A game changer to unveil known unknowns
“You’re simply not going to be able to seize Raqqa anytime soon without arming the Kurds with more powerful weapons than the ones they have now. In Iraq, we armed the Iraqis to the teeth before we sent them into Mosul. In Syria, we need to do something similar — albeit on a smaller scale — in order to go to Raqqa. Donald Trump wants to defeat the Islamic State. So Donald Trump is going to arm the Kurds.”
So summarised Andrew Exum, a US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy in the Obama administration.
History has taught us that, at many critical junctures, the simpler the decision is, the more complicated its consequences may be. Trump’s decision recalls Alexander the Great’s solution to the Gordian knot — an impulsive approach to dealing with an intractable problem. No matter how justified in comparison, arming the Kurds is a game changer.
That US President Donald Trump did not wait longer for the Turks to get on board is telling in some aspects. The decision had been delayed by his predecessor, whose wobbly approach in Syria has gone down in history as an example of how no decision is the worst decision.
Trump, however, deliberately did not hurry because he was advised that any earlier move to arm the Kurds would be seen as an intervention into the critical referendum in Turkey.
Yet, despite warnings, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had nothing creative or credible to offer Trump and the more he voiced Turkish rejections regarding the Syrian Kurds, the faster American patience ran out. Following Michael Flynn’s ouster as national security adviser, Trump’s team of (ex) officers won against the diplomats.
It is a delicate decision. It declares an alliance with an armed group that has not directed any hostile attack towards Turkey, a US partner in NATO but there is little room to doubt its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in south-eastern Turkey for more than 30 years. It will, therefore, alienate Turkey severely. It may also embolden the other major player in the theatre, Russia. If so, that means a de facto American retreat from the strategic goal of toppling President Bashar Assad’s regime.
These points will be debated in the US Congress and there is little doubt that Trump will face a backlash there. He has 30 days before the arms implementation starts and it all points to a summer offensive to Raqqa, probably by mid-July.
The biggest known unknown, to use the language former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will be how Ankara will react, especially before the action starts. ”In both Syria and Iraq, Turkey cannot get its way but that doesn’t mean it cannot play spoiler, making everyone’s lives miserable in the process. It also doesn’t mean that this decision will not cast a shadow over US-Turkish relations for decades to come,” Exum wrote in the Atlantic.
At first, alarmists — those who oppose arming the Kurds — may sound reasonable, yet they are unable to provide any argument that Turkey could be a reliable partner as long as it refuses to cut off its ties with some jihadist groups across its border and as long as it continues its violent, anti-Kurdish campaign both at home and in northern Syria.
Turkey is also deeply frustrated with its failure to change the Syrian regime in favour of Sunni supremacy.
There are also military aspects. Turkish armed forces have been damaged due to last summer’s botched coup, its top echelons are clearly showing fatigue both due to Erdogan’s unclear strategic thinking and casualties on the ground in Syria. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the Syrian Defence Forces, is the strongest armed structure, with more than 85,000 Kurdish militia forces. It offers a matchless alternative.
Yet, this decision will leave the eastern front of NATO more fractured than ever. It will also have a spillover effect in Turkey’s already pressurised social texture, by the escalation of oppressive measures against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), seen as the political wing of the PKK.
Problematic as it is, the decision is not a wrong one if the post- Raqqa situation will have been dealt with strategically.
First, under pressure from his annoyed generals, Erdogan will not be able to respond impulsively to shatter Turkey’s relations with NATO because, even for a far-sighted leader like him, its consequences are hard to predict. Some in Ankara may be tempted to send Turkish boots to Syrian soil but they know that it will cause only counter military measures. Turkey’s possible withdrawal of permission for US warplanes to use its Incirlik Air Base to fly missions over Syria may come up when Erdogan meets with Trump but it must be a given that US Defence Secretary James Mattis and his team have already done their calculations on it.
Second, this decision reveals a new opportunity for Russia and the United States to prepare for a strategic agreement and hand over (semi) independence to a largely secular ethnic group — the Kurds — in northern Syria, which in the long run may be beneficial for the region. Keep in mind that it is the Kurds of Iraq and Syria who represent a new dynamic and it is clearly an anti-jihadist one.