Over explicit American protests, Turkey this week attacked an American-allied Kurdish-led militia in the northern Syrian town of Afrin, killing nearly 300 fighters. The Kurdish YPG militia were America’s boots on the ground in the successful war against ISIS, and the Department of Defense earlier this month announced a plan to support a 30,000-strong force. That plan is in shambles now after Turkish fighters and tanks crushed their strong point in Afrin.
Vice President Pence’s Middle East trip was one of the ultimate feel-good moments in American diplomatic history. But before we feel too good about ourselves, we should take stock our strategic humiliation in Syria.
The Turkish attack, cynically labeled “Operation Olive Branch,” had Moscow’s open approval, as the Russian press reported. Russian permission was required for Turkish warplanes to fly in Syrian air space. Turkey and Russia are “waging proxy war against the United States in Syria,” Cengiz Çandar wrote yesterday in Al-Monitor.
Washington’s plan to contain Iranian expansion in Syria focused on the battle-hardened Kurds. On Jan. 13, the Defense Department announced a plan to train a 30,000-man Border Security Force, with a core of Kurdish fighters, to be stationed along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The Border Security Force would have introduced an American-trained, American-armed army into Syria capable of containing ISIS and deterring the Iranian-controlled mercenaries who backstop the Syrian government. This was America’s best move on the Syrian chessboard, and for the time being it has failed. There aren’t a lot of other good moves.
As Çandar explained, “Almost all the Russian statements following the Turkish military action in Afrin denounced the United States for triggering the Turkish wrath that led to Turkey’s military action in Afrin.” Turkish officials flew to Moscow to ask Russia’s permission to invade Syria, and Russia approved. Washington warned Turkey not to. Turkey went in anyway.
President Trump on Jan. 24 called on Turkey “to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees,” and “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.” The Turks responded that if Washington didn’t like what it was doing in Syria, it should stop supporting “terrorists,” namely the Kurds.
More than a fifth of Turkey’s citizens are ethnic Kurds, who speak a dialect of Persian rather than Turkish, and belong to one of the most ancient peoples in the region concentrated in the border zone including parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkish Kurds have twice as many children per female as ethnic Turks, and by the 2040s will be the majority of Turkish citizens under 30. Turkey’s dictator Erdogan is terrified that Turkish Kurds will ally with the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, and is determined to prevent any Kurdish center of power from emerging.
Russia doesn’t want any boots on the ground who can challenge its Iranian ally in Syria. The Assad government and Iran have displaced roughly half of Syria’s 22 million people during seven years of civil war, and have begun to replace Syrian Sunnis with Shi’ite colonists from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China has had its issues with Turkey, which in the past supported Turkic Muslim separatists in its far west. Turkey over the past year has dropped its backing for the separatists and China has made Turkey a key node in its trillion-dollar One Belt, One Road infrastructure project.
Turkey also has the financial backing of the rogue kingdom of Qatar, whose royal family backs the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists of various stripes. Qatar put $20 billion into Turkey over the past several years and is expected to invest another $20 billion this year.
With the support of Russia, China, and Iran, Tinpot Tayyip Erdogan flipped the bird to the United States of America, and got away with it. During past political crises, Turkey’s financial markets went haywire. This time, Turkey’s stock market and currency rose while Turkish tanks and jets attacked American allies.
Making America great again isn’t going to be easy. After sixteen years of George W. Bush and Barak Obama, we have lost ground. Iran is resurgent after Obama’s 2014 nuclear deal. Iran is allied to Iraq, thanks to Bush’s insistence on majority rule, which simply meant sectarian Shi’ite rule. Russia controls a good part of the Syrian skies. And China is willing to deploy a trillion dollars to establish its economic preeminence across Eurasia. There are a lot of things we could do to counter the gravitational influence of China.