Published On: Fri, Jan 19th, 2018

The one certainty in all the intrigue around Afrin: the irrelevance of the USA

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It’s a good job that most Americans are distracted by stories about Trump’s medical or mental health, or some old FISA memo (whatever that is), because then no one has to digest the continuing humiliation that is Syria. For anyone who is watching the stuff that matters, the big development is of course the promise of a Turkish military offensive, with the big question, on the minds of those untouched by the Trump vs Fake News idiocy playing on the MAGA channels, being whether or not and when President Erdogan will launch his long-promised offensive on Afrin – the Kurd-held enclave in north-west Syria. Whatever happens, the US has already suffered a huge loss of face in the build-up, and it should not be overlooked if and when the shooting-match starts. In fact, the US reaction to the Turk sabre being unsheathed and rattled might invite perception of such weakness that Ankara might not limit itself to invading Afrin. There are other Kurd-held bits of Syria that are an irritant to the Turkish state, and despite a robust response from Damascus to the possibility of Turkish incursion, the Kurds may have burnt the bridge that would see the joint Syrian/Russian defence system act to prevent Turkish forces handing the Kurdish a bigger pair of boots to fit properly, either by straightforward attrition (the boot applied to the Kurdish backside), or by exposing the US military as the helicopter-evacuation specialists they really are (an escape to evade incoming kick aimed at rump).

To lead into this analysis, there will be a brief examination of an extract from Al-Monitor, which is based in Washington, DC. The discussion around the quote is whether or not Russia would agree to any significant Turkish military presence in Syria.

Allowing Turkey to pummel Afrin would rob Russia of its leverage over the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant Kurdish force that is the US-led coalition’s top partner in Syria, and upend the delicate balance that allows Russia to play simultaneously with the regime, the United States, Iran, Turkey and the Kurds. The remaining — and biggest chunk of YPG-controlled territory — is under de facto US protection, which is why Turkey has been unable to go full out against the group so far.

Perceived Russian betrayal would thrust the YPG more firmly into the US camp and make it less accommodating in its transactional dealings with the Syrian regime.

The reader can perhaps see indicators in the piece which tells that it comes from the capital of the United States. The obvious one is the wishful thinking. This is the key thing: after the US announced that it was creating a Rojavan Army, and after it announced that it would keep its own (illegal) military presence in Syria indefinitely (FBEL predicted that the US would want and need to increase its colonial control), how could the Russians further drive the Kurds into the arms of the United States? Indeed, it would be more likely, after the Kurds had found themselves abandoned by their US overlords at the threat of a pummeling by the Turks, that they would surrender to the Syrians and try to gain the protection of Russia.

The Trump regime made a catalogue of errors, altogether in the space of a few hours, that has weakened its position tremendously. It is not the United States that the Turks were worried about ahead of their project, it was the Russians – until, perhaps, the Americans rectified that problem. It started when a Public Affairs Officer for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR – the US “effort” against ISIS in Iraq and Syria) announced the “Border Security Force” – or a terror army, as Turkey automatically deemed it. This was January 13th.

On January 16th, another spokesman of the US-led coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, was quoted via a written statement by the Turkish state-run news agency. He said that the US was not interested in defending the Kurds in Afrin – the Turk’s main bone of contention. In other words, it was not part of the CJTF-OIRs jurisdiction.

The next thing to happen was the astonishing climb-down by Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State. On January 17th, in a questions and answers session at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (so evidently this detail didn’t come in a speech that Tillerson also made setting out official US policy), the following was said to reporters:

That entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.

As mentioned above, Tillerson also gave a speech in which he indicated that long-term US presence in Syria, and also resurrected the objective of deposing Assad; goalpost-moving to “justify” US occupation of eastern Syria. Also, this might have been wheeled out to try to pacify Ankara, given that it has, in the past – and as recently as December 2017 – officially stated that “Assad must go”.

The Turks obviously found no solace in what Tillerson had to say – in fact, they must have been motivated by the dripping wetness of the American foreign affairs honcho, for the very next day, the Turks “dispatched Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan to Moscow… to hold talks with Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov”. On the agenda was coordination whereby Turkish air forces could use Syrian air space.

The same day, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, reportedly told CNN Turk that Turkey would coordinate with both Iran and Russia regarding its air operations in Afrin. Did it suggest that a deal had been struck? It should be noted that the Syrians made vociferous objection themselves (and this will be addressed momentarily). And the very bad news for the US was that the supposed pariah nation Iran had been consulted too. This movement might have elicited what appears to be a very low-key response from the US:

We would call … on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort. … We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on Daesh.

Thus spoke US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert. So, come 19th January, Ankara found that all the opposition from the US amounted to was a bit of feeble pleading from a blonde woman (look at it from the Turkish point of view). Even Syria took the trouble to tell Turkey that its adventurism would be “no picnic” (a cheeky use of the English idiom by the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Mikdad).

When all this is appraised, it tells a story of public American blundering and weakness. It blustered, wobbled and then caved. To illustrate further: it appears that Turkish ambitions are wider than Afrin and all powers concerned should be fully appraised, as the following report illustrates:

In a televised speech Monday [15th January], Erdogan threatened that “tomorrow, the day after, within a short period, we will get rid of terror nests one-by-one in Syria starting with Afrin and Manbij,” also in northern Syria.[Note, American Special Operations troops are known to have been in Manbij. If they are still there, do the Turks seem to care?].

