We start a series of articles related to the Syrian Civil War and the improbable alliances happening and turning on every moment. This Part I: US Dance Of Demons works as the context for the next posts in this saga, where we’ll be discussing how the key players in the Near East move their pieces on the chessboard that comprises Syria and Iraq.
Every so often, the US creates a new collective enemy or at least gives a facelift to an old one. It has been that way since the Second World War with the Nazis, that prepared the way to antagonize the Soviet Union, which in turn gave room for a plethora of “demons” under the umbrella of communism. The Cold War harbored the specific demons that materialized as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and several confrontations in the Near East, part of the strategy to fight the proxy wars against the Soviets.
When the Soviet Union was sure to collapse, the US needed a new enemy to keep the war machinery going. The Near East had proven to be fertile land for this purpose since Truman recognized the State of Israel in 1948. In 1990, George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) presented the demon of Near East radicalization in the persona of Saddam Hussein, convincing US public opinion and other Western powers that the Iraqi leader was developing a nuclear program that had to be stopped.
Right after that, Bill Clinton (1993-2001) pinpointed this radical Near East menace as the so called “Jihadists”, a concept Americans were listening to since the Muhadijeen that fought Soviets for them in Afghanistan in the ’70s. In response to terror attacks allegedly planned against him, Clinton ordered to strike Afghanistan and Sudan, in times when Osama Bin Laden was a resident in the latter country and was regarded as an entrepreneur and benefactor. This attack led to the retired jihadists to look for cover in Afghanistan.
But the new war required more than the wavered hand of Clinton to take its final shape, and thus, in 2001, the perfect excuse to launch an all-out war emerged. The succeeding president, George W. Bush (2001-2009), was in charge of declaring the “war on terrorism” with a very defined face: Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden became, overnight, the new demons of the empire. Along with an old one, out of a personal obsession and dark interests, Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
After that, Barack Obama (2009-2017) had come up with ISIL (also ISIS or Islamic State) and the slippery Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new demon. Beside this, the ranges of American soldiers needed to be strengthened with war contractors, on the lack of willing martyrs. The secondary enemy of chose was Syria and the demon Bashar al-Assad, again in regard of dark interests (as it also happened with Libya and Mummar Gaddafi in 2011).
As the Islamic enemy was proving to be depleted of demons (of interest for the US, at least), the search of the Intelligence Community for a new scapegoat became an urgent matter, as the new administration was near to take office in 2017. With an evident lack of imagination, and with no much else to pick from, they proposed a remake: the Russians, who under Vladimir Putin were reluctant to submit to US mandates. His “assertive attitude” was calling for a punishment to avoid other unauthorized adventures as the annexation of Crimea.
And trouble they made.
With the last stage still open in Syria and the new demon already chosen, Americans elected as their President to Donald Trump (2017-?), an admirer of Putin and friend to Russia, with a manifest contempt on the Syria situation. Although this views and opinions should be considered as uncertain, given the record of the speaker.
To stop the propaganda and the demonization process in the whole Western world was no longer an option. The only alternative was to get rid of the objections coming from Trump or to get rid of Trump himself. For the former, it was necessary to target him with the same propaganda campaign that was conceived for the masses, discrediting his ties and approaches to Russia.
There is, then, a big question mark in current relations between US and Russia. Will Trump lean towards the plans of “his” agencies? Or, as it’s the standard on his policies, will he try to impose his terms?
Something is for sure: the demonization has permeated on the public opinion, so any step on the current scenario should be taken with extreme care. Otherwise, it will only deepen the image of “enemy ally” that the public has already attached to the Trump administration.
This means that publicly the people will be under the same campaign and we’ll have to guess what’s going on behind the scenes, maybe reading in between lines of any official information.
But the war is on course. A very special war, with dozens of groups involved, faint coalitions, the erratic Turkey, and the three main actors in the current international scene: United States, Russia and Islamic State. It’s of great importance to pay attention to what is happening, what is said, what is done and what can be inferred about all this.
The Syrian Experiment
Current Syrian Arab Republic was born as such in 1963 when the Ba’ath Party, of a socialist and secular ideology, took power in a coup d’état. Actually, the country was created as one of the projects of fabricated borders that colonialist powers set up in the region. That, of course, brought instability and a series of political experiments ranging from monarchies to communism, until the Ba’ath Party imposed order through dictatorship, also with ups and downs: the coup of ’63 was followed by coups in 1966 and 1970.
In the three of them was involved Hafez al-Assad, until he took power in the last one and unified the country (by force) implementing a cult of his personality. When he died in 2000, inherited the presidency to his son, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist with no political or military experience, called upon at the last minute to keep the power in the family (his older brother was killed in an accident).
