Russia accuses US of destabilizing Syria with Kurdish-Turkish Clash

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s angry threat to invade a Syrian Kurdish canton in response to the US announcement that it would train and arm a 30,000-man Syrian Kurdish border force produced anxiety in Moscow. Russia has made a big bet, worth billions of rubles and involving a substantial military investment, on restoring stability in Syria (albeit at the price of propping up the seedy Baath one-party state).

The Russian Federation holds some cards in Syria because of its large military presence and the control of Syrian airspace exercised by its Aerospace Forces. Turkey is clearly afraid that if it launches an air campaign against bases of the leftish YPG militia in Afrin, its planes may be shot down by Russia. Thus, Ankara dispatched the Turkish chief of staff to Moscow yesterday to seek Russian acquiescence in such a set of airstrikes. Observers are taking this mission as a sign that Turkey is deadly in earnest about its announced plans to attack Afrin. Afrin is one of three largely Kurdish cantons in northern Syria, but is isolated from the other two and surrounded on three sides by Arab villages and to the north by Turkey. About 500,000 Kurds live there, out of the 2 million Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, making a play to get the Syrian Kurds back for itself, announced that its MiGs would shoot down any Turkish planes bombing Afrin.

BBC Monitoring reports on Russian reactions:

Vladimir Mukhin writes in the centrist daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, with some alarm that Turkey’s threats against the Kurds and the US “Syrian Democratic Forces” may be viewed as a signal to Russia, as well. Any Turkish attack on the Kurdish-held enclaves of Afrin and Manbij would, he said, endanger Russian peacekeeping troops. Suggesting that Turkey, like the US, is a spoiler with regard to the reestablishment of order in Syria, he said he found it suspicious that pro-American and pro-Turkish Syrian rebel groups have just announced that they will not attend the Congress of National Dialogue to be hosted by Russia in Sochi.

Andrei Ontikov and Georgy Asatryan writing in the pro-government Izvestia quoted Vladimir Dzhabarov, the first deputy head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee. Dhzabarov observed that the United States appeared to be disappointed that it had managed to defeat the radical ISIL terrorist group in Syria. (He is implying that Washington is just a spoiler in Syria, actively seeking instability). He accused them of setting up Turkey and the Kurds for an armed clash by arming the latter and by also secretly arming Arab Syrian rebels. He said the US just wants to escalate the conflict. (The US press reported that the Trump administration cancelled a covert CIA program to army Syrian rebels; it is true, however, that some US-supplied arms went from moderate, Muslim Brotherhood rebels to extremists linked to al-Qaeda).

Fyodor Lukyanov writing in the state-owned daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, cast doubt on Erdogan’s earnestness. He said the Turkish president is likely bluffing and signalling as hard as he can that he dislikes Washington’s policy of arming the Syrian Kurds. He said that in any case Russia is “standing aside,” though it is very worried, since it has committed a great deal to the cause of national reconciliation in Syria.

Related video:

Euronews: “Tensions rise between Turkey & Syria”

18 Responses

  1. Professor Sahib,

    Do you know Russian too? I did not know that, however I did know that you knew Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and French. Russian is regarded to be among the most difficult languages on the planet. And you know it too. Your scholarship is simply staggering. How did you learn everything in just so many years?

  2. Surely the USA can’t win the war for IS or Al Qaida with 3000 troops on the ground and 30.000 Kurdish forces. It stays in Syria, in defiance of international law, to spoil the Russian and Assad’s victory against the terrorists, to make it more difficult for Assad to rebuild the country — the Kurds are claiming about half of Syria’s oil –, and to make it more expensive for Iran to arm Hizbollah. But I am not surprised. What the US has been fighting for for the past two decades is for wars to continue without end, not for peace. Endless wars swell the coffers of the arm manufacturers and of the Senators and Congressmen who are on their payroll. War is a good business for America. Who cares for the thousand Syrians that will die in this senseless slaughter? Certainly not the USA leadership.

