Pax Russiana looms while Turkey sees limited options
The theatres of Iraq and Syria are joint metaphors for a rugby field where at least five or six teams — not two — battle each other, changing tactics and allies every other minute.
That the fall of Raqqa and Kirkuk took place simultaneously should not come as a surprise. The erratic decision by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani to call an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan turned the Kurdish dynamic upside down: The potentially victorious peshmerga and allied rebel forces are in retreat, declared losers.
Some Kurdish observers, such as Fehim Isik in the Arti Gercek news site, noted that Iraqi Kurds have lost nearly half of the territory under their control after the referendum. He said the situation from the Kurds’ vantage point is worse than it was in 1975, when rebel Kurdish factions pulled out of the mountains and laid down their arms following a US-forced deal between Iran and Iraq.
The changes with Kirkuk and Raqqa as epicentres make undeniably clear how fluctuant the old axis of powers have become. The game displayed involves utterly cunning and ruthless tactics based on conflicting interests and it will inevitably lead to new strategies for regional division and control.
The Iraqi takeover in Kirkuk seems like a tactical win for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although what it means strategically for Ankara is as murky as ever. Wildly endorsed and applauded by the nationalist majority of the political spectrum, Erdogan abandoned — temporarily — its financial partnership with the KRG and entered into what may prove to be a devil’s pact with Iran.
This meant letting the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces enter the stage against the peshmerga and Baghdad doing the rest. It went as far as cooperation between Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, and Qassem Soleimani, a top figure of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) spokesman Sedi Ehmed Pire said.
Pro-Ottomanist and expansionist circles in Turkey are joyous at the Kurds being brought to their knees but very few in the anti- Kurdish euphoria contemplate what the Turkish decision has triggered.
While the moves will serve Tehran to reconnect with Damascus, it is a major breaking point for Moscow to seize control over the destinies of both Iraq and Syria. One may blame Barzani for his myopia or other factors but an era of Pax Russiana with far-reaching consequences is in full gear.
”This is ruthless power politics, of course, only accentuated by Washington’s inane and insane president. Everything must be in Russia’s interest — militarily, economically, internationally and domestically. And amorally, too,” wrote Robert Fisk in the Independent.
“He’s still taking risks, not least in Syria. To some extent, he’s playing with the people of the region. More importantly, however, he’s establishing Russia in the Middle East. No one will do anything now without first thinking of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s reaction. That’s what political power is really about.”
Kirkuk will possibly be noted as a pyrrhic victory for Ankara but what about its wrinkled policies in post-Raqqa Syria? Turkey had been pushed into the background due to its anti-Kurdish stance when the city was taken over by mainly Kurdish fighters but now has its eyes on the Kurdish-controlled Afrin pocket, at its border, by way of a deal about the next jihadist stronghold, Idlib.
Even here, the cross-border deployment of Turkish forces takes place with the mercy of Moscow, for which the pro-Damascus strategy reduces every Turkish move to simple tactics to be manipulated any time it so chooses. Erdogan is busy reassembling Islamic groups in Syria but every actor in the region knows well that he will do his utmost to block a Kurdish strip along Turkey’s border.
This insight makes it very easy for Russia, which will come to protect the Kurds and prepare the stage for divide and rule. This is what Pax Russiana will mean if Putin’s game is a winner.