Syrian Civil War Series. Part II: Distrusting Allies And Allying Enemies

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This second report deepens on current events in Syria and Iraq, highlighting the alliances and enmities, both historical and circumstantial, that take place alongside the many faces of the Syrian conflict.

Peshmerga soldiers in Erbil, Iraq.

The most widespread conspiracy theory about military events in the Near East says that the United States is doing the dirty work of Israel. However, at this very moment, it seems that the Kurds will be the real beneficiaries.

The Kurds are more than 30 million people in a relatively enclosed area, but because of things of the British colonialism they did not get a country. Currently they are spread mainly by southeast Turkey, the north of Syria, the north of Iraq and the northwest of Iran. It is a special ethnic group, related to the Iranians, with its own language and mainly of Muslim faith.

US “protection” began in the 1990s, although it was not really for them but as a provocation to keep Saddam Hussein head down, in a process that culminated more than a decade later with the invasion of Iraq.

The fact is that the Kurds were a constant problem for the Iraqi government, with a series of uprisings and agreements that were never fulfilled, until the First Gulf War weakened the regime of Hussein in such a way in 1991 that the Shiites rose in the south as did the Kurds in the north. The repression was brutal, hundreds of thousands died and a million and a half of Kurds fled in all directions.

But the balance, reviewed almost 30 years later, is very positive. With the excuse of the repression, the United States and its allies in the war imposed a zone free of flights in northern Iraq. Free of flights, except their own, of course, which they used to destroy Saddam Hussein’s troops and vehicles, creating in practice a safe territory for Kurdish development, just in time to prevent them being totally crushed. It was there and then that the Kurdish rebels, plus part of the troops and military teams that joined them (deserted) or those captured during the uprising, were able to form one of the best fighting forces in the Near East: the Peshmerga.

However, the Kurds (and the Shiites of southern Iraq) never forgot one lesson: the United States incited them to revolt, but when the time came to decide, they abandoned them and preferred to make peace with Hussein. If that first war had maintained military pressure, Kurdistan would have been a reality in the mid-1990s.

In any case, the Iraqi Kurds thrived because of US and they returned the favor to the Americans when the final invasion arrived (2003). With the support of their “advisers” (United States Special Forces), they formed another battlefront, even before Western land troops arrived. This time the prize was the consolidation of their “homeland”, by recognizing the autonomy for Kurdistan in the new constitution of Iraq (basically drafted by the United States).

The constitution only recognized one fact: after the war, the Kurds control that territory administratively and militarily; The Western occupiers were more concerned about the south, dominated by the Shiite “enemies”; and Iraqis lacked the strength to do anything in that area.

Turkish troops
Turkish troops guarding the border.

Always The Turks

In fact, Western efforts aimed at preventing Kurdistan becoming fully independent, which was entirely feasible, but would have demonstrated the failure of the US attempt. Supposedly, the 2003 invasion was to save Iraq and the world from the destruction associated with Hussein, so it would’ve been frowned upon to end up destroying Iraq (which is still a possibility we will discuss later).

In addition, the whole invasion rested heavily on Turkey’s support and the Turks strongly opposed a free or even autonomous Kurdistan.

Enmity between Turks and Kurds is historical. In modern times, it is based on the armed resistance of the Kurds, who also want to be free in Turkey. Such resistance is considered to be terrorist and takes advantage of existing borders: the attacks are planned and prepared in Iraq, executed in Turkey and then the perpetrators flee to Iraq or Syria.

Behind the attacks it was (and still is) mainly the Partiya KarkerĂŞn Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the great driving force of recognition and unity of the Kurds, although labeled as a terrorist organization by Turkey and all its allies, Including the United States. It is very similar to what the PLO was for the Palestinians, including their socialist and even communist inclinations. Russia is one of the countries that refused to tag them as terrorists.

Unlike the rest of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan became a booming area thanks to the 2003 invasion. The Kurds took over the administration of “their” cities and formed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG, a PKK instrument), the Peshmerga provided security and oil represented a constant source of wealth.

In the face of Baghdad’s constant attempts to control this wealth, the Kurds developed an efficient smuggling system into Turkey.

