In the heat of the battle for Afrin, Turkey has warned it will go farther to establish control over vast swathes of land in northern Syria. The offensive is supposed to take Turkish forces as far as Syria’s border with Iraq. On Jan. 28, Ankara called on Washington to withdraw its military from Manbij (100 km from Afrin) before it launches an operation to clear that area of Kurdish militias. It’s important to note that the US had provoked Turkey’s action by announcing its decision to set up a new border security force in the areas under Kurdish control. So Washington has created this situation all by itself – a trap of its own making. Having sown the wind, it reaps the whirlwind.
A push to the east will potentially force a confrontation between Turkish troops and the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish combat units in Afrin missed their opportunity to avoid a worst-case scenario.
Some Pro-Kurdish sources say Russia had betrayed the Afrin Kurds by pulling its peacekeepers out before the Turkish attack began. This is a very misleading statement. Let’s look at the facts. Moscow believes all regions west of the Euphrates should be under the control of the regular Syrian army, because these areas belong to Syria – a territorially cohesive country with a legitimate government. Russia had asked the Kurds in Afrin to interact with Damascus and allow its regular army into the area. They refused. Moscow is still ready to act as a mediator to broker talks on autonomy within Syria. So far that initiative has been rejected. The Kurds have preferred the US as their protector. Now they are on their own. They've made their bed, now they must lie in it.".
The US military has not defended the Kurds in Afrin, claiming it does not regard them as allies on par with the Kurds who are part of the SDF farther east. The US maintains that the Kurds in Afrin did not fight the Islamic State (IS). But even so, those Kurds did protect Afrin and kept their land from being invaded by jihadi militants. Perhaps the US never committed itself to defending the Kurds in Afrin, but it did accept the responsibility of protecting the SDF in Manbij. What will happen now? It is next to impossible to make predictions with any degree of accuracy, but we can contemplate some potential scenarios.
The Turkish Hürriyet Daily News reported that the US and Turkey are in talks over ways to de-escalate the conflict. NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller has confirmed that fact, but it’s not clear how that would jibe with the offensive announced by Ankara to capture the land held by the SDF. In any event, it would be too humiliating for Washington to give in to Turkey’s demand. If the US fails to protect its Kurdish allies, it will have no reason to maintain its military presence in Syria. It will have to leave the country, just as Russia and Syria have requested.
One potential scenario would include inciting a broader uprising of Kurds that would encompass Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. That might reshape the regional map. A development like that is not outside the realm of possibility.
Another consequence – NATO’s cohesion has already been undermined now that Turkey and the US are supporting opposite sides. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the US will either blink first or it will ask NATO to suspend, or even expel, Turkey from that organization, at least as long as President Erdogan is in power. This would naturally push Ankara in the direction of Moscow and Beijing, if it should move from NATO to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. President Erdogan only recently mentioned how tired he was of the whole EU membership process.
A political defeat for the US is the most probable outcome. Washington will have to pay for its lack of a clear action plan in Syria and its inability to fully grasp the situation. Obviously Washington is in predicament. It is up against a very hard choice. If the US intends to stay in northern Syria, it certainly needs the Kurds. But if America sides with the Kurds, it will lose Turkey. It might find itself excluded from the entire nation-building process, since it is hostile toward all the major actors: the Syrian government; Russia; Iran; and Turkey. If it abandoned the Kurds, that would be a blow to its credibility in the Middle East, given its recent split with the Palestine Authority over the recognition of Jerusalem.
If the US manages to reach an agreement with Turkey, that will mean farewell to the prospect of Syrian Kurdistan obtaining a special status that would make it an independent state, whether just in practice or perhaps even officially. The Turkish offensive is likely to make the Kurds more willing to negotiate with Damascus. A future alliance with the Syrian government is an alternative that would push the Kurds into the peace process. It would boost Syria’s chances of remaining an undivided state. Moscow could act as a mediator between Damascus, the Kurds, and Ankara. After all, Moscow is one of few capitals where the Syrian Kurds maintain a representative office.
All efforts should be exerted within the framework of the Astana peace process, which is being directed by Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran. Washington has always emphasized that its goal in Syria was to fight against IS. But that jihadist group is now so diminished as to be insignificant in Syria. The mission has been accomplished. Why should Washington expend more time and effort, balanced on the brink of armed conflict with Ankara or with any other actor in Syria? After all, if the Astana peace process succeeds, America’s European allies will heave a sigh of relief as the waves of refugees from Syria abate. The best thing the US could do under these circumstances would be to pull out of Syria, focus on diplomacy, and just give peace a chance.