World must prepare for consequences of Turkish invasion

World must prepare for consequences of Turkish invasion

A convoy of US armoured vehicles near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij. (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally got his way; convincing Donald Trump to immediately withdraw US forces from northern Syria to allow a Turkish invasion. “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out,” Trump declared on Twitter, signaling the US’ abdication from any shared responsibility for global security. Kurdish leaders called this a “stab in the back” and warned that a Turkish incursion would turn the area “into a war zone”.

Daesh is rapidly regaining strength throughout Iraq and Syria, staging deadly attacks against civilian and military targets. Nearly 100,000 Daesh suspectsand family members are being held in huge camps, primarily in the custody of thinly-stretched Kurdish forces, which are now threatening to leave their posts and abandon efforts to curb Daesh in order to join the fight against Turkey. Just one of these detention camps, Al-Hol — described as a Daesh “city” — has about 74,000 inmates. Sources warn that Daesh is plotting mass breakouts, with these camps already used as staging points for planning terrorist attacks and extremist indoctrination.

There appears to be no plan in place for what would happen to these camps if Kurdish guards abandoned their posts, particularly as they primarily fall outside the area of expected Turkish occupation. A Kurdish spokesman asserted: “The military forces we have in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa — if necessary we are going to mobilize them to counter any Turkish attack. We are not going to accept any Turkish invasion, and we are going to use all our resources.”

With fears that Turkey will embark on a campaign of ethnic cleansing, this is a colossal betrayal of Kurdish factions, which have been among America’s staunchest regional allies, having lost an estimated11,000 fighters on the front lines against Daesh. Erdogan has announced plans to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, largely Arabs, in these Kurdish-majority areas, while aid agencies have warned that the invasion could displace hundreds of thousands of local people. Erdogan statedthat this “safe zone” will stretch across 480 kilometers of northern Syria.

This is a colossal betrayal of Kurdish factions, which have been among America’s staunchest regional allies.

Baria Alamuddin

For Erdogan, the invasion is partly about rescuing his sagging popularity after the humiliating defeat of an ally in the June Istanbul mayoral election and with the Turkish economy continuing to struggle. With nearly 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Erdogan recently threatened the EU that, if billions of euros of funding didn’t continue, he could allow these refugees to flood into Europe. Let us hope he doesn’t make similar threats with the Daesh fighters that may soon be under his control.

A previous call to Erdogan last December convinced Trump to command the withdrawal of all US forces from Syria, prompting Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk’s resignations. However, officials at least succeeded in delaying the president’s hoped-for immediate pullout, which would have surrendered the region to Daesh and Tehran. McGurk describes Trump’s allowance of the Turkish invasion as “a gift to Russia, Iran and (Daesh).”

Free from the restraining influence of former officials like H.R. McMaster, Mattis, McGurk and John Bolton, this withdrawal exemplifies Trump’s foreign policy doctrine in its purest form, with foreign commitments determined by the whims of his personal agenda and nativist “America First” instincts. Trump has been warned repeatedly about the prospects of genocide, Daesh’s resurgence and Iran emerging supreme — but he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care. Even staunch Trump defenders, like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, described his decision on Syria as “shortsighted and irresponsible,” and “a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria.” Whereas such a foreign invasion would once have triggered weeks of UN Security Council wrangling, today this institution scarcely deserves a mention.

Tehran has, meanwhile, been systematically working to consolidate a corridor of unchallenged influence across Syria and Iraq. Having established a paramilitary bridgehead around Al-Qaim in the Syria-Iraq border area, it has been biding its time, given the progressive drawdown of US forces and the likelihood that a Turkey-Kurdish confrontation could create fresh opportunities. Deir Ezzor residents recently protested the expansion of Iranian activities, including the deployment of militia proxies, indoctrination and buying the loyalty of local public figures.

Russia and Turkey — despite their conflicting strategic interests in Syria — have sought to collaborate closely on military operations in areas like Idlib. Vladimir Putin may phlegmatically regard Turkey’s intervention as inevitable, despite howls of protest from his ally in Damascus.

The Arab world has long been excluded from the Syria arena. This must change. If the Turkish incursion empowers Daesh and Tehran, while further undermining Syria’s demographic fabric, this represents a massive strategic threat — not to mention the final nail in the coffin of a once-proud Arab nation. Arab nations must act together to ensure that any Turkish incursion is sharply limited in its objectives, timescale and geographical extent. Arab refugees should be returned to their original homes when conditions are appropriate, and not exploited as part of a Turkish effort to eradicate the Kurds.

It is too late to call upon a punch-drunk world to come to its senses. US forces are already withdrawing from their posts and the Turkish invasion is all but a fait accompli. What matters now is being ready for the consequences of this travesty: The re-emergence of Daesh and globalized terrorism; the expansion of Iranian proxies across central Syria; and yet another phase of an endless Syrian conflict.

Just as the Syrian and Israeli invasions of Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s had malign consequences that we still live with today, policymakers must be ready for the far-reaching ramifications of what plays out in Syria and the region over the coming days. Given the prospect of five more years of Trump, unchallenged Iranian expansionism and Erdogan on a Syrian power trip, the mind struggles to grasp how much worse matters can get.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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