That situation almost guaranteed a free Kurdistan, at a time when the United States and Turkey were opposed to that alternative. But by a curious coincidence, a powerful force arose to avoid it: a jihadist group that until then obeyed Al Qaeda began to shine with its own light, until in June of 2014 a force of 1,500 men conquered in just one week the “Kurdish capital”, Mosul, defended at the time by some 60,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers (peshmergas and western troops had been sent to another province). Shortly after that, this group would proclaim itself as the “Islamic State” (IS).

Once again, the Kurdish dream evaporated and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled for safety. Instead, the legend of Islamic State had begun, a nightmare imposed by the jihadists in much of Iraqi Kurdistan and amplified by the Western media.

A general view of Baiji oil refinery in Baiji
Baiji oil refineries in Iraq, part of the oil, along with Syrian’s, that get smuggled to Turkey.

Improbable Friends And The Oil Business

In Mosul and other cities, IS assumed administrative control based on religious law, with military and police security founded on its guerrilla cadres and the same source of wealth: oil.

The system to take advantage of this wealth only varied slightly. Hundreds of trucks smuggled oil to Turkish ports without being disturbed, even though they crossed Kurdistan. The agreement, probably reached by the Turks with IS and KRG, was that Kurds and Islamists would keep their oil plants in operation and could export along the same route, without bothering each other. In Turkey, the family of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan handled the business covertly and oil was shipped on Exxon and British Petroleum (BP) ships.

With a stable situation in Iraq, the Islamic state decided to become involved in Syria, fertile ground due to the civil war supported by the same countries (Turkey, United States, Saudi Arabia and its various allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf). In a heavily divided country, with a steady influx of Islamists from Libya and no real military power on land, the group’s territorial gains were quick and significant.

In April 2013, the group was renamed as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS, according to different English translations).

Once again, the oil fields were a priority objective and their production followed the same path: towards Turkey, crossing Kurdistan (this time not the Iraqi part, but the Syrian’s). The agreements were still in place, for with a business of one million dollars a day, even the largest enemies can work together. The attacks against IS or ISIL, both in Iraq and Syria, never affected their oil sources and therefore never caused real damage.

ISIL charged in money, but also in arms, supplies and even men (mainly mercenaries contracted and still paid by the countries of the Gulf).

It may seem incredible or another conspiracy theory, but this is widely documented: There have been official investigations (the result of which has never been delivered), documents leaked and even academic work showing the smuggling routes. If it’s hard to believe, maybe it’s because it doesn’t show up in the big western media and because all governments feel more comfortable turning a blind eye, since everyone wins in this business, especially Turkey.

But this business was spoiled. As usual, because of Russia.

ISIL combatants.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

On 30 September 2015, Russian forces began attacking ISIL, following a call from the Syrian government to intervene in the civil war. For the first time, the jihadists faced a real enemy, ready to fight and with the means to do so, without economic ties with them.

In mid-November, President Vladimir Putin publicly warned that the business was over. Speaking at a G20 summit, no less than in Turkey, he told reporters that he personally gave “examples based on our data on the financing of different Islamic State units by private individuals. This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and there are some of the G20 members among them.”

He publicly spoke of “individuals” and gave no names or countries, but the message was clearly understood by all, as it was an open secret. Discovered with pants down, the United States attacked the next day one of the ISIS oil caravans. 116 tank trucks were destroyed, although allegedly, there were leaflets warning the upcoming attack (according to some versions, the attack was led by Russian planes, but the United States took the credit).

This event marked the turning point in the war against the jihadists. With its main source of funding virtually closed, the silent support of the United States and others becoming impossible and the military pressure exerted by Russia, the end of ISIL was sentenced.

First it was the Iraqi government that, interested for years in ending the oil business (which only marginally benefited them compared to the much greater slice of the great players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States), saw the opportunity and, with Iran’s support, also put military pressure on ISIL. Their incipient air force (Russian airplanes and pilots) destroyed strategic targets, without depending on the Western air force.

ISIL had been cornered and the plan for its total destruction in Mosul, their “capital” in Iraq, had been deployed. For once, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds came together for this operation, silently backed by Iran and Russia. The United States did not want to stay out, for to do so would have confirmed which side they were on, but their contribution has been small, both in the successes and in the failures of the Battle of Mosul, still under development at the time of this report.

Covertly (and not so much, according to images of their helicopters throwing arms and other supplies at besieged jihadists), the United States still supports ISIL, while ensuring that their leaders disappear. Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia have abandoned their covert support, but they can no longer provide material support, except in Syria.

