Editorial The Economist, 27.08.2016
The battlefield in Syria grows more complicated
As if the war in Syria did not have enough combatants, yet another country has entered the fray. On August 24th Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and special forces soldiers over the border, driving Islamic State (IS) out of Jarabulus, an important supply node for the jihadists.
Turkey’s mission has the backing of America, which is leading an anti-IS coalition. But it is already raising concerns inside Syria, where a five-year-old civil war has killed perhaps 500,000 people. Lately the fighting has become more chaotic. Alliances are shifting and peace, already a dim prospect, now seems even further off.
The situation in Hasakah, in the north-east, is indicative of the changing landscape. Until recently, the Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad, the country’s blood-soaked president, had mostly steered clear of Kurdish militias—and, at times, seemed to work with them—in order to confront Sunni Arab rebels. The Kurds, for their part, have focused their fire on IS and tried to consolidate their self-declared semi-autonomous region, called Rojava, in the north. But in Hasakah the government and the Kurds recently came to blows.
That fighting appears tied to warmer relations between Russia and Iran (which have long backed Mr Assad) and Turkey (which has not). Tension between Russia and Turkey reached a peak in November 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian jet that had violated Turkish airspace. But a recent detente between the two, coupled with Turkish concerns over Kurdish power and IS terrorism (a suicide-bombing killed 54 people at a wedding in Turkey), have changed the dynamic. Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, now says that Mr Assad might play a “transitional” role in Syria (rather than being forced out as soon as possible).
In turn, the Syrian government has expressed unease with Kurdish aspirations to carve out land. The Syrian army echoes Turkish statements linking the main Kurdish party in Syria, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a long guerrilla war against Turkey. Little is now made of the Syrian government’s role in fostering the PKK. But the Syrian foreign ministry has also condemned Turkey’s operation as a breach of its sovereignty. Russia said it was “deeply concerned”.
America has tried to stick to the narrow mission of defeating IS. But it risks being drawn into the wider conflict. Air strikes by Syrian planes around Hasakah on August 18th came close to American soldiers supporting Kurds in their fight against IS. America sent in its own jets, which arrived as the Syrian bombers were leaving. Now it is patrolling the skies over the city, where a ceasefire is in place. “The Syrian regime would be well advised not to do things that place [anti-IS coalition forces] at risk,” said Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
America’s support for the Kurds in Syria has strained its relationship with Turkey. Unfounded Turkish suspicions that America was involved in a coup attempt have increased the distrust. “Turkey has determined that America is not in a position to guarantee its interests [in Syria],” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. New evidence came earlier this month, when the town of Manbij, an important hub for IS, was liberated. America had assured Turkey that Arab fighters would lead the way into the city, but the PYD forces were in the vanguard. Now the Kurds refuse to leave.
A bridge too far
The jihadists retreated north and west, towards Jarabulus and al-Bab. Now the Kurds have set their sights on al-Bab, which would allow them to link up the eastern and western portions of Rojava (see map). But some had also hoped to capture Jarabulus, where the Turks now appear intent on installing thousands of non-Kurdish Syrian rebels. Many Kurds think the Turkish mission is really aimed at blocking them from gaining a contiguous piece of territory along the Syrian frontier.
There is a risk that the Turkish offensive will meet Kurdish resistance, pitting an American ally against an American proxy, with American fighter jets providing air cover. Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has warned the Kurds to return east of the Euphrates river. “America gave its word they would do so,” he said. “Otherwise we as Turkey will do what is needed.” At a press conference in Ankara America’s vice-president, Joe Biden, warned that the PYD risked losing American support if it did not move back.
They aren’t going quietly. “Turkey has much to lose in the Syrian swamp,” said Saleh Moslem, a co-leader of the PYD, on Twitter. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces says it is “prepared to defend the country against any plans for a direct or indirect occupation”.
Turkey’s machinations have also led to fears in Aleppo, where earlier this month rebels broke a government siege. Some of them now worry that Turkey, in deference to Mr Assad’s foreign backers, will cut its support. “We need these supply routes [to Turkey] to stay open. Otherwise things will get even worse for civilians in the city,” says a local activist. Fierce fighting has left much of eastern Aleppo cut off from food, water and medicine. Efforts to reach a ceasefire deal have come to nought. Stephen O’Brien, the top aid official at the UN, has called the crisis the “apex of horror”.
Such suffering, and a new UN report that documents Mr Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons (as well as a mustard gas attack by IS) after he had promised to export and destroy them, have some hoping America will intervene more forcefully to protect civilians and punish the regime. But that might benefit rebel outfits such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which only recently shed its affiliation with al-Qaeda (and changed its name from Nusra Front) in order to appear more moderate. “America risks becoming the air force of jihadist groups,” says Thanassis Cambanis of the Century Foundation, a think-tank.
Russia, meanwhile, is establishing a more durable presence in the region, by making its air base in Latakia permanent and working closely with Iran. The Middle East has become “the platform for Russia’s ambitions as a 21st-century great power”, says Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. But it risks getting bogged down in Syria’s intractable and expanding war. Permanence, in that case, may not be desirable.