  3. America’s sorry involvement in Syria has had two main aims, which boil down to one, namely to weaken and if possible to topple Bashar Assad in order to remove any threat to Israel, and to cut off Iran’s links with Syria and Lebanon, again to protect Israel. Trump has coopted Saudi Arabia in that cause too and wants to weaken Iran not only in Syria and Lebanon, but across the Middle East.

    With the intensely pro-Israeli stances of the current US administration, these aims have dwarfed any other strategy that the United States wishes to pursue in the region. So far, the result has been that it has strengthened Russia’s hand in Syria, and has driven Iran and recently Turkey and may be Iraq to Russia’s arms. America has spent billions of dollars, created mayhem in the Middle East and, so far, has failed in its aims to weaken Iran. The pronouncements by Secretary Tillerson who is supposed to be one of the adults in the room do not indicate any real change in that failed policy. So long as the blind support for the ultra-rightwing Israeli regime at any cost continues this policy will sow discord and violence throughout the Middle East with little to show for it.

    • The American public will likely never know for years – if ever – how deep U.S. involvement was in fomenting dissent and arming Syrian rebels against the Assad regime as well as having operatives within Syria.

      The covert operation labeled Operation Timber Sycamore – which has never been declassified – was revealed through the fine investigative reporting of the New York Times.

      We know it was encouraged by PM Netanyahu and that Israel was one of the “partners” of the operation based near Amman, Jordan that sought the toppling of the Baathist regime in Damascus. We know that Israel gave support in various ways to the al-Nusra Front and bombed arms depots within Syria in air strikes.

      It appears that Operation Timber Sycamore was largely funded by Saudi Arabia but organized by the U.S.

      Some of the more controversial allegations about U.S. conduct in Syria:

      (A) the U.S. State Department funneled several million dollars through the Los Angeles-based NGO known as Democracy Council to “promote democracy” in Syria (i.e. transmit media broadcasts from dissidents to foment anti-Assad demonstrations);

      (B) per the Washington Post, had CIA undercover officers in Damascus carry out the car bomb killing of Hezbollah intelligence chief Imad Moughnieh in Damascus in 2008 in a joint U.S.-Israeli covert operation reportedly personally approved by President Bush shortly before his second term ended;

      (C) the U.S. via inadequate oversight, allowed substantial arms shipments administered by Jordanian intelligence services earmarked for the Syrian rebels to be pilfered by Jordanian agents and resold on the black market;

      (D) The Central Intelligence Agency had “contractor” personnel within Syria and the Trump administration recently – per a Reuters article – had to send an envoy to Syria to meet with the regimes Baathist intelligence chief in Damascus to discuss the fate of missing CIA operatives – who are these operatives, what were they doing inside Syria, and how many remain missing?

      There needs to be a Congressional investigation initiated on the foreign policy failures of the Obama administration as to Syria.

  4. Iran’s Students News Agency (ISNA) has just reported that Turkish forces have launched extensive operations in Afrin. The Turkish defense minister has said that the operations have started and that Turkey is continuing its talks with Russia and Iran. Russia may be unhappy about those operations and Syria has threatened that it would shoot down Turkish planes if they attack, but I believe that, on balance, all of them including Iran are happy about the serious rift that has developed between the United States and its NATO ally. The fact that Turkey is in contact with both Russia and Iran shows that there is some understanding between them, especially as America’s main aim was to block Iran’s access to Syria.

    • Thanks for the update. I hate using the term ‘a big game’ to refer to these conflicts, especially when so many lives are at stake and it’s not a ‘game’ to the poor people, but often that is how it comes off with these regional and global powers.

      The situation currently is most awful unfortunately for the Kurds, though, what is new, like most other Syrians? I’m afraid the Turks will also not show restraint towards the Kurdish civilians, like they’ve shown in earlier bloody operations against local Kurdish populations in Turkey.

