By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Over the months of July and August 2016, several strategic events have taken place in the Mideast which have rapidly transformed the geopolitical landscape. So far it remains unclear whether after the 12 hour long meeting between Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov and US State Secretary Kerry in Geneva (August 27th), the world will move closer to a political ceasefire in Syria or whether – compared to the bloody thirty years war (1618-48) – the war theaters in the Mideast region will multiply and war will continue for a long time.

A key factor for solving the ongoing civil war in Syria is Turkey, as German Foreign Minister Frank W. Steinmeier correctly stated in an ARD (1.German TV channel) interview August 29th , in which he stressed that whether we like it or not “we need Turkey to find a political solution in the Syria conflict.” Steinmeier described it as a highly complex conflict with many different actors on the scene. In the same interview, Steinmeier also spoke about the need for a new Arms control debate between East and West in order to create a common European security space and serious dialogue with Russia. At the G-20 summit in Beijing (September 5th) new opportunities will be offered for the state leaders to look for a common solution of the conflict, that otherwise will remain out of control.

Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey, July 15th , which was followed by purges in the army and several renewed terrorist attacks in the Southeast of Turkey, Turkey has made a strategic turn and it still remains to be seen whether this will help the peace process in the Mideast and Europe or not. On August 9th a rapprochement took place between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin in St Petersburg. It was the first time after in November 2015 the Turkish air force had shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber. The Turkish News Agency Anadolu made reference to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who had stated on August 10ththat Russia and Turkey have common views on political settlement in Syria, including issues of observing ceasefire and delivering humanitarian aid. We (with Russia) have similar views on the ceasefire in Syria, humanitarian aid and political settlement”, Cavusoglu told Anadolu agency. The Turkish minister also said that the two countries plan to cooperate in the military sphere, as well as in intelligence and diplomacy.

Most substantial progress during the talks in St. Petersburg was made in the field of economic relations, especially energy relations. This includes the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant by Russian specialists and the laying of the Turkish “Stream” gas pipeline along the Black Sea seabed. It also includes the resuming of Russian Charter flights to Turkey, which would help Turkish tourism. In a commentary written by a Maxim Yusin, which was published in Kommersant, Yusin underlined that there are still a lot of contradictions on the Russian and Turkish side concerning the view of the Syrian conflict. While Turkey is against Assad, Putin wants to keep him. Ankara has not stopped to back the Syrian opposition units and in terms of the Kurds, for Ankara the Kurdish units in Syria who are fighting against Islamist radicals, are opponents, separatist accomplices of terrorists from the Kurdistan working party while for Moscow the Kurds are potential allies.

On August 24th a Turkish ground offensive in Northern Syrian against the city of Jarabulus where with support of Syrian rebels and the US air force the Turkish army began to cleanse the area of Daesh and Kurdish fighters and reconquer it. The operation called “Protective Shield Euphrates” formally claimed to fight against IS terrorists, but was used in reality by Turkey as an “opportune moment” (a Grigory Melamedov commented in Sputnik, 25th August) to prevent a further advance by the Syrian Kurds. According to the Turkish agency Anadolu 1500 Syrian rebels from the FSA (Free Syrian Army, anti-Assad forces) were involved. The offensive coincided with the visit of US Vice President Biden in Ankara, who demanded from the Kurds not to advance further but to retreat to the East of the Euphrates River and not to establish a Kurdish Independent State. According to the Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, the aim is to secure the border to Syria and prevent that the Kurdish PYD, the military arm of YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), takes control over Jarabulus.

Will be the Kurds the loser?

The whole geopolitical dimension of this new Turkish offensive was illustrated in a background article published by FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) Mideast correspondent Rainer Herrmann (August 29th) in which the correspondent underlined that behind the Turkish military operation “Protective Shield Euphrates” there is not so much will to conduct war against the IS, but to fight the Kurdish Popular Defense Units (YPG). The cause for the Turkish turn around, according to Herrmann, has been the failed coup attempt July 15th.. After almost half of the Turkish generals were arrested together with several thousands officers and soldiers, the operation in Northern Syria is to demonstrate that the Turkish army is fully “operational”. “The entire operation is facilitated by a ‘power shift’ which has taken place within the generals”, Herrmann wrote in his analysis. “Most of the arrested generals had belonged to the transatlantic wing of the army; now according to Turkey experts, the generals who belong to the Eurasian wing are in the majority. For this wing the regional interests of Turkey are primary, especially the preemption of the establishment of a Kurdish state. (…) The Eurasian wing looks at Russia principally as a partner.” The improvement of bilateral relations since the meeting between Erdogan and Putin, August 9th further facilitates the Turkish operation, Herrmann comments. Since the agreement between the two countries, Turkey does not have to fear that Russia will block the Turkish offensive on Syrian ground. Herrmann reports, that shortly after US Vice President Biden’s departure from Ankara, Turkey announced the visit of the current Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov in Ankara, envisaged for the 26th of August, at the occasion of which he was to meet with his delegation the Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulus Arkar. So far Russia has not intervened on the sides of the Kurds, with whom they were loosely allied, Herrmann remarks.

