Erdogan and Trump’s partition of Syria set to fail?

Turkey invades Syria

By Sammy Barker

On 9 October the Turkish army invaded north-east Syria. In support of this operation, US troops were withdrawn or redeployed away from the areas marked out for the Turkish military takeover. The agreement between Turkish President Erdogan and US President Trump was for the effective occupation of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The occupying Turkish army is supported by over two dozen militias and mercenaries dubbed as “Syrian National Army”. Trump greenlighted the action in a phone call with Erdogan on 6 October.

The initial momentum of the intervention saw the Kurdish dominated Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) being rolled back. But on Sunday 13 October, the Syrian government and SDF came to an agreement which allows the Syrian Arab army to redeploy throughout the area controlled by the SDF. The Erdogan/Trump annexation of northern Syria is set to fail, or result in armed clashes between the Turkish and Syrian states.

The route to “Spring of Peace”

The military action, named Operation Spring of Peace, has been planned for six months by the Turkish military. Securing the agreement of the US President took less time. On 7 August, the US Embassy in Turkey issued a statement, following a meeting of US and Turkish military delegates. The aim was to “coordinate the establishment of a safe zone in Northern Syria”. To carry this through they agreed to “stand up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible …to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together”. Further, “that safe zone shall have a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country”.

This was, in the words of Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, “blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter”. None of this mattered to Trump, for in his election campaign he was committed to the idea of “safe zones” inside Syria. Equally, the action of the Turkish government would allow him to withdraw US troops from Syria, also in line with his electioneering. The US alliance with Kurdish forces was obviously less important than relations with the Turkish state. Neither law, nor principle entered into it.

Trump has been anxious to overcome a major conflict with his NATO ally in Turkey. Against the wishes of the US government, the Turkish government purchased the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. In response, Turkey was sanctioned by the US, halting the delay of F35 fighter planes. The US also ended the role of Turkish firms in the F35’s manufacture. Eight Turkish firms were in the supply chain with $12billion in contracts.

Trump was never firm on this. He met Erdogan at the G20 summit in September, where he publicly blamed the Obama administration for the break down in military cooperation. For its part, the Turkish government stated in July, after the arrival of the S-400s, that it was still “evaluating” the US Patriot missile system. Both sides must be anxious to resume the F35 programme for Turkey. The warming relation was demonstrated in an agreement on new trade deals at the G20, set to increase from $75billion to $100billion.

Erdogan’s timing

The timing of the invasion is not just chance. Since 2018 the Turkish economy has been in crisis. There has been a decline in the Lira, inflation in double figures, loan defaults and a contraction in economic growth.

The political impact of this was registered when the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major losses in local and mayoral elections, earlier this year. The AKP lost Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. There has been a spate of resignations from the party. Ahmet Davutoglu, former AKP Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, has announced the formation of a new party in November. Ali Bubacon, previously a guiding light in AKP economic policy, has also announced the formation of a new party.

Part of Erdogan’s response to this has been to utilize the issue of Syrian refugees. Currently, there are 3.6 million in Turkey. In March 2016, Erdogan came to an agreement with the EU. In exchange for EU funding, he would prevent the movement of these refugees towards Europe. The EU agreed to provide 6 billion euros, although to date Turkey has received only 2.2 billion. Erdogan claims to have spent $40 billion on providing for the refugees.

A Metropoll in August revealed that 80.7 per cent of Turkish voters had a ‘slightly’ or ‘very’ negative attitude towards Syrian refugees. 81.5 per cent wanted to see the assistance programme cut. Inevitably, in an economic crisis, scapegoating begins.

EU support ends next year. Erdogan has asked the EU for increased support, and has threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way”. Ankara is also concerned about a possible new influx of refugees, as the Syrian government clears Idlib of Al Nusrah/Al Qaeda aligned forces. On 10 September Erdogan warned that Turkey cannot tolerate another movement of refugees.

The rise of hard racist forces inside the EU has paralysed policy initiatives in support of refugees. Even commitments to disperse relatively small numbers across the EU have failed. EU and Turkish officials met in the first week of October in Ankara to defend the refugee agreement, but no statement was issued from that meeting. Erdogan believes the anticipated “safe zone” in Syria will allow him to return up to 2 million refugees to Syria, providing considerable relief from his domestic critics.

Aims of the occupation

Erdogan has insisted that the military operation will not stop until all SDF forces withdraw below a 32km deep line from the Turkish border. The “peace corridor” is expected to span the entire region east of the Euphrates River, 460km long.

He outlined part of his project for returning refugees, when addressing the Turkish parliament on 1 October – “We made the necessary plan. With the support of the international community we will resettle one million into 140 villages with 5,000 inhabitants and 50 districts of 30,000 inhabitants. Preliminary work on building new villages has started, locations are established and costs calculated”. He cited the example of 370,000 refugees already having returned to the north-west cities of Afrin and Jarablus. These, however, were people returning to their hometowns. What he is proposing is to return refugees from Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere to completely new residences in the “corridor”. In all likelihood, this is also premised on widespread displacement of Kurdish and other communities from the “corridor”.

