A few words of comfort for a confused region
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a nine-nation whistlestop tour trying to assure a confused region of sustained US involvement in the wake of President Donald Trump’s troop withdawal now that “Daesh has been defeated.”
Here are some hard facts. First, there has been no final victory over Daesh. It is a terrorist group fighting an asymmetric war, and ever since Al-Qaeda we should have learned that these organizations are like air in a balloon — you squeeze one end and they will spread their terror at another. They are also good at reinventing themselves and morphing into something else.
Second, despite Pompeo’s warm words in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the US is placing less foreign policy emphasis on the Middle East. This is nothing new; it began under the Obama administration. America has become weary after having achieved so little in apparently never-ending conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Western intervention left Libya a failed state. The imperative of ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil for the US and its allies has receded since the US became self-sufficient in oil and gas, and indeed it is now a net exporter. This does not mean the US will give up on the Middle East, but it is competing with other regions for attention. The “America first” policy also means, inevitably, that foreign policy must wait its turn.
So where does this leave Syria and its interested parties? The withdrawal of US troops, in whatever form and time frame, will create a few winners and many losers. Russia, which has played its cards well, is definitely one of the big winners. They now have a naval and an air force base in Syria, which gives them a good platform for further activities.
Bashar Assad has asserted his position and will now resume leadership of the country, courtesy of Russia and Iran. The latter has secured its corridor between Tehran and Beirut, sanctions or no sanctions.
Despite Pompeo’s warm words in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the US is placing less foreign policy emphasis on the Middle East.
Turkey is left in an awkward position. It houses more than 3 million Syrian refugees, so far hospitably, without excessive grumbling. But it cannot accommodate many more, especially if the economy does not recover. When Ahmet Davutoglu was foreign minister at the beginning of the decade, his strategy was that Turkey needed to have good relations with all its neighbors. The “Arab Spring” and the Syrian civil war ensued.
Turkey has had an uneasy relationship with the Kurds inside and outside its borders. The government classified the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) as terrorists. The Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters are seen as having close ties to the PKK. Turkey’s key concern is its territorial integrity, given the large Kurdish population in Eastern Anatolia and beyond.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was incensed when the Western allies enlisted the YPG in their fight against Daesh. He was all for fighting Daesh and was no friend of Assad, yet felt threatened by the West arming and training the Kurdish fighters. He had to restrain himself, though, because he could not attack them without the danger of firing on his own NATO allies.
Erdogan refused to meet US National Security Adviser John Bolton when he visited Turkey last week, but Bolton and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Erdogan adviser Ibrahim Kalin for seemingly productive talks. Kalin said Turkey would not seek permission from its NATO allies to attack Kurdish fighters, but would coordinate operations. Turkey will also have to coordinate with Russia before venturing over the border.
The Kurds are extremely worried about what to expect from across that border. Some have even asked the Syrian Army for protection. This is counterintuitive because the YPG and Assad’s forces have long been enemies. Various ideas to protect the Kurds are bandied about, including a no-fly zone. The danger of a Turkish incursion definitely exists. The question is whether the NATO allies could have achieved more by consulting or informing Ankara before they made the decision to enlist the YPG. While that is water under the bridge, Erdogan clearly feels hard done by.
The biggest losers of all are the Syrian people; more than 5 million have fled the country and nearly 8 million are displaced within Syria. They live in refugee camps, their homes are in rubble, medical care is insufficient, schooling inadequate where it exists at all, and the winter is harsh.
Two weeks after President Trump’s announcement, we are none the wiser about how things will evolve on the Turkish-Syrian border. It remains a place with potential for escalating the conflict.
Now there will be no US presence when Turkey-Russia-Iran consult on Syria. Assad will have a seat at the table, though. Several Arab nations have already started normalizing relations with Damascus. In the meantime, it was helpful that Pompeo visited the region, but his shuttle diplomacy will have little or no impact on what unfolds between Turkey and Syria.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.