One of the overlooked Big Stories of the past week was this one:
Turkey and the United States on Monday endorsed a roadmap for the northern Syrian city of Manbij and underlined their mutual commitment to its implementation following a meeting of their foreign ministers in Washington, according to a joint statement.
… Turkey has been infuriated by U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, which it views as a terrorist organization, and has threatened to push its offensive in the Afrin region of northern Syria further east to Manbij, risking confrontation with U.S. troops stationed there. Washington views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Islamic State. — Reuters
Here are some first thoughts about a potentially very important development in the Mideast.
The Turkish-American alliance creates a conjoined zone in Northern Syria of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s plan to reclaim sovereignty over all of Syria, and Vladimir Putin’s plan to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Putin was going to do that by ending the war and banishing all “foreign forces” from Syria (except, of course, the Russians who have been invited in by the Government.) It’s a pretty plausible formula: Peace in Syria = Prize in Oslo.
Plausible, perhaps, but in the wake of the Agreement, all but dead.
Other than the spiteful pleasure of having lured more fools into the quagmire of troops on the ground in a world of endless Syrian conflict, Putin gains nothing from the Turco-American combination and loses a lot. This affliction on our enemy might have been the prime attraction for Secretary of State Pompeo and his boss the President. Spite may explain why they took a deal which will be perceived in the region as an embarrassing American retreat. Challenged by Turkish and local forces on the ground, the story will go, the US gave up a once-highly-valued base of operations in Manbij.
What matters now is what happens next.
But, meanwhile, what does Putin lose? To put it succinctly, control over Syria.
The new Agreement institutionalizes shared dominance over a thick arc of Northern Syria from the northwest (the Turkish Zone) to the northeast (the American Zone) by two interloper-nations which are, to say the least, beyond Russian control.
The Agreement seems to guarantee that “foreign forces” will remain in much of Syria. And the continuing presence of Turkish and American forces disrupts the Putin Peace Prize Plan, which involved the withdrawal of Iranian and Hizbullah as well as Turk and Yank fighters from Syria, and the restoration of peace and Syrian Government sovereignty and control.
On a lower sub-Nobel level, the Manbij Agreement prevents Putin from fulfilling his protégé Assad’s fondest dreams. Syrian Government territorial and military control is restored, but incompletely, and the paramilitary guest-workers still patrol neighborhoods and checkpoints. Vladimir Putin’s Russia proves to be a good ally, but not as good as hoped for.
In Israel, the deal probably get mixed reviews. Some Israelis will celebrate that Assad will suffer and survive. He is loathed but the consequences of his disappearance are feared.
More will regret the lost opportunity to push Iranian and Hizbullah forces farther from Israel’s front lines. This reportedly topped Binyamin Netanyahu’s Wish List, but again, Putin could not deliver.
Many of Netanyahu’s right-wing allies are just as happy to keep the convenient Iranian punching bag close at hand.
Almost all Israelis (and far fewer Americans) will consider it good news that the Agreement nails American boots to the Syrian dance floor, potentially for a long, long time. Doing what?
The elephant-sized question still in the room is, “What about the Kurds?”
The answer to that has not been revealed.
Here’s the crucial question: Is the Agreement an abandonment of our Kurdish allies? Or is it just a tactical adjustment, based on a judgment that Manbij is the wrong place to fight over, but that the Euphrates River is where we draw the line?
If it’s the latter, will Erdogan accept Manbij and the Euphrates west bank as his due and call off his Kurd-killing dogs? Will the Turkish-American protectorate of Northern Syria prove to be stable and secure?
And will that redeem America’s reputation for betraying its fungible allies? Will protection for the Kurds northeast of the Euphrates be enough? Or will the American role become more like nation-building as well as border-guarding? Will commitments like these reinvigorate the Kurdish fighters who are so vital to our faltering “annihilation” campaign against the Islamic State in Syria?
Oh, and speaking of IS in Syria, how will Turkish and American co-operation work when it comes to the considerable remnant of IS fighters who escaped Raqqa and Ghouta and other battle zones and are now in northwest Syria, ostensibly under the Turkish tent? Will these gunmen be handed over to, or sicced on the Americans?
Or will Erdogan, perhaps with Russian encouragement, remember his anti-Kurdish mission and remember the American “adjustment” on Manbij, and figure he can press forcefully further against a confused, incompetent Trump, and crush his Kurdish enemies definitively?
How long will Americans be needed on the ground to deter that? Both Trump and SecDef Mattis are on record as wanting to relocate our fighters out of Iraq and Syrian Kurdistan to more urgent tasks confronting Russia and China.
If the US withdraws and leaves the battlefield to Erdogan, will we be accessories to genocide? Big things are going down in Syria and few in America seem to be paying attention.