      Whether it’s the Syrian Kurds or Iraqi Kurds, or even the ones in Iran and Turkey, it feels like they’re on the edge of losing out big time. Sadly, there is no good side in all of this, just lesser of evils.

      • I also have a problem with the idea of games, especially when policy makers speak about “chess moves.” There is a philosophical problem, as you note, but the dangers attendant this sort of arrogance go quite a bit deeper.

        The only things newtonian in these matters are the immediate results that (may) directly result when a particular trigger is pulled. It is not just that the permutations are incalculable, but that the eventual results are inconceivable.

    • Susan Rice overruled John Brennan – with President Obama’s support – in shifting the focus of the U.S. State Department and intelligence community from toppling Assad from power in Damascus – to defeating ISIS.

      By allying U.S. forces with Kurdish factions in Rojava, the Obama administration made several foreign policy blunders:

      (A) they sent U.S. Army Rangers into combat zones wearing the Red Star symbol associated with Marxism on shoulder patches to commemorate their alliance with the ideologically leftist Kurdish units – until Pentagon officials realized how foolish this appeared and ordered those patches removed;

      (B) the joining of forces with Kurds in Rojava infuriated Turkish leaders as the Kurds have in the past fought a guerilla war against the Turkish government – a member of NATO – and the Turkish authorities have imprisoned many Kurdish nationalists who supported insurrection against Turkey;

      (C) the Baathist government in Damascus largely avoided armed conflict with ISIS in the preceding years and focused their military assaults on the Free Syrian Army and non-ISIS Salafist brigades that also were fighting ISIS – meaning that American-led attacks on ISIS benefitted the Assad regime by freeing up Syrian Arab Army resources to ramp up military pressure against U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces;

      (D) causing serious rifts within the U.S. State Department as many staffers openly felt that the U.S. should be applying military pressure to defeat the Baathist regime in Damascus – who have armed Hezbollah and committed, via the regime’s security forces, human rights violations on a massive scale within Syria;

      (E) the policy decision of the Obama administration entailed the unpopular move of placing “boots on the ground” of the U.S Armed Forces in a combat zone.

      Certainly there is much to cheer about the demise of ISIS within Syria – but the corresponding cost in further empowering President Assad cannot be overlooked nor can the fact that we have committed our nation’s servicemen in a nation embroiled in a civil war – as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      • You list these events in isolation when they need to be put in a time line and within context. For example, at the beginning of the insurrection Assad looked very vulnerable as units of his own army turned against him. Thus a policy that made sense then made no sense later when Assad had Russian backing. As Professor Cole noted at the time, Russian backing with bases and air power completely changed the situation. Also, the power of the Kurds and ISIS waxed and waned over time. The complexities and differing forces will make for a good case study for future foreign policy historians.One thing is certain, getting involved in Syria was a loser from the beginning for the US, especially since it is nowhere near a vital interest. You would think that after Vietnam we would have learned that getting in the middle of a civil war is a bad idea.

        • Two salient events were “game changers” in the civil war:

          In late 2013, the Free Syrian Army was close to severing the Latakia-to-Damascus supply corridor when the U.S. cut off arms shipments to the FSA, resulting in the Baathist forces winning several subsequent battlefield victories that ensured the viability of that vital supply corridor to allow the government in Damascus to survive. At the Geneva II Conference several months later, the Assad regime’s emissary smugly refused to discuss any substantive issues, much to the consternation of the chief mediator.

          The second major turning point was the Russian intervention, which gave Assad the added military boost – especially overwhelming air power – that was needed to maintain offensive operations in key rebel-controlled areas.

          The re-capture of Aleppo – Syria’s most populous municipality – by the Syrian Arab Army with significant Russian support was a decisive military and psychological defeat for the rebels.

          Bashaar Assad is now emerging as a national hero in some circles within Syria and his face is now appearing on Syrian monetary currency in recognition of his status as an honored leader who has survived and now has largely prevailed in a civil war that has gone on for six years.

