Challenges and Consequences of the “Battle for Syria”

by Robert Olson

The struggle as to what countries, armies, militias and groups will dominate in Syria and Iraq is of crucial significance to the future of the Middle East, not just for the Arab countries but for Turkey, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In this article I shall concentrate largely on Turkey and to a lesser extent on Iran and Israel. I leave Saudi Arabia out of the above triumvirate because I do not think it will be a major player on the ground in the future economy of Syria or in the configurations that are emerging. Second, I think Saudi Arabia will largely be concerned with developments in the Persian Gulf region, especially with Yemen and Iran.

It must seem ironic to many scholars as well as analysts that three non-Arab countries — Turkey, Iran and Israel — will emerge as the dominant Middle Eastern countries with regard to Syria and Iraq. As to outside powers, the US and its European allies and Russia will remain prominent and by extension, Israel’s relations with Jordan and West Bank Palestinians.

Let me first deal with Russia. Russia at the moment is the most important outside power due to its large military presence both on the ground and in the air. While figures as to the number of its military personnel involved are unclear, it seems that they may amount to 3,000 to 4,000 stationed at two major airfields as well as naval warship deployments in the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere. There is no question that Russia will remain a major player in Syria for some time to come. But how much of a player?

If the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad manages to stay in power, it seems likely that Russian forces will remain largely in the eastern Mediterranean littoral region because it also includes some 75 percent of the Syria population as it now stands. But, Russia will not be able to expand substantially from this region and may well not want to do so because it would bring it into territory dominated by Sunni Arabs. Russia and its Damascus ally will not be able to penetrate much beyond these areas into northern Syria because Turkey and the Syrian refugees that it now holds will contest any Russian/Assad regime advances. Turkey plans to utilize the Syrian refugees as instruments of its projection of geo-economic power into northern Syria.

In order to effectively oppose any Russia/Assad regimes advances, Turkey will have to resolve its differences with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)/People’s Protection Forces (YPG), now called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). If Russian, Iranian and Assad forces were determined to advance east of the Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus line, they would risk combat with Turkish forces. This would be a major restraint on any expansion beyond this line.

Implicit in the above is also the limitation on Iran, Hezbollah and Iranian forces including Afghans. Second, it would seem that the most important objective of Iran — and of Russia — is to maintain their now substantial geopolitical posture in the eastern Mediterranean. It is vital for Iran that Hezbollah and the Shia Lebanese that it represents maintain this position in order to be the strongest political and military power in Lebanon.

For Russia and Iran, it is vital they sustain these geopolitical and geostrategic positions in order to be a major political and military force in the eastern Mediterranean due to the large oil and gas deposits in the region. Just in the past week or so, we have seen the close cooperation among Israel, Greek Cyprus and Greece regarding the exploitation and marketing of these deposits. It is also important to note these eastern Mediterranean energy fields extend to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt as well but that Israel’s fields, with the exception of Egypt’s, are much larger and currently exploitable. As far as I know, Turkey has not yet discovered similar exploitable sources. It may be that Russia has already evaluated the oil and gas deposits off the coast of Syria.

It has certainly not escaped the notice of Ankara that Turkey provides an excellent location for both the consumption of such sources as well as for export to other markets. The increasingly hostile relations between Ankara and Moscow also compel Turkey to seek sources of energy other than Russia to fuel its strong economy. Undoubtedly, this is the major reason for the rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv. These developments strengthen the relationship between two — Turkey and Israel — of the three main countries of the triumvirate mentioned above, a relationship of which the US approves.

Now we come to Turkey. The above scenario is why Turkey thinks it is so important to emasculate, marginalize and if possible to destroy the PKK/KCK and their relationships with the PYD/YPG, along with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It seems that Ankara thinks that if it is not able to manage, control or defeat these organizations, at least to its satisfaction, that this will also threaten its relationship with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), another source of its energy supplies — a source that will grow if Turkey’s reliance on Russian oil diminishes. This means that Turkey must fight its energy wars on two fronts: One in the eastern Mediterranean and the other on its eastern flank. On this flank, Turkey receives annually 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Iranian sources. This continued supply of gas also depends, to some extent, on its relations with Iran, which currently is aligned with Russia and the Assad regime and has good relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well as the two major Islamist political parties in the KRG.