The real losers of the game, according to Herrmann are the Kurds. He stated that they are bitter about the present situation, since neither Washington nor Moscow come to assist them. On the contrary, Biden had demanded that the Kurds withdraw to the East of the Euphrates River, otherwise they would lose US support, Herrmann wrote. He reported that the YPG no more receives American ammunition and secret service information coming from air surveillance of the region in which the Turkish /Kurdish combat takes place. The Kurds meanwhile have the sense that again, like in the past, the great powers let them drop. This time however the Kurds have no intention to either give in to the will of Washington or give in to the Turkish demands to return territory which they had previously conquered from the IS. Herrmann commented that, without the Kurds, the potential for fighting the IS and the idea to reconquer the IS headquarter Raqqa (Syria) will be impossible. And in trying to reconquer the IS city Mosul, the US would have to rely entirely on the Shiite militia, which narrows down the potential for success.

Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung: US fight only symptoms against IS

In this context it is worthwhile to mention a recently published Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung special study “War against Symptoms – why the IS will not be defeated for a longer period.” It was published 22nd August in Berlin and authored by Nils Wörmer and Lukas Lamberty, scientific collaborators of the KAS foreign offices in Syria and Iraq. The study reveals that two years after the “conquering crusade” and call for the establishment of a Caliphate, made on the 29th June 2014, the so called IS is militarily under pressure on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq (it lost one third of its territory as well as 25.000 fighters over the past two years and has been reduced to a force between 20.000 and 40.000 fighters.) The offensive for reconquering the two IS strongholds Raqqa (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq) continue at a very slow pace. At the same time the danger of terrorist attacks in Europe, as exemplified by Nice (France) and Ansbach (Germany) attacks – remains high and the IS has managed to get hold in Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

The authors criticize that de facto the fight of the US-led 63 states coalition above all concentrates on fighting the “symptoms” of the problem-case IS. But that they hardly can fight the causes. This gets clear when one looks at the preparations to reconquer back Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is: the allies on the ground are competing with each other and are only capable on a limited scale to keep the reconquered areas and govern them.

The study reports that since September 2014 the US-led coalition flew 14.000 Air attacks in Syria and Iraq, in order to destroy the infrastructure of the IS and support advances made by local allies. Aside air attacks, so far Special Forces from GB, USA, France and other states especially operate in Northern Iraq against the IS. Support of the allies consists in giving weapons, armament and ammunition as well as training and consultations. In Syria the military assistance by the US concentrates on the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) which consists of the Syrian-Kurdish YPG and which operates in the Northeast of the country in several Kurdish areas. Since October 2015 the US supplied the SDF with weapons, 50 Military advisors and in April 2016 it sent a 250 member special unit for direct involvement in ground operations. In Iraq the coalition has trained in the past 2 years with 3.700 US soldiers and 2000 soldiers from other states, it has trained 30.000 members of the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga and gave weapons to them. Turkey meanwhile has kept the borders to Syria permeable in order to use the IS as instrument against Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime.

The weakness of the very detailed study, lies in the fact that the authors completely block out the role which Russia has been playing in the Syrian war since September 2015, nor do they reflect in detail about the role which different “regional” actors, including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, US and Russia are playing in the conflict. The August 27th Geneva summit between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry offered an opportunity for bringing about a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict. After 12 hours of negotiation Kerry remarked during a press conference that they were “close” to an agreement which brings about a ceasefire in Syria, while Russian foreign minister Lavrov stressed that the U.S has for the first time presented Russia with a list of groups in the Syrian conflict which could be considered moderate and which have joined the ceasefire. Earlier Russian officials repeatedly had criticized Washington for its inability to separate “moderate opposition” from terrorists. Fyodor Lukyanov, the chief editor of “Russia in Global Affairs”, was quoted by the Russian news agency RTBH: “Clearly both Russia and the U.S. after the recent changes in relations with Turkey are distancing themselves from the Kurds (…) for the sake of cooperation with Turkey on Syria, the two powers are prepared to limit their contracts with Kurds.

Wiesbaden, August 31 2016

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