The Assad family is Alawite, a branch of Islam related to Shi’ism, a minority even in Syria, where Sunnism is the largest group of Islam. This is why, to assure control, al-Assad promoted Alawites in the main positions of government and armed forces, to the detriment of Sunnis, Druzes, Christians, Yazidis, and others. Ethnically, the privileges went to the Arab majority over Assyrians, Kurds, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, among others.
This segregation explains what occurred in 2011, as a consequence of the Arab Spring.
Bashar al-Assad lacks the experience and capability of his father to manage the diversity in its country, together with the fact that he doesn’t seem so keen to use force against his own people (extreme force, at least). He doesn’t inspire respect nor fear, reason why many internal factions came to the conclusion that the time to defy him had come. The protests demanding more democracy grew rapidly, until the regime resorted to the extreme force it had avoided.
That moment, in mid-2011, was key: some servicemen refused to use the arms against civilians and they were executed. This created a rift and whole troops of the army defected, taking arms with them and, eventually, using them against the government loyal forces.
Civil war had just broken out.
A Color Jigsaw Puzzle
Divisions dragged along for decades became obvious immediately thereafter and the map above shows the fragmentation in Syria on March, 2017.
Only red areas are under control of the government and their loyal forces, which include Iranian troops and Hezbollah militia (both Shiites).
The green zones belong to Syrian opposition forces, mainly Sunnis that took up arms at the beginning to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), together with armed mercenaries supported by Turkey, Western powers and, to some extent, Gulf Arabs. When civil war broke out, encouraged by these very same actors, they initially bet on FSA to fight al-Assad, but they soon proved to be insufficient and inept, which led the funding powers to reinforce them, first, and bet against them, later. Their military value is low and they are benefited only by the fact that the government had other priorities.
The number one priority goes to the jihadists, who appear on the map in gray and seem to occupy most of the country (this is indeed true, although much of that territory is worthless desert). They are the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (translation using the traditional Arabic name, since “Syria” was also a European invention, therefore its acronym is ISIL, although sometimes appears as IS, ISIS or even Daesh, which is the Arabic acronym, sometimes used with pejorative meaning). It is a fundamentalist group, inspired by Salafism with high power of convocation in the Muslim world. It has economic and arms support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, plus an installed infrastructure in Iraq and in the controlled area in Syria, where they produced oil and natural gas for illegal sell. These incomes have been declining over the past year, as they are cornered in both countries and lose their brokers for the sale of such wealth (mainly Turkey).
The Islamic State arrived to Syria in mid-2013 and quickly began to capture territories, taking advantage of its organizational superiority, without engaging in important military confrontations. Apart from receiving volunteers from all over the world, they had welcomed Saudi troops from other Arab countries and even special forces from the United States, Britain and France. In general, Western troops argue that they support other “moderate” groups, not Daesh, but the distinctions are often minimal apart from the name.
All of this could also apply to Al-Qaeda. Their fighting strength is less than that of Daesh and they are supposed to be enemies to each other, having come to face in armed combats, both in Syria and in Iraq. But they are fighting together against the Syrian forces. The dozens of other minor fundamentalist groups in the conflict obey one, the other, or both of these giants, constantly changing names and alliances. In fact, Al-Qaeda in the Levant is now called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, after merging with other smaller groups.
The Nationalist Factor
On the battlefield there is only one other group that can compete in military and organizational skills with the jihadists: the Kurds, yellow on the map.
The Kurds may form the main group forgotten by the European colonialists when they mapped the present borders in the Near East. They are distributed over Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but they do not have their own homeland. For years, under Saddam Hussein’s rule, they gained some autonomy in northern Iraq, thanks to US protection. After the invasion of that country in 2003, its autonomy was almost total, thriving on the oil wealth in their territory, until Daesh came to seize this wealth and forced them to retreat militarily. Since then, they are supposed to be mortal enemies, although both seem to benefit from the same protector and usufruct of the same illicit business.
When the civil war started in Syria, the Kurds rose in the north and once again achieved some political autonomy. It is not uncommon to hear of “Kurdistan” in reference to both the occupied territory in Syria and that of Iraq. Currently, its militias form the People’s Protection Units (YPG, after its Kurdish name: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) and fight alongside dozens of smaller groups, many of them from nations that also reject the Syrian regime (Turkmen, Assyrians and several Arab tribes). Together they form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which receive support from the United States, Turkey (initially) and other Western countries.
Although among those minor groups there are some of religious backgrounds, they have no Salafist ideology and they are currently more engaged in fighting against Daesh than against the Syrian regime. Even so, in occasions some of these groups move to the extremist side or just fight each other.
However, it is possible to say that the “yellow portion” is moderate, as they fight for nationalistic reasons, they have a strong leftist ideology and their main enemy are the fundamentalists. For this reason –and because the Kurds have always fought alongside the Americans in Iraq– they have become the favorites of Westerners, especially over the past year, following the scandals after the revelation of Western powers supporting more radical groups (in gray on the map) and their disappointment with the FSA (in green).