Melia Corabatir, President of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration, and ex-spokesperson in Turkey for UNHCR, told the “Al Monitor” website, “…forced deportations are against international laws and Turkey’s open border policy. Turkey might establish a safe zone for its own safety but this is not a place for civilians and refugees”. Still, the announcement of this programme has resulted in a huge increase in the market value of Turkish construction firms.

The opposition begins, and strengthens

The severity of the invasion quickly became clear. On Sunday 13 October the UN reported 130,000 people had been forced to flee their homes. A spokesperson for the UN OCHA agency stated that they were planning for 400,000 displaced persons.

At the time of writing, Syrian government forces are redeploying against the Turkish advance. All the reports suggest that there is a substantial move north by Syrian government forces, and that they are being warmly welcomed by the local population.

Faced with imminent destruction, and being left in the lurch by the US withdrawal, the SDF changed the orientation it has followed since 2011. Commander in Chief of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, in an article in “Foreign Policy” wrote: “The Russians and the Syrian regime have made proposals that would save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection. We do not trust their promises. To be honest, it is hard to know whom to trust… We know that we would have to make some painful compromises with Russia and Basher al Assad if we go down the road of working with them. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”

Because the invasion is above all an assault upon Syrian sovereignty, the only effective way to defeat it is through the unity of all those forces committed to the future of Syria’s independence and integrity. The Kurdish community, and other minorities, need to be respected and defended inside Syria. US imperialism has, once again, clearly demonstrated that it regards them as a bargaining chip. An immediate, active military alliance with the Syrian government is the sole way that the Turkish invasion can be set back. Beyond this, the SDF and Syrian government will need to establish a new, inclusive dialogue. But first, the attempts to effectively annex part of Syria must be defeated.

Trump versus the rest?

The invasion has met very broad international opposition. UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, called for de-escalation, and said any solution to the conflict must “respect the sovereignty of the territory and the unity of Syria”. The Arab League, which has suspended the membership of Syria since 2011, condemned the action. Secretary General Ahmed Abould Gheit said Turkey’s action constituted an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty”. The EU issued a statement condemning Turkey’s offensive, and agreed to limit arms exports to Turkey, falling short of a complete embargo. France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Spain have stopped, or agreed to end, arms sales. France also withdrew its limited number of troops from Syria on October 14th.

Inside the US, a cross house move in Congress to impose sanctions is being led by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen. Seemingly anxious to avoid the major backlash, Trump is going to sign an executive order to allow sanctions against “Turkish individuals and entities”. Whether it is the release of ISIS fighters, or atrocities by Turkish allied forces, he must be nervous of how the battle will develop. The agreement with Erdogan was made with an assurance that Turkey will confine its military to rural areas and avoid cities. Such neatness in wars rarely obtains. By giving himself the power to sanction perhaps he hopes to avoid odium when things go, inevitably, awry.

Having helped engineer the invasion, Trump now explains he is opposed to it. This is not just an expression of his favoured “unpredictability”, but also of his continuing failure to secure success in his policy in the region. He has invited Erdogan to the White House in November. Originally this may have been conceived as reviewing a victory. Now it may offer a way out.

Opposition inside Britain – real and imaginary

The Tory government has opposed the invasion. It was clearly not informed of Trump’s intention to withdraw US troops. Further embarrassment followed when Trump referred to British troops in Syria. These must be Special Forces, whose movement the government, by convention, never comments on. Presumably these will also be, or have now been, withdrawn. Probably needless to say, but the government has given no indication of halting arms sales to Turkey.

The Labour Party, trade unions and progressive movement have generally condemned the invasion. Jeremy Corbyn has led this opposition, and called for multilateral action via the UN to bring about a ceasefire. When questioned by a reporter for JOE whether he supported a “no-fly zone”, he replied “Let’s not get involved in another war. Let’s get involved in peace”.

Unfortunately, some of the opposition has not been so clear. An open letter from 13 trade union General Secretaries called for an international force to intervene, and for a no-fly zone to be set up. This shows a failure to understand the lessons of Iraq and Libya. A no-fly zone is a military action, breaching national sovereignty, which inevitably creates a state of war between those policing the zone (NATO?), and other actors – in this case not just Turkey, but also the Syrian government.

The source of this error is having extracted one issue – the fate of the Kurds – from the whole assault upon the Syrian people by imperialism since 2011. This reflects parts of the narrative that imperialism has utilised against Syrian sovereignty. It suggests that the Kurds have been the “best fighters” against ISIS – ignoring the sacrifice of over 100,000 members of the Syrian armed forces since 2011 in the fight against Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Nusrah, and allied forces. It is also suggested that the Kurds have been uniquely betrayed, rendering invisible the Syrian people who have suffered 8 years of proxy, covert and overt war at the hands of imperialist powers.

Only by defending Syria’s independence can all its population, Kurds included, be defended. The action of the SDF in allying with the Syrian government will hopefully make that clearer to those who genuinely wish to defend the Kurds.