If the Americans won’t protect the YPG in Afrin, they won’t protect them anywhere else – this must become the suspicion of the Kurds on the other side of the Euphrates and in the Syrian Kurdish heartland. No wonder the prospect of the Kurdish State Army (as the Kurds may have had it described to them) suddenly vanished like a fart in a high wind. It wouldn’t be in the US’ best interests to publically abandon the Kurds in the way it has – this is why there is no other conclusion to come to than it must have been compelled to do so. The truth, as previously conjectured upon at FBEL, is probably this: the strength of the Kurdish/American contingent is an illusion. The Americans just wouldn’t have the capacity to do anything about any Turkish invasion if it happened – that’s why it can’t even issue a few strong words to dissuade Ankara. Indeed, the first thing that Turkey did after the Dillon hand-washing, and the Tillerson back-peddling was send emissaries to the business end of things, and the real power in the region: Russia. At this exact point in its history, the last thing that the US Government needs is another proper military humiliation. As for Russia – and Syria for that matter – what better to concentrate the strategic mind regarding the Kurds than an American declaration of Kurdish independence.

Syria has declared those who would join the US’ “Border Security Force” to be traitors; observe how the American blundering may have affected the decision making of Damascus whose sharp warning to Ankara reflected its natural inclination to the defence of its citizenry. Does it feel the same way now after the US declared it is staying ensconced in its incredibly insulting Syrian bases, and would it be able to deflect the Turks even if it had the inclination to do so? The author is not an expert of the extent of shared air defence capability with the Russians in the north of the country – i.e. to what degree Syria can act unilaterally – but presumes that at some point the Russians will call the shots, not only because of its seniority in the partnership, but also because of how Syrian and Russian systems have been integrated.

Even as this article is being composed, news is pouring in about the Turkish attack having already started. There is preliminary shelling, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate anything significant. The Turks have been doing that for a while. One tell-tale sign that things reall are kicking off is the extraction of a number of Russian military observers out of Afrin. Their presence has widely been seen as a factor in Ankara’s decision not to attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin long before now.

But if Turkey has now grabbed the bull by the horns, maybe it has got something to do with what is going on in Idlib. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has been going through the province like a hot knife through butter. The Turkish, who back Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – aka al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) – the dominant “Free Syrian Army” component in the area..

…called on Russia and Iran on Wednesday [January 10th] to pressure Syrian authorities to halt a military offensive in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province.

(Source).

Very recently, the Syrian forces managed to encircle a number of HTS and ISIS forces in a cauldron. Closing up the pocket has been tougher going because the neck coincides with the location of the Abu Duhur airbase, which evidently has been well defended. ISIS became resurgent within the pocket, leading observers to believe that either HTS and other FSA factions defected to the group, or that the HTS element had fled the pocket and ISIS were able to focus on the SAA. Given that as of October 2017, reports told of only 900 ISIS fighters left in Idlib, and that ISIS now thinks it can fight its way out of the pocket, the truth of the matter might be found in the first option.

This is further suggested by this Southfront analysis:

From its side, HTS and its allies have not conducted any notable defensive operations against the SAA recently. This could mean that the armed groups are again preparing for another large counter-attack against the SAA and its allies in southern Idlib or Aleppo.

It could also mean that those fighters aren’t HTS any more. What could have happened to them that they would change their flags? The author wonders if Turkey has dropped its objections to the Syrian mopping-up in Idlib in return for leeway in Afrin and other areas?†

It all remains to be seen. Right now, reports are coming in whereby Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, is denying that Russia withdrew its observers out of Afrin. Meanwhile, something called the “Rojavan Defence Units” is tweeting the following:

UPDATE #Afrin-Turkish occupation army tried to enter Afrin crosing the border in Baliya village of Bilbilê district. #YPG #YPJ retaliated immediately, troops withdrew in their armored vehicles.

It’s hard to believe – if Turkey was going to invade, it would surely go harder than that. The answer will only come when and if Turkey ever does roll on in to northern Syria. The only thing that appears to be a certainty is that the USA is irrelevant.

 

† [Update: 21st January]; Ankara’s offer to Moscow: Give us Afrin for Idlib – the title of an Al-Monitor piece from June 2017. This shows that a deal of the sort speculated upon in this article may have been floated in the past. Moscow wasn’t going to agree to any such trade in 2017, so what could have changed? 2018 sees Turkey’s hand in Idlib in a drastically poorer state. Where would Turkey’s leverage come from? Well, it wouldn’t. What has changed, as this article argues, is the Syrian and Russian perception of the Kurds, with their ever more dangerous close-knit arrangements with the United States, and the emerging common cause with Turkey regarding them. The catalyst was the American blundering provocation – again, as this article argues. More evidence of this via the Southfront site [their emphasis]:

The Russians also said that the US supplies of advance weapons to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria triggered Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish militias in Afrin.

Uncontrolled deliveries of modern weapons, including reportedly the deliveries of the man-portable air defense systems, by the Pentagon to the pro-US forces in northern Syria, have contributed to the rapid escalation of tensions in the region and resulted in the launch of a special operation by the Turkish troops,” the ministry said.

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