          That said, the Free Syrian Army and other rebel forces – some Salafist in orientation still control large segments of Syrian territory where the populace is vehemently anti-Baathist. The Daraa Governorate south of Damascus is an example where the FSA repulsed a vigorous military offensive by the Syrian Arab Army despite both Russian and Hezbollah support given to the Baathists.

  5. Trump is obviously outsourcing this to Tillerson but how does this new strategy match with his professed campaign ambition to reduce the US global footprint? It’s clear that we don’t have enough resources on the ground to make this work. I’d love to believe in sugar fairies but the “policy” is just more wishful thinking. Sounds like a recipe for a future quagmire. Hope I’m wrong.

  6. Just at the time we need very careful, thoughtful diplomacy, we have – Trump. Heaven help us all.

  7. Future generations should make Libya and Syria case studies in how external countries (Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States) and the ruling authorities (Assad in particular) broke international and human rights laws and turned formally stable countries into humanitarian catastrophes. For today, these external countries need to sit and talk. None of them are going to achieve their maximal aims. Iran and Russia can’t turn Syria into a colony (though what influence they have in Syria will likely be a lot given the situation). Turkey has to face the reality that the sheer number of Kurds in Syria and Iraq will enable them to act either as king makers in Iraq or extremely autonomous in their local governing environments. My country, the US, needs to come to terms with the reality that American military prowess has not given it the ability to project power across the Near East in a fashion that topples rulers without deeply negative repercussions for the civilian lives there. It also isn’t in our economic and social interest to have dogs or bet on dogs in fights that are of absolutely no interest to us.

    In what capacity does giving people (local Kurds) military training help us? If the past eight years are any guide it hasn’t helped us in any capacity… The best action to stabilize both countries is form negations that work to stabilize both Syria and Iraq.

  8. This is probably a first–we have put ourselves into a position where we may end up being attacked by a NATO ally. US Middle East policy has become as entangled as the famed Gordian Knot. US involvement in Syria has turned into everything I feared and more. There is no way for the US to get out of this without some damage. We can leave and alienate the Kurds, or stay and alienate the Turks and the Russians and put our troops at risk for what? What a mess.

  9. “What a mess.”

    I recall during media coverage of the Vietnam War, U.S. Army doctors would be shown to go into villages and provide treatment to injured Vietnamese children.

    I also remember the American servicemen who evacuated thousands of Vietnamese children during Operation Babylift on orders of President Ford as Saigon was falling.

    In Syria, the salient images of children are lurid. The photo of the body of a toddler, Alan Kurdi, washing up on a beach, won several photojournalist awards. The picture of a father holding the bodies his two twin infant sons killed in a poison gas attack was published shortly before President Trump ordered a missile attack of a nearby Syrian army base.

    Unlike Vietnam, the U.S. government has given little to help Syrian children victimized by the war.

    • Mark, according to Airwars the US killed 6,000 civilians in Syria in 2017 alone and a good proportion of those would have been children. Now consider the US-supported war on Yemen and think of the _millions_ of kids starving to death right now. Or think back to the Iraq sanctions imposed by the US that killed half a million kids while Saddam was in power.

      What makes you think that the US government cares how many non-US kids die whether by shrapnel, gas, starvation or cholera?

  10. Does anyone seriously imagine that there is actually anything resembling an “American policy” in the Middle East any more? Tillerson is sidelined; McMaster is befuddled; Mattis is elsewhere; and Trump is clueless. What policy?

    What is actually going on is the echos of Obama and Bush-era policies, reeling out on autopilot. The Generals are left to their own devices, with men on the ground, but no orders- and no orders to pack up and leave, either.

    Hence the absurd 30,000-man Kurdish border force. The Pentagon stuck in the region tries to think of something for its men in the region to actually do. And come up with something that provokes the Turks into setting about dismantling Syria. Good work, guys!

    It’s not that a fool is in charge. In actual fact, no one is in charge.

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