi figure, Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian airstrike in 2015. His participation in the peace talks reflects Saudi Arabia’s new war-weariness; while that of Ahrar el-Sham reflects Qatar’s political shift towards the new Russo-Turkish alliance. Russian negotiations and efforts to integrate the Syrian rebel groups into the Free Syrian Army (FSA) never gained traction with Fath el-Sham’s leader, Mohamed al-Julani. Like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Julani is a hard-line ex-internee of the ex-US military detention facility at Camp Bucca, Iraq. So neither al-Julani, nor ISIS, are present at Astana.


Fath el-Sham dropped the al-Nusra name when it split from al-Qaeda last year and re-branded as a ‘moderate rebel group’, in order to attract more money and arms from the US. This was too late, however. Already, by late 2015, the US had established a close alliance in Syria with the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish YPG which, like its Turkish PKK affiliate, is opposed to Islam. An ongoing ideological battle for the soul of the Kurdish population has straddled the Syrian-Turkish border for a generation, driving conservative Kurds in Turkey towards Erdogan’s AKP. This divide allowed ISIS of late to infiltrate the poorer, more pious among those, encouraging them to take up arms against left-wing Kurds.


While the YPG operates under the name of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to include some Arabs in their ranks, all such recruits have to undergo Marxist-Leninist political indoctrination prior to military training.


While al-Julani has fought the SDF, it is the least of his problems at present. He is bitter over the fall of Aleppo, for which he blames Ahrar al-Sham’s defection to the FSA. The FSA is engaged in the Turkish ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ in carving out a ‘safe zone’ between A’zaz, al-Bab, Manbij, and Jarablus in Northern Syria, with Russian air cover. It was humiliating for Fath el-Sham to be bussed out of Aleppo back to Idlib as peace broke out. So, al-Julani announced a new alliance with ISIS, launching a blistering attack on FSA elements between Aleppo and Idlib as the Astana talks got under way, emboldening those ISIS elements still defending al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo.


The road to Astana and the Russo-Turkish alliance


Al-Julani’s new decisions are designed to attract ISIS fighters to the ultimate rebel fortress, in Idlib. But the logical outcome of such a development will be that al-Bab will fall for the same reasons Aleppo did; because of a lack of fighters. Nevertheless, whatever al-Julani does, his Gulf backers have deserted him for good. Russia’s agreement to a non-OPEC oil production cut was predicated on a formal withdrawal of Saudi Arabia from Syria, and this became official policy when King Salman’s ‘state of the Kingdom speech’ on 23rd December 2016 excluded any mention of Syria, for the first time.


Furthermore, Qatar, Turkey’s long-term strategic ally since some time, is committed to the Astana process. It has stopped funding non-compliant rebel groups outside the FSA, as it seeks to engage with the new Russo-Turkish world-vision. Qatar has also invested $11bn in Rosneft, along with its Anglo-Swiss commodities trading subsidiary, Glencore, in a move which brings the Gulf state into a significant commercial alliance with a company whose management is close to Putin.


These are seismic geopolitical shifts among the Gulf States, and are the result basically of changes in Turkish policy, driven by a series of events in train since mid-2014.


Ever since Erdogan backed Syrian rebel calls for a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria in May 2013, relations with Obama became increasingly fraught. Mid-2014 was significant in that Mosul fell to ISIL then, jolting an indecisive Obama into action, and leading him to demand access to Incirlik airbase for a new anti-ISIL coalition. As millions of refugees poured into Turkey from Syria, Erdogan refused to agree to Obama’s demands without US agreement on the safe zone.


There ensued an angry reaction from Washington, communicated to Hürriyet by a Beltway analyst who said that “... Ankara’s refusal to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik Air base is of great concern to American military planners and seems like the top priority issue at the table right now... [Turkey is] not living up to its NATO obligations... People in the US government and the Washington think tank community have begun to re-assess the US-Turkey partnership”.


Erdogan was unmoved. Furthermore, when the Syrian border town of Kobane was besieged by ISIS in the final months of 2014, he decided to sit on his hands; an event which became a media sensation. Pressured to intervene militarily, Erdogan only assisted by ordering field hospitals to be erected and by allowing the Peshmerga from Iraq to come to the rescue. However, the media pictures of the Turkish military lined up along the border, surrounding Kobane, looking on as the fight raged, played very badly in world public opinion.


It was nine months after the Kobane events, when the US found itself struggling to put together a force of ‘moderate rebels’ against Assad beyond a mere ‘four or five’, as reported in Senate hearings, that Obama and Chuck Hagel decided to concentrate on a alliance with the Syrian Kurds to further their aims. This was a momentous decision, one that would have substantial, perhaps unintended, consequences.


The alliance pushed by the US was seen by the YPG and PKK as an opportunity to begin the creation of a separate state. Kurdish politicians had been calling on the PKK at the time, to implement final disarmament stage of the reconciliation process with the Turkish state. These calls were rejected by the militants, who decided to blame the Suruç bombing of 20th July 2015 on Erdogan and the Turkish state, and to launch a new war. The Suruç bombing had in fact been perpetrated by a cell of pious Kurds in the town of Adiyaman, who took revenge for the expulsion of ISIS from Kobane. They killed 32 Socialist Kurdish students and aid workers going to the shattered previously-besieged town to help rebuild it.


When the US finally agreed to a safe zone 65 km deep along the Turkish border with Syria, from Jarablus to Marea (40km from Aleppo) in July 2015, Erdogan granted the coalition access to Incirlik.


But the war with the PKK had started. At the same time, the same Kurdish ISIS cell widened its attacks on left-leaning Kurds. As the PKK and ISIS battled openly over the lucrative smuggling routes in the Turkish Southeast, ‘parallel state’ operators within the Gendarmerie (JITEM), controlled by the Gülen movement, felt obliged to assert control. While conflict with the state proper might have contributed to the Gülenist coup attempt of July 15th 2016, the dynamics of Kurdish question, and the control of the mountainous Southeast, has always been the prime driver of the actions of the Turkish ‘parallel’ or deep state (of which the Gülen movement had now become the main representative).


The failure of the coup became Erdogan’s opportunity. Army purges became possible that for the first time in modern Turkish history put the military under the total control of the politicians. On the Syrian side of the border the Kurdish YPG were in ruthless pursuit of a contiguous Kurdish state from Nusaybin to Afrin along the Turkish border. So the Turkish government accelerated the implementation of the safe zone and, gathering the FSA together, launched Operation Euphrates Shield to take Jarablus on 24th August 2016. Finding their plans at risk, the PKK’s terror campaign in Turkey redoubled. Meanwhile ISIS, expelled from Jarablus, now also turned its ire onto the Turkish state.


Throughout these bloody and chaotic events, Putin had been looking on, and saw a clear opportunity.


The views expressed by the author are personal; he can be reached via his website

(To be continued…)

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