In what is perhaps his greatest tragedy, King Lear, William Shakespeare depicted a king who surrendered power without really meaning it or thinking through the consequences. The result was not gratitude from those to whom power was given or a happy and care-free future for the king, but a precipitous loss of respect and a descent into misery.The plot of the play is adapted from an ancient folk tale, and it is proof of the wisdom that such stories contain. We have again seen the power of this wisdom in the Middle East and North Africa over the last decade. President Barack Obama and his advisers seem to have believed that, if the US surrendered some of its power in the region — by reducing its physical footprint on the ground, seeking to persuade rather than coerce, and making nice speeches about how everybody should learn to share things better and take more responsibility for the provision of common public goods such as security — good things would happen and common sense would produce peace and prosperity for all.
The problem is, that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because — as Shakespeare and Machiavelli knew — in conditions of chronic insecurity and mutual suspicion, power is indivisible. You either have it and choose to exercise it or you don’t. If you don’t, others will do it for you.
And this is what has happened in Syria, and also Iraq. The Turkish assault on Afrin last weekend was hardly unexpected. Everyone knows how paranoid President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about the prospect of an independent Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. He has been threatening to attack largely Kurdish positions there for two years, in order to prevent Kurdish control of a continuous area from the Iraqi border to Idlib. Now he has acted.
But, seven years ago, everything looked different. Ankara had developed a successful relationship with the Kurds of northern Iraq, largely through its cultivation of the Barzanis in Erbil. This suited the Kurdistan Regional Government too, as it gave them an export route for their oil and a political counterbalance to Baghdad. Yet, a matter of months ago, Ankara abandoned the KRG to Baghdad and Tehran following President Masoud Barzani’s decision to press on with the disastrous independence referendum.
The US had long relied on the Kurds as a key ally both in Iraq and especially in Syria — through the Democratic Union Party, its militia the YPG, and the predominantly Kurdish but also Arab forces they mobilized against Daesh, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Yet the US followed Turkey’s lead in Iraq by condemning the referendum and stepping back to allow federal forces assisted by elements of the largely Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units to recapture Kirkuk, threaten Kurdish control of key border crossings and force the Peshmerga back from most other positions they had occupied since successfully beating back, with US support, the Daesh assault two years earlier.
Now the US urges restraint on Turkey as it advances into northern Syria, all the while knowing that the Turks would not have acted without at least tacit Russian acquiescence (secured perhaps during high level military exchanges in Moscow a week or so ago). In Iraq, the apparent success of the security forces against the Kurds has not made Prime Minister Haider Abadi more attentive to US wishes but has instead encouraged him to be more assertive in his personal positioning before May’s elections, even going so far as announcing he would run in partnership with the political representatives of the very PMUs who have made the most blood-curdling threats against US interests. That announcement was swiftly retracted but, as with Washington’s confused announcement of a new border force based on the YPG, it doesn’t encourage a sense that the US is in control of anything much in the Middle East at the moment, whatever Defense Secretary James Mattis or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may say about the new national security strategy.
Next week, the Russians are convening another meeting of their sometimes uneasy negotiating partners — Iran, Turkey and the Syrian regime — in Sochi to pursue their version of a settlement in Syria. Senior US figures have stressed that this should not cut across the Geneva process. But that process is stuck, and its central feature, the replacement of Bashar Assad through a transitional government, a new constitution and free elections, is looking more and more unachievable.
Why? Because when you choose not to exercise power in the Middle East, others do. And those others generally will act not in harmony with your interests — as King Lear and perhaps Obama hoped — but against them. This situation has not really been improved under President Donald Trump. He has allowed military commanders in the field more freedom to take operational decisions, and he has allowed US forces to engage more closely and more effectively with their counterparts in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria in the fight against Daesh. But the US has failed to find a way to reconcile its desire to sustain a presence in northeastern Syria and in northern Iraq with the need to keep Turkey onside. It has failed to develop a coherent response to the current Syrian regime offensive in Idlib, supported by Iran and Russia in spite of Turkey’s alleged role as a guarantor of de-escalation there. And it has permitted Iran to exploit Turkish resentments and fears, and divisions between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, to strengthen its own position across the region.
When you choose not to exercise power in the Middle East, others take your place — and they will generally not act in harmony with your interests, as Washington is discovering with the Turkish assault on Afrin.
Sir John Jenkins
If you want a result in the Middle East, you have to fight for it. And you have to exercise power. Recent noises from the National Security Agency and Department of Defense about US determination to push back hard against malign Iranian activity generally are encouraging. If that really is the new policy, then it is timely. And it may be that putting too much faith in the ability of the Kurds to act as the cornerstone of such a policy would be a mistake. But, in that case, we need to see action elsewhere — a sustained and more long-term effort to bring Turkey, the Kurds and Baghdad back into political alignment; a concerted push to convene the key Gulf states and Egypt as part of a new security structure in the region; and a considered view of how we might collectively respond to clear evidence of a deep dissatisfaction among ordinary Iranians with their country’s direction of travel. We haven’t seen anything like this since around 2009. It means taking a view of the region as a whole, it means properly informed and well-judged analysis, and it means the commitment of resources. Otherwise there will be many more Afrins in the next few years.
• Sir John Jenkins is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.