The Turkish Factor
To a certain extent, all these distinctions are arbitrary, since the different groups –mainly the minor ones, but not only them– change sides and objective as it suits them. That is why it is also not unusual for the United States to deliver anti-tank weapons to a group allied with the Kurds and see these weapons ending up in the hands of the Islamic State. At least, that’s the official explanation.
The convenience of alliances is usually dictated by money, which comes from three main sources: the United States (and Europe), the Gulf countries and Turkey. In the big picture, the United States appears aligned with the Kurds; the Sunni Arabs, with Daesh and the FSA; and Turkey… well, it’s complicated.
Turkey is the great variable of this game. Initially, encouraged by his NATO allies, it was the most active player on the Syrian board. But it has a big difference with the others, who aim to destroy al-Assad’s regime (regardless of whether they destroy Syria, as it happened in Iraq). For Turkey the main motive is to weaken the Kurds and the secondary goal is to weaken or totally destroy Syria to rise as the greatest Muslim power of the region.
With the Kurds, the conflict is historic and regularly comes to arms. Even during the invasion of Iraq, the Turks indulged themselves when they invaded that country against the “orders” of the United States, and punished the autonomous Kurds there. Turkey regards Iraqi Kurds as terrorists, and so they are if we consider that they support groups conducting attacks on civilians and military personnel within Turkey borders. The US government itself has recognized this, which does not prevent it from fighting alongside them, just like they fight alongside Iranians in Mosul.
But this time the Turks began turning a blind eye for two main reasons. First, they saw the civil war as an opportunity for Syrians and Kurds to weaken each other, hoping to take advantage in the right time and to seize Syrian territory or –more feasible– to put a puppet government there. Second, they achieved a fruitful deal with the Kurds and other rebel groups (including Daesh), whereby “recovered” oil and gas were sold through Turkey (with smaller quantities through Iraq and Saudi Arabia). At the head of this illegal business was Bilal Erdogan, one of the sons of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turks were happy to feed the Syrian bonfires, improving their own economy (especially that of the Erdogans) while sending weapons to fundamentalists and Kurds to kill each other, all with the blessing of the United States and NATO, who also turned a blind eye while benefiting from the disaster, although a couple of years ago it was clear that the war was stagnant and no side would win (except for the Turks).
The beginning of the end was precipitated by the ambition of the Islamic State. They began to create image problems for the government in Turkey by acting in the full light taking advantage of the “unofficial protection” they enjoyed. In Iraq, Kurds and Iraqis (Shiites, backed by Iran) became tired with their excesses and began to corner them, dragging a reluctant United States in the offensive. At the moment of this report they are about to destroy the group in Mosul.
The United States allowed the idea of pushing Daesh to the west, to Syria, where it would supposedly reinforce the pressure against Assad. It cannot be ruled out that, faced with growing evidence of its relationship with the alleged “terrorist” enemy, Washington finally decided to break that bond.
A Board Full Of Plays
Meanwhile, the Kurds had the same idea backwards: if Daesh escaped west, it would put pressure on their Syrian brothers; Therefore, it would be best to first put pressure on them from both fronts and prevent Daesh from becoming strong in either country. As they had allies in Mosul to help them in combat, its main military force went to the Syrian Kurdistan and Daesh began to retreat there also.
The Kurdish mobilization achieved what ethics could not: Erdogan decided to prioritize national interest over his own. So far, the Kurds were divided in the northern territory of Syria, which was also infiltrated by Turkish agents and even their covert troops, protecting the corridor of smuggling (weapons in one direction, drugs and oil in the other). The support from the “Iraqi terrorists” threatened to end the situation and create a true Kurdistan on the border, while Daesh was now a nuisance publicly rejected by the United States. There was nowhere to turn for help.
In addition, Turkey itself was a nuisance for the United States, which made the mistake of trying to shake it off through a coup that failed.
It was the moment for a new player to come into scene, one who had come to spoil the earnings and make uneven the board: Russia.
In late 2015, Al-Assad invited one of the few friends he had on the international stage. Putin had already saved him in 2013, when United States troops were in flight to begin the invasion on Syria and Russians stopped them, humiliating Barack Obama. This time, Vladimir Putin did not disappoint him either, and a few months after his intervention he had already succeeded in making the Islamic State a real (not just declared) target of the entire international community, simply by actually fighting it, while threatening to tell the truth on all matters, like the origin of the financing to maintain the war going.
Taking advantage of all the factors, Russia changed the role of Turkey, which ceased to be the United States pawn and cut off the supply routes to Daesh (and to the Kurds, which was what really interested Erdogan). As another “prize” for the Turks, Putin offered an agreement to destroy Kurdish plans with Syrian support: the possibility for Turkey to openly entering Syria with troops, to prevent a solid Kurdistan from forming on its borders.
And this is how the Syrian map acquired a “turkish blue” shade…