Oct 14th 2019
ALL OF IT was foreseeable: the death and displacement, the atrocities, the flight of jihadists and the return of a brutal regime. But it has happened more quickly than almost anyone predicted. In the days since Turkey invaded north-east Syria on October 9th, scores of people have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced. A brief Syrian Kurdish experiment in self-rule has come to a crashing halt. Their entity, known as Rojava, is now a carcass to be picked over by the Turks and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator. Hundreds of Islamic State (IS) supporters, once held by the Kurds, have escaped into the desert scrub.
Small though it may seem, President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw some 100 troops from north-east Syria has reshaped the Levant. It cleared the way for a long-threatened Turkish invasion meant to dislodge the Kurdish-led militia in control of the region. Turkey views the group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a mortal foe because of its ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a long insurgency against the Turkish state.
With America gone the Turks, backed by Syrian rebels under their command (mostly Sunni Arabs), swept across the border and quickly seized a swathe of central Rojava. They control a stretch of the M4, the main east-west highway about 30km south of the border, allowing them to bisect the Kurdish enclave and cut the YPG’s supply lines. Advancing Syrian rebels have already been accused of atrocities. One gruesome video circulated on social media showed giddy militiamen executing a bound Kurdish prisoner on the battlefield. “Photograph me,” one rebel urges the cameraman, before he turns a sniper rifle on the captive.
Though known as fierce fighters, the Kurds lack armour or air power. Their light infantry stands little chance against a modern Turkish army. Instead of fighting to the death they have asked Mr Assad for protection. For years the YPG, perhaps hedging its bets, tried to avoid open conflict with the regime. And on October 13th the Kurds struck a deal to bring the regime back to the north-east. “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life,” the Kurdish commander, Mazloum Abdi, wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy, an American magazine. Mr Assad wasted little time. His troops are already fanning out into territory formerly under YPG control.
While his men moved in, America moved out. On October 13th the defence secretary, Mark Esper, said America would withdraw all 1,000 troops deployed across northern Syria, fearing they would be caught between the Turkish and Syrian armies. Hopeful Pentagon officials still think they might maintain a presence elsewhere. This is wishful thinking. It will be hard to protect and resupply troops. One group of American soldiers already had to flee under Turkish shelling. America does hope to maintain its outpost at Tanf, in the badlands of south-east Syria, which is meant (rather improbably) to constrain Iranian influence in the region. Even that may be impossible, too.
Faced with a crisis of its own making, a flailing superpower has turned to economic sanctions to pretend it is still relevant. Senators have drafted a bill that takes aim at Turkey’s leadership and its armed forces, with apparent support from the president. “There is great consensus on this,” Mr Trump tweeted. Set aside the hypocrisy of America punishing Turkey for an offensive that Mr Trump himself acquiesced to earlier this month. Sanctions will not compel Turkey to halt its invasion. Nor will condemnations from European powers, some of which have also restricted arms sales to Turkey, a fellow NATO member.
If anyone can stop the fighting, it is Vladimir Putin. The Russian president finds himself in an awkward spot. Mr Assad is a client, and Russia is happy for his regime to retake territory. On the other hand, Turkey is a valued friend, and part of a Russian-led effort to find a political agreement that ends Syria’s wider civil war. “Losing Turkey means losing a solution to the Syrian problem,” says a former Russian diplomat. Mr Putin will try to push both sides towards a modus vivendi. Having thrown away his last bit of leverage in Syria, Mr Trump will be a mere bystander. Eight years after Barack Obama called for Mr Assad to go, it is America that is ignominiously leaving Syria.
Original Headline: Turkey’s invasion has thrown a once-stable corner of Syria into chaos
Source: The Economist