The State Department has turned the page on Turkey for it no longer views Ankara is a reliable US partner. Many argue that Washington will abandon Syria’s Kurds in order to assuage Turkish anger. I doubt this. Washington expects more anti-US actions from Erdogan. Many in DC believe that Turkey’s rising Islamism, hardening dictatorship, and worsening anti-Israel rhetoric will only increase in the future. They do not hold out hope that Washington can reverse this trend.
The US is increasingly falling back on support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump has clearly set his course and reversed Obama’s effort to balance Iran and the KSA. Trump has thrown in Washington’s future in the Middle East with its traditional allies; it is moving to hurt Iran and Assad. It main instrument in gaining leverage in the region seems to be Northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington is promoting Kurdish nationalism in Syria. Turkey had hoped that when the Islamic Caliphate was destroyed, Washington would withdraw from North Syria. This has not turned out to be the case. See my earlier article of Oct 2017: Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?
By keeping Damascus weak and divided, the US hopes to deny Iran and Russia the fruits of their victory. Washington believes this pro-Kurdish policy will increase US leverage in the region and help to roll back Iran.
Turkey is collateral damage. Washington recognizes that its pro-Kurdish policy is forcing Turkey into Russia’s arms but it is willing to risk this loss. Washington is willing to hurt Turkey in order to help Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It is not at all clear what good Erdogan can achieve by invading Afrin. It will not hurt or weaken Washington’s relationship with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. Most likely, it will do the opposite. Those in Washington who see Turkey as an unreliable and misguided partner will have their negative views of Turkey confirmed. The Kurds will be inflamed. The YPG and PKK will cooperate more closely to mobilize the Kurds of Turkey. For this reason, I believe Erdogan will not invade. He is trying to bring attention to his unhappiness, fire up his base, and prepare for elections that are approaching. But I doubt that he plans to occupy Afrin. He may lob cannon fire into Afrin, as he has done these past few days, but I suspect his ire will end there.
What about Syria?
America’s current Syria policy is designed to roll back Iran. This is short sighted. The PYD is a weak reed upon which to build US policy. Neither Assad nor Iran will make concessions to the US or Syria’s opposition in Geneva because of America’s support for the SDF or because it maintains its non-fly zone over the North. The US should be helping the PYD to negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Of course, policing such a deal would not be easy. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be.
The US should allow the building of oil and gas pipelines that connect the rich fuel deposits of Iraq and Iran to the Mediterranean. Rather than thwart Syria’s efforts to rebuild, the West should support them. The only benefit to come out of the terrible wars that have waged in the northern Middle East for the last decades is that today the governments of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran on friendly terms. This is the first time in a century that cooperation between the four countries is possible. Why not use this happy coincidence to promote trade and economic growth? Why not criss cross the region with roads, communications, and trade?
By encouraging Iran and Iraq to build pipelines across Syria to Tartus or Tripoli, the West will ensure that the European Community has gas & oil. The United States would ensure that the Levant looks toward Europe. Europe would secure a much needed alternative to Russia for its energy. Most importantly by building trade, the Levant countries and Iran could provide jobs for their young. Nothing is more important for promoting stability and regional health than jobs and a brighter economic future. It would help America’s counter-terrorism goals more than any other single endeavor. Additionally, a revitalized economy in the Levant would encourage refugees to return home. The burden on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey of hosting so many millions of refugees would be alleviated. Rather than become embittered as did the Palestinians, many Syria refugees could rebuild their lives.
It seems clear that the present US administration is not ready to pursue such a policy. I simply propose it because it makes so much senses and seems so obvious. By promoting economic growth in both the Levant & Iran, the US would provide jobs and hope. It would promote moderates over hard liners. The present anti-Iran and anti-Syria policy being pursued by Washington will produce on more bitterness and years of turmoil. It will hurt the US in the long run, as surely as it hurts the people of the region.
Ultimately, the promotion of wealth and a strong middle class in the Middle East is in America’s interest. Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. Ensuring that Syrians and Iranians remain poor in the hope that they will demand regime-change is a bad policy. It has not worked despite decades of sanctions. It has brought only collapse, war and destruction. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests and please its allies, but in the long-term, it will ensure that American interests are thwarted. Only by promoting growth and unity can the United States promote stability and democracy.