If you ever have the idea that foreign relations is a nice, orderly, linear process where Ivy League grads with impeccable Democrat credentials come up with detailed position papers and carry out enlightened diplomacy that results in win-win deals for everyone, the past couple of days should disabuse you of that notion.
In the fight against ISIS (a fight I’ve been skeptical of for a while because any situation that results in Islamic extremists and Iranians and their stooges slaughtering each other gives me the urge to buy popcorn) a strange coalition has formed. You have Assad, who we are trying to overthrow, and his army and the Iranians with Russian support. You have Iraqi troops trained and advised by Americans mixed with Iranian militia. You have ethnic Kurds of a couple of different factions. You have the US sponsored Free Syrian Army which, in poor lighting, could easily be mistaken for al Qaeda. You have a NATO ally, Turkey. The central problem is that all of these coaltion partners have, at one time or another, cheerfully killed one another.
The most volatile mix, though, has been the relationship between the Turks and the various Kurdish factions. Back in 2014, when ISIS besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani, the Turks stood idly by and let ISIS maneuver in Turkish territory. The implication was clear. The Turks were perfectly happy to continue their policy of genocide against ethnic minorities even if it meant ceding territory to ISIS.
The main sticking point today is that the most effective indigenous troops in the fight are the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG are the armed wing of the leftist Democratic Union Party or PYD. The PYD, in turn, is related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It is either a splinter group or an offshoot, depending upon who you read (read the link and you’ll understand why anyone talking about “the Kurds” doesn’t really understand the situation). The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, The PYD is seen as being no different. There have been some Turkish attacks on YPG, but this seems serious:
Turkish jets have bombed the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in northern Syria, as the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, promised to expand Turkey’s military border operations against a Kurdish group that has been the US’s key Syria ally in the war on Islamic State.
The raids came on the heels of a week of threats by Turkey, promising to clear the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin and its surrounding countryside, also called Afrin. Turkey’s military is calling the campaign Operation Olive Branch.
Early on Sunday, four rockets fired from Syria hit the Turkish southern border town of Kilis, 40 km from Afrin, damaging houses, state-run Anadolu Agency said. There were no casualties, it said.
Turkey says the YPG, a group it considers a terrorist organisation, is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it is fighting inside its own borders, and it has found common cause with Syrian opposition groups who view the YPG as a counter-revolutionary force in Syria’s multi-sided civil war.
Associated Press journalists at the Turkish border saw jets bombing positions in the direction of Afrin, as a convoy of armed pick-up trucks and buses believed to be carrying Syrian opposition fighters travelled along the border. Video from Turkey this week showed the military moving tanks to the frontier.
Why the Turks would be upset by the YPG gaining predominance in this area is obvious. It creates a sanctuary for Kurd guerrillas who are trying to liberate the Kurdish areas now located in Turkey.
To add more confusion. The Turks, a NATO ally, apparently told the Russians of the attack in advance. Now Assad, a Russian ally, is howling about the attacks though his ally, Russia, appears to be fine with it.
— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) January 21, 2018
Turkey’s Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin says Operation Olive Branch in Afrin will help the Syrian peace process pic.twitter.com/qHNzxjrSxf
— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) January 21, 2018
Turkey is using airstrikes to fight Kurdish militia in Afrin, Syria. pic.twitter.com/U3jSlLdLQq
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 21, 2018
This whole incident shows, in spades, what happens when you kick off a major regional war and global refugee crisis without having thought things through. It also shows what happens when you have a Cold War ally, Turkey, which no longer has the same geopolitical interests as the alliance as a whole and which is culturally hostile to the alliance. The Turks thumping the Kurds, and if I were betting I’d bet the Turks to turf the Kurds out of the enclave they’ve established, calls into question the utility of allying oneself with the United States. We’ve trained and equipped these people and now they are being drubbed by one of our allies and we do nothing.
Nope. Geopolitics is sort of like herding cats while trying to nail a plate of Jell-o to the wall. It is messy and unpredictable. It is made even moreso when foreign policy is established by lightweight know-nothings like Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power.