Turkey’s invasion a trigger for ruinous regional war
Are we sliding into an expanded conflict in a region already on a knife-edge following Iran’s escalations against oil infrastructure and other targets? Talking to diplomats with decades of Middle East experience, many grimly believe this to be the case. Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria demolishes a fragile status quo: Just 2,000 US troops had deterred Iranian proxies from dominating the east of the country, while a few hundred Kurdish fighters guarded nearly 100,000 Daesh suspects and their families.
Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is the consummate opportunist. After 2003 and again after 2014, Soleimani exploited widespread violence in Iraq to massively expand the presence of proxy paramilitaries toward the goal of Iranian hegemony. He will similarly exploit the Turkish invasion and US drawdown to expand Iranian influence throughout Syria, using his playbook of paramilitary aggression, industrialized bribery and ideological indoctrination.
Reports of the possible deployment of 11,000 Iranian Law Enforcement Forces personnel to “protect pilgrims” in Najaf and Karbala are a jarring reminder of Tehran’s longstanding pretext for sponsoring militants across Syria to “protect the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine.” This raises concerns that these forces could become a permanent feature inside Iraq, alongside more than 85,000 Iraqi paramilitaries explicitly allied with Tehran, to be used for violently suppressing protests, expanding medium-range missile capabilities and furthering Iran’s agenda.
Iran is already exploiting the fog of war to beef up its forces in the Golan Heights, triggering the countdown toward conflict with Israel. Tehran has furthermore responded to Israeli strikes against proxy allies by expediting the transfer of missile technology to Hezbollah. I have been additionally told that Iranian proxies have relocated some missiles to areas of Iraq’s Nineveh governorate, which are dominated by Christians and other minorities, to deter Israeli strikes.
With a bombastic Soleimani again overplaying his hand, veteran Middle East experts recognize that Israel’s entry into the conflict is becoming inevitable. Tel Aviv faces an existential threat if a nuclearized Iran dominates the region uninterrupted from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. As surely as night follows day, a major Israeli intervention will furthermore compel the US to wade back into the conflict with as many Western allies as possible in tow.
One experienced European diplomat told me: “We are entering a new international phase — not a Syrian war, not counter-terrorism. We are talking about a proper international war with multiple fronts, including Israel, the Iranians, the Russian regime.” Experts I speak to mostly concur that Iran is currently emerging as the net winner in this conflict.
Israeli generals have mulled the prospect of annexing the Syrian Golan as a means of depriving the enemy of this strategically vital high ground. Yet the objective of cutting Iran down to size would need to go much further — perhaps with missile strikes against Iraq and Syria-based proxies, along with Iranian nuclear and military targets; but also action to compensate for the American abdication of responsibility in eastern Syria, thus preventing Iran putting the final touches to its region-wide corridor of control.
Like a man leaping from a cliff, Recep Tayyip Erdogan surely realizes he has bitten off far more than he can chew with an invasion which will ultimately wreak disaster upon Turkey. In his phone call with a US President itching to jettison responsibility for eastern Syria, Erdogan fatally became the prisoner of his own belligerent rhetoric. Turkey will use its massively superior firepower to extract a bloody price against any manifestations of Kurdish resistance. Yet Ankara must gird itself for years of bitter guerrilla warfare waged by a nucleus of 60,000 US-armed Syrian Democratic Forces personnel.
Turkey is doing Damascus and Tehran’s work, ensuring that Sunni Arab populations never return home to western Syria.
Erdogan envisages resettling millions of Syrian refugees currently residing across Turkey. Yet, with more than 200,000 civilians fleeing, the dispersal of one population to be replaced by another violates fundamental tenets of international law. Turkey is doing Damascus and Tehran’s work, ensuring that Sunni Arab populations never return home to western Syria, where the regime and Iran have been transplanting new loyalist demographics.
A Turkish annexation of northeast Syria would also revolutionize regional pipeline politics, allowing the wholesale bypassing of Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdogan was previously compelled to moderate his rabidly anti-Kurd agenda due to economic dependence on Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Erdogan’s panicked threat of sending 4 million Syrian refugees pouring into Europe will cause some spineless leaders to squirm and equivocate. The international community will nevertheless remain impotent, given US collusion and Russian and Chinese passive acquiescence. Arab nations (with the shameful exception of Qatar) have vocally denounced the invasion, with unusually strong language emerging from the Arab League. Yet the Arab world has long been excluded from the Syrian arena.
“Wars on terrorism” perversely create terrorism in localities where none existed before. The media complacently talks about Turkey occupying a 25-kilometer belt of territory, as if Erdogan will obediently comply with an artificial line on a map. Turkish politicians mutter about deep incursions targeting Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, with the aim of neutralizing Syrian Kurds as a nation under the flimsy pretext of “fighting terrorism.”
America’s betrayal of the Kurds throws the doors wide open for the triumphant emergence of both Daesh and Iran in the east Syrian arena. Breakouts from Daesh detention camps are already under way now that the handful of Kurdish guards has other priorities. Joint operations against Daesh aggregations and sleeper cells have come to an abrupt halt. Based on precedent, Turkish-Daesh interactions in Syria will be defined by collusion and naked self-interest: As Daesh gained strength from 2013, Turkey let tens of thousands of terrorists flood into Syria. Daesh’s “caliphate” was also partly bankrolled by lorry-loads of Syrian oil smuggled into Turkey, returning laden with supplies for the extremists.
A high proportion of the Arab fighters Turkey has deployed on its front line against the Kurds are former Jabhat Al-Nusra, aka Al-Qaeda. Thus, not only is this invasion setting up a generation of Kurd-Arab strife, but it could actively be putting extremist elements in the driving seat.
Erdogan’s self-inflicted pariah status will grow as the world witnesses apocalyptic scenes of humanitarian suffering, ethnic cleansing and genocide. As Kurds and Turks battle to destroy one another, Daesh will exploit the resulting vacuum. Yet Iran aspires to be the last man standing after the dust settles, paving the way for the Israeli hammer to fall, and going full circle by necessitating a renewed bout of Western interventionism.
Turkey’s blundering intervention may thus be the straw that breaks the camel’s back — collapsing the regional house of cards and precipitating a war to make earlier conflict phases in the Syrian slaughterhouse look like child’s play.
• 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.