President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Back To The Kurds

Retreated after the fierce blitzkrieg of the Islamic State, the Kurds in Iraq found the space to coexist with ISIL (for economic reasons, as mentioned), while reshaping and improving their forces with support from the United States, which may have had a role in this coexistence. The history of the ’90s was repeating itself.

And just as then, they finally launched their counterattack, pressing ISIL to their siege in Mosul, where they also participate, although it was mainly a task in the hands of the Shiites and Sunni.

That’s because the Kurd goal was another.

The chaos of the Syrian civil war not only benefited the jihadists, but also the Kurds, who have a scarcely complied agreement with the Syrian government itself. When Syria began to suffer the troubles of the war, it retired its troops of the north to send them to the riskiest points. This allowed the Kurds to enjoy a “freedom” that they took to declare their autonomy and self-rule, forming also their own peshmerga-style militias.

Damascus allowed it, because there was nothing they could do to stop it and because the north front remained in peace. Turkey, which borders on that area, worried and threw their allies (mostly Syrian fundamentalists and the Islamic state itself) against the Kurds, but the conflict was short-lived, since the same Iraqi system was put in place: the Kurds channeled their oil and ISIL’s to Turkey.

But, encouraged by the Turks and their own successes, ISIL “invaded” Kurdish territory and triggered a strong response. Kurdish militarization increased, as did their military actions and coordination with their Iraqi brothers. Like them, they approached the United States for “advice” and weapons, to become a considerable force and join the ISIL hunt deployed in recent months.

Turkey now faced a better-armed and trained “enemy”, so it did become a concern on its border. In addition, the ISIL oil source was dried up (the Kurds cut it off) and fundamentalists of different colors demanded more help. With Russian approval (and Syrian blind eye), Turkish troops finally invaded the Syrian north “to fight ISIL”, although they were mainly involved in wresting territory from the Kurds.

By this time (second half of 2016), the United States had already stopped trusting Turkey, to the point of fomenting a coup against Erdogan. This also diminished the supposed “loyalty” to the Kurds protected by the Americans. When the United States turned militarily against ISIL, nothing stopped the Turkish military intervention. Its objective: to prevent the consolidation of “other” Kurdistan in its borders.

But it was probably late already.

We come to a time when the United States has been left without pawns in the Syrian chessboard, let alone the now distant goal of bringing down President Bashar al-Assad.

Although US always maintained their protection, when the Kurds began to really threaten to their other allies in the battlefield (Turkey and ISIL), they refused to second them. Turkey also abandoned the Kurds in favor of ISIL and even attacked them. The Iraqi government was once again trying to seize the oil that the Kurds recovered at the expense of their blood.

We must bear in mind what this means: at the beginning of 2017, the Kurds no longer trusted the United States. It was also a fact that Americans suspended all real support due to the change in their government and the assumption that the new president, Donald Trump, would not keep things as usual. The Turkish attack had the effect of confirming that -once again- the United States had abandoned them to its fate.

Enter Russia’s new brilliant move: they reached an agreement for Kurds to sell their oil through Syria. This strengthened the non-aggression agreement between the two sides, allowed the Kurds to focus on fighting the jihadists, gave them a new (reliable) protector and freed them from the Turks. How? Russia offered itself as a guarantor that the Turks (with whom it also has an agreement) would not attack them directly from the back, as the main Kurdish areas are between Turkish troops and jihadists.

Covered everywhere, with their well-prepared and victorious troops, the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds came together to launch their most ambitious operation: to recover Raqqa, which is considered the “capital” of ISIL in Syria.

They began to coordinate military action with Syria and Russia, but the United States -as it had already happened in Mosul and for the same reasons- did not want to be left out and, in a surprise decision of the Trump administration, brought troops to the battlefield, In what is technically an invasion of Syrian sovereign territory because they had no approval to do so, not even from the US Congress.

But all suggests that this measure was at least coordinated with Russia, although there’s a probability of a hidden, but formal agreement between the two. The latter is unfeasible, due to the political environment in the United States, where at the moment Russia is an example of all that is evil on Earth.

But the facts say that, regardless of the statements made to the press, in practice there is military coordination between Russia and the United States.