Of course, much depends on the future development of the “Battle for Syria” and how it is eventually resolved. As I and others have recently reported, much of Ankara’s success in addressing the challenges that it faces both on its western (Mediterranean) flank and on its eastern flank depends on how it meets the challenges of Kurdish nationalist movements, especially the PKK/KCK, PYD/YPG and HDP challenges. All five of these organizations are obstacles to Turkey’s — at least Ankara’s and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) — objectives, both in terms of its foreign and domestic policies.

With regard to Turkey’s domestic policies, the PKK/KCK and the PYD/YPG in particular present impediments to the abovementioned foreign policies. This is why, as I reported in this newspaper on Feb. 8, the intention of the AKP was to “bypass the most prominent Kurdish actors such as Abdullah Öcalan, [the PKK] and [the HDP], in favor of alternative groups, including class structures, religious groups, smaller parties and middle class business [groups],” some of which were to include both Turks and Kurds. Much is at stake.

Fortunately, Zülfikar Dogan in an article in al-Monitor (Feb. 9) addressed these issues in greater detail. Dogan’s article refutes completely President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consistent assertions that “Turkey has no Kurdish problem but a terror problem.” If this were the case, Do?an — like many before him, but not in such detail that Do?an supplies — asks, why is there such a need to bypass the PKK/KCK and the HDP? Then Dogan asks, “And who are the new Kurdish interlocutors in Erdogan’s mind?” Do?an argues that it came from the mind of presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin, who explained that “Kurdish opinion leaders, members of the village guards’ pro-government Kurdish militia, tribal leaders and religious notables would be invited to the presidential palace, along with certain politicians and civic groups, to hold consultations on a solution.” The sought solution would not involve “recognizing, expanding and constitutionally guaranteeing Kurdish political, social and language rights as part of a new, more democratic constitution.” Dogan explains in some detail just what groups comprise the new “bypass” groups.

Do?an then goes on to apprise the new interlocutors.

– “A potential ‘Kurdish AKP’ that could be created in the coming days to weaken the HDP and push its vote below the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.”

– “The Free Cause Party [Hüda-Par], a Kurdish Islamist party that withdrew from the Nov. 1 [general election in 2015] in favor of the AKP.”

– “The fledgling Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP/Bakur] — founded by Sertaç Bucak, the scion of an influential [Kurdish] tribe — which is politically close to the AKP and backed by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.”

– “The Kurdistan Socialist Party, which rejects armed action, is opposed to the PKK, is officially illegal and whose leadership returned from a 35-year exile last year to re-engage in politics.”

The bigger question is: Will such an assemblage of interlocutors be able to achieve the squashing, marginalizing and/or destruction of the PKK/KDK and the HDP, let alone the PYD/YPG? What should undoubtedly be noted is many members of the AKP’s and many members of the Turkish government’s past history of being able to squash all Kurdish rebellions until the creations of the PKK in 1978. Between 1925 and 1938, there were 18 armed conflicts between the government and Kurds, notably the large rebellion of Sheikh Said in 1925, the Ararat (Büyük Agri Dagi) rebellion in 1930 and the Dersim rebellion in 1937-38. Indeed, some historians think that it was the threat of Kurdish rebellions that compelled the Ismet Inönü government to remain neutral in World War II at a time when Mullah Mustapha Barzani was rebelling in Iraq and before he joined to join the Republic of Mahabad Kurdish rebellion in Iran in late 1945 and 1946.

The challenge to the AKP-led government and its newly chosen interlocutors is whether they will be better able to marginalize and emasculate the current establishment organizations of Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey and in Syria such as the PKK/KCK, the HDP and the PYD/YPG. The result of this battle will play an important role in the ongoing “Battle for Syria.”

Photo: Anti-missile battery on the border between Turkey and Syria.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from Today’s Zaman.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.