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Time to Bite the Bullet in Syria

By Carl Bildt
US President Donald Trump's impulsive decision to pull American troops out of northern Syria and allow Turkey to launch a military campaign against the Kurds there has proved utterly disastrous. But a crisis was already inevitable, given the realities on the ground and the absence of a coherent US or Western policy in Syria.
Syrian government forces arrive in the town of Tal Tamr, not far from the flashpoint Kurdish Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, which has been a key target of Turkish forces and their proxies since they launched their military assault, on October 15, 2019. – Syrian regime troops arrived after Damascus deployed troops to the country’s north to contain a days-long Turkish offensive. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP) (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Recent events in Syria have naturally raised two questions: Who lost the country? And where might the international community go from here?

The first question is easier to answer. Looking back, Syria has probably been lost since the popular uprising in 2011. When President Bashar al-Assad’s regime stubbornly refused any effort to resolve the matter peacefully, no outside power proved willing to intervene. Instead, everyone hoped that a mix of sanctions, United Nations-led diplomacy, and halfhearted attempts to support a “moderate” opposition would eventually bring down the regime.

It didn’t work. Fundamentalist forces gained political ground and territory, and others, including Iranian-backed militias and the Russian military after the fall of 2015, rushed to Assad’s defense. Although the regime had long deprived the Kurds in northern Syria of most of their rights, it started making concessions to them when it came under pressure. As a result, Kurdish militias abstained from challenging Assad, which led much of the broader Syrian opposition to shun them.

After the Islamic State (ISIS) established its “caliphate” in Mosul and Raqqa in 2014 – enabling it to strike even Baghdad – there was an understandable rush to confront the terrorist threat. In Iraq, that task fell largely to Iranian-aligned Shia militias. But in Syria, the situation was more complicated. The United States had no intention of sending in its own combat forces, but it also knew that the Syrian opposition groups that it (and Turkey) had been arming were not up to the challenge. In any case, those groups were focused on toppling Assad, which had ceased to be a high priority for Western policymakers.

Given these constraints, the US threw its support behind the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US has long recognized the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, along with the European Union and Turkey, classify as a terrorist organization. But even if the decision did not fit with any long-term strategy, it did satisfy short-term tactical needs, and supporting the YPG ultimately proved successful in depriving ISIS of its territory (though the group will remain a long-term threat).

The uprooting of ISIS would have been a good time to launch a political process to resolve the broader conflict. In fact, there were at least two options on the table. The first was to establish a Kurdish/YPG-governed entity in northern and northeastern Syria. But, of course, that would have raised the ire of Turkey, which was not ready to tolerate any PKK presence on its border. In addition to requiring an open-ended US military presence, this scenario would have resulted in Kurds ruling over substantial swaths of non-Kurdish territory.

The other option was to pursue a broader political settlement, with the goal of creating an inclusive governance structure acceptable to the regime in Damascus. Over time, this process could have led to an arrangement similar to that in northern Iraq, where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now cooperates closely with Turkey.

But this didn’t happen. As the US position evolved, the Trump administration rejected the first option and then actively discouraged the second, making a crisis inevitable. The trigger for the crisis was a telephone call in which US President Donald Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to send forces into Syria. Trump ordered the US military to abandon the area immediately, and added insult to injury by announcing it all on Twitter, shocking both the Kurds and many of his own advisers.

Since then, everything has come crashing down. With their credibility in tatters, US officials have desperately sought to create some kind of policy out of the ruins created by the presidential tweets. The president has threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if it does what he enabled it to do. With Kurds – most of them civilians – fleeing Turkish bombs, the UN Security Council has remained typically silent, while the Europeans have condemned everything and everyone involved.

As foreign-policy disasters go, this is one for the record books. But the seeds for this larger conflagration were sown long before the now-infamous Trump-Erdoğan call. Absent any coherent policy, the conditions were ripe for a crisis. The question now is whether there is any constructive way to proceed.

For now, the US has agreed with Turkey on establishing the wide security zone in northern Syria it sought. Russia, meanwhile, has evidently brokered some sort of arrangement between the YPG and the Assad regime. With Russian and Syrian government forces now entering some of the areas vacated by the US, the Trump administration is left trying to manage its relations with Turkey. As for the EU, there is little to be done. Having already cut off all high-level political contacts with Turkey, it is impotent in the face of this latest crisis.

Logic dictates that all of the relevant parties in the region should now sit down and try to come to some kind of agreement. In addition to the KRG, Iraq, and other Arab countries, there also needs to be a place at the table for Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian government. Yes, the Assad regime is associated with a wide range of horrors and atrocities; but there is simply no other way forward.

Regional talks certainly will not come easy. Many parties will have to swallow hard and face difficult realities. Unfortunately, the prospect of a democratic Syria was lost years ago. The top priority now must be to restore stability and prevent further catastrophes. There are no longer any good options, if, in fact, there ever were.

(Carl Bildt was Sweden’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2014 and Prime Minister from 1991 to 1994, when he negotiated Sweden’s EU accession. A renowned international diplomat, he served as EU Special Envoy to the Former Yugoslavia, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN Special Envoy to the Balkans, and Co-Chairman of the Dayton Peace Conference. He is Co-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations.)

Published Date: Friday, October 18th, 2019 | 05:15 PM

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