The Erdogan administration has proven to be unreliable and erratic. Despite the agreement with Russia, they tried to go beyond what was agreed and actually invade unauthorized areas, always with the aim of weakening the Kurds. This happened in al-Bab, the most extreme point to which they were allowed to advance. Once there, they refused to hand over the city to Syrian forces loyal to the government and even attacked them. they also attempted an advance towards the east, attacking the Kurdish forces in the sector, who, respecting their agreement with Russia, had simply remained in their area without intervening.

Putin did not waste a minute putting Erdogan in place with a show of strength. The Turks quickly delivered al-Bab as promised, but began to move towards the Kurdish area. Russian and Syrian troops moved north, acting like a “cushion” between Turks and Kurds.

What does this have to do with the United States? That movement to the north was quickly achieved because the Kurds “caved in” on March 2 and Russian special forces immediately occupied it, forcing Turkey to attack them if they wished to pass. This demonstrates the coordination between Russia and the Kurds, but the interesting thing is that the movement led the Russians (and Syrians) to the outskirts of Manbij, a strategic city for Kurdish pretensions and probably the Turkish target.

North Syria
The map (on March, 2017) shows the cities of Aleppo and Manbij. In light blue the Turkish forces, in red Syrian’s and in yellow Kurd’s. The orange area corresponds to villages whose control the Kurds handed over to Syria/Russia to act as a “separator.” In dark, to the south, is ISIL.

The US version tells this security zone was a reality thanks to an agreement between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, the coalition created by the United States and Turkey in northern Syria, which had the Kurds as key members), hiding this way the Russian role and their presence near Manbij, although leaving without explanation why a coalition created to fight the Syrian government is reaching agreements with them. Or why it’s necessary to keep the Turks separated from their “allies” against that same government.

US troops deployed in Syrian territory.

Here Come The Rangers

Even if the Western media hasn’t highlighted these contradictions, news on Manbij has come out widely in recent weeks. There’s where on March 5 arrived US armor and troops, surprisingly and very noticeably (the Pentagon even delivered a video of the arrival). The convoy was seen moving, for the first time, on March 2. The same day the Kurds agreed to hand over territory to the Russians (the agreement is with Russia, even though Washington says it’s with the government of Damascus).

Supposedly, these troops are the outpost of a larger group that will aid the Kurds in the final raid on Raqqa, although they are probably equivalent to the “Russian cushion”, only far from the danger zone. If the Turks avoid attacking the Russians, the less they will expose themselves to a confrontation with the Americans.

Other interpretations are: a) they wanted to show their support for the Kurds and not to lose once again to the Russians; b) they came to make sure that the Kurds did not give Manbij to the Russians (unlikely); c) they wanted to be in the front line to “Protect” ISIL.

Whatever the objective, this presence of US troops on Syrian territory is interesting, at least.

First of all, by the time it happens, right after the Kurds and Russians (or Syrians) agreement, when the Kurds’ confidence in their “protectors” was at the lowest point and they did not expect military support from them. So much so, that another interpretation is that this force was openly deployed to go in help of twenty or so “advisers” who had been in Manbij for some time and who had practically been abandoned to their fate by the Kurds.

Whatever the case, the Americans are in the vicinity of Manbij and the Russians too, though probably well separated by the Kurdish contingent, who now seems on good terms with both sides. In practice, in that Syrian Kurdish city there is a multinational force (United States, Russia, Syria and the Kurds) directed against ISIL, although none of them is expected to start fighting soon from the enclave. At least there must be coordination between all parties to avoid any misunderstanding and to avoid Turkish infiltration.

This is not to make light assumptions. The Joint Chiefs of Staff from US, Russia, and Turkey, met on 7 March 2017, in Turkey. Generals Joe Dunford and Valery Gerasimov met 3 weeks before in Azerbaijan without their Turkish counterpart. Things like that are proof of the coordination between US and Russia.

Russia and the Kurds are really fighting against ISIL, but the doubts remain on their “partners” in Manbij, specially because of the notorious preference of Turkey to back ISIL in order to stop the Kurds. The question is where are the Americans standing now. If US really use their military power to fight ISIL, they are committed in an unrecognized alliance with Syrians and Russians, but subjected to blatant sabotage from their open ally. Not that this scenario it’s any surprise: across the border, in Mosul, the same Americans fight ISIL alongside Iranians forces… Such is US foreign policy.