“Close,” it is said, “is good in horseshoes, but not in war.”
Close to peace is still war. And war is still Hell for the people caught up in it and still a bleeding wound for any state and its budget. Ask Bashar al-Assad.
The conventional wisdom is that he’s won his war in that he has survived and retains the presidency of Syria and more than majority share of his country’s land and, perhaps less so, its people.
But still he is at war to regain the rest of what he sees as his national turf. In Idlib province, in the country’s northwest, Assad’s Syria, with Russian support, is pushing forward trying to clear al-Qaeda-linked fighters far enough away from the international airport in the reconquered city of Aleppo, so it can be reopened – every flight a tribute to Bashar al-Assad’s victory.
But meanwhile, the war goes on, slowly and painfully, while in the air, a Russian-supplied, Syrian Air Force piloted Sukhoi 22 is lost – shot down, claims the anti-Assad Islamist militia targeted by the government offensive.
The government advance has caused tens, to some say hundreds of thousands of people who live in the targeted area to flee north. More refugees for Turkish Army forces to deal with. Another reminder – analysts say, from Vladimir Putin to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – that Turkey has, so far, failed utterly at their assigned task, which was to bring under control, Islamist militias that have turned Idlib into a madhouse.
Turkey took on that predictably difficult task, one that is already becoming something of a quagmire because Putin’s permission to invade Northern Syria allowed Erdogan to expel tens of thousands of Kurds living around the town of Afrin.
Most of them fled east, across the Euphrates River to the other part of Syria beyond Bashar al-Assad’s reach, the Kurdish-run autonomous region that covers the east bank of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border.
That’s the other part of Syria that Erdogan wants to invade, but here the go/no go is an American decision, and the Americans have a huge debt to the Kurds for services rendered in the war against the Islamic State.
Trump wanted all U.S. troops out…but they’re still there…getting some international support and looking for more.
To protect the Syrian Kurds from a Turkish invasion, the U.S. is willing to give away some of Syria to Turkish control for a so-called buffer zone. Ongoing negotiations seem far from agreement on how the buffer zone will be run under shared Turkish-US Military control and how big the buffer zone will be. The U.S. suggests roughly 60 square miles. The Turks want roughly 6,000.
The first step in the American-negotiated Kurd retreat will involve pulling back some fighters and some heavy weapons. The Turkish Defense Ministry says it already has drones up over the contested zone of Syria, presently just drooling over the territory, but soon monitoring and tracking troop and vehicle movements, verifying that the Kurdish YPG militia is living up to everything the Americans promised.
If negotiations fail, and the Turks invade, they may regret it. The YPG has had time to prepare, likely with fortified chokepoints
President Assad thought the threat of a Turkish invasion and an American sellout would force the Kurds to turn themselves in and return to his version of national sovereignty. So far it hasn’t.
And in the south, in Deraa, a city long conceded to Al-Assad, rebels have been killing government officials. Close to victory for Assad still feel too close to war for most citizens of Syria.
Charles Glass is a broadcaster, journalist and writer, who began his journalistic career in 1973 at the ABC News Beirut bureau with Peter Jennings. He covered the October Arab-Israeli War on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He also covered civil war in Lebanon, where artillery fire wounded him in 1976. He was ABC News Chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. Since 1993, he has been a freelance writer in Paris, Tuscany, Venice and London, regularly covering the Middle East, the Balkans, southeast Asia and the Mediterranean region. He has also published books, short stories, essays and articles in the United States and Europe. His recent books include Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe (2017); and last They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France.