Syria as a punching bag

Published January 29, 2018

AS I write this, UN-backed peace talks to find a political solution to the civil war in Syria have begun in Vienna. But this event isn’t making headlines, and nor do observers (and participants) have high hopes for success.

Even though de Mistura, the UN chief negotiator, has said the talks are at a critical stage, people aren’t holding their breath. The reason is that eight previous rounds of negotiations held in Geneva have ended in failure.

In a few days, the Russia-backed peace talks will begin in Sochi, and will include Turkey and Iran. If all this is confusing, blame the plethora of outside powers and non-state actors involved in the conflict.

Now that Turkey has invaded the Syrian district of Afrin, it would appear that yet another front has been opened in this long and bloody civil war.

Turkey’s reason for attacking the YPG, the military arm of a Kurdish group seeking autonomy in and around Afrin, is that it regards the group as an extension of the PKK, the militant Kurdish party that has been fighting the Turkish state for decades.

Erdogan was furious when the Americans armed the YPG to fight the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

When the Kurdish fighters defeated the IS in Raqa and elsewhere, the Americans announced they would create a 30,000-strong militia to patrol and protect the border with Turkey to ensure that the militants do not return.

Given the YPG’s fighting capabilities, its soldiers would presumably play a central role in any such force.

The prospect of a PKK ally being given American recognition on its border was a red flag for Erdogan who launched his invasion of Afrin over a week ago.

While fighting in the area continues, the Kurds are hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered by the well-equipped Turkish army. Their appeal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt the Turkish incursion is a sign of their desperation.

Washington, the YPG’s main backer, has been muted in its reaction, urging ‘restraint’ by the Turks, but stopping well short of an outright condemnation.

The Kurds have been here before. Repeatedly betrayed and double-crossed over a century, they have seen their aspirations for independence dashed as cynical powers have used them, and then dumped them when it was expedient to do so.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, they were assured of a state in the east of modern Turkey by the victorious allies. But Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the Turkish leader, dug in his heels, and the plan was abandoned, as were the Kurds.

Towards the end of the first Gulf War in 1990, Iraqi Kurds were encouraged by the Americans to rise against Saddam Hussein. But when, with typical brutality, he put down the uprising using poison gas, there was deafening silence in Western capitals.

Small wonder that a favourite saying among the Kurds is: “Our only friends are the mountains.”

While no exact figures are available, there are an estimated 30-45 million Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, with nearly half of them living in eastern Turkey. For decades, they were denied the use of their language by Ankara, even in their own homes.

Designated as ‘mountain Turks’, or ‘eastern Turks’, Kurds were marginalised and penalised for using their own cultural symbols.

So when the PKK was formed and demanded greater rights and autonomy, the state reacted violently, suppressing repeated attempts to attain autonomy.

During much of this dark period, Turkey was ruled directly or indirectly by a fiercely nationalistic army that saw the Kurdish fight as one being waged by separatists.

However, when Erdogan reduced the army’s influence, and announced the start of serious peace talks with the Kurds in 2013, many cheered the significant relaxation in the constraints they had lived under for decades.

Sadly, this period of détente proved to be short-lived: when IS suicide bombers launched several bloody attacks in Turkey, Erdogan also blamed the PKK and broke off talks. Since then, there has been a severe crackdown against the Kurds in eastern Turkey.

All the countries where Kurds live view their aspirations to statehood with suspicion. Thus, Turkey opposes independence for Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, fearing that such a development would encourage their own Kurds to make similar demands.

Iran has virtually crushed any such ambitions among its own Kurdish population. Iraq’s multiple conflicts and American-led invasion has weakened the state and permitted the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in the north. In Syria, too, the government has been bled white by years of fighting rebels who have been armed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. It is thus incapable of resisting either the YPG’s aspirations or the Turkish incursion.

And yet Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than he has been in a long time. With help from Russian airpower, the Iranian Al-Quds Brigades and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Syrian government has turned the tide, with pockets of resistance now concentrated in and around Idlib and Ghouta.

One reason peace talks are going nowhere is the insistence of the Syrian resistance that Bashar al-Assad must step down, or at least announce his departure date, before a political solution can be sought.

However, the military situation has changed in the government’s favour, so there is little incentive for Assad to quit.

This obviously rankles with the US and other Western and Sunni Arab powers. The latter saw the civil war as an opportunity to get rid of an Alawite ruler, thus denying Iran a key link in its land route to the Mediterranean.

Judging from the many diverse agendas at work, it is hard to predict an endgame for Syria.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2018



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