While you were sleeping…


American armour – in Syria – is interposing itself as a shield between Turkey and the American backed Syrian Kurdish rebels:

U.S. armored vehicles are deploying in areas in northern Syria along the tense border with Turkey, a few days after a Turkish airstrike that killed 20 U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, a Syrian war monitor and Kurdish activists said Friday.

Footage posted by Syrian activists online showed a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles driving on a rural road in the village of Darbasiyah, a few hundred meters from the Turkish border. Clashes in the area were reported between Turkish and Kurdish forces Wednesday a day after the Turkish airstrike which also destroyed a Kurdish command headquarters.

The Turkish airstrikes, which also wounded 18 members of the U.S.-backed People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria were criticized by both the U.S. and Russia. The YPG is a close U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group but is seen by Ankara as a terrorist group because of its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels.

Further clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria could potentially undermine the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State group.


(Credit: Google maps)

The thick white lines on the map (including the one just above Darbasiyah) are national borders. This means the American forces are now operating over a hundred kilometres into Syria from Iraq, which occupies the large chunk of the map to the east and south-east. You can watch the video of the joint American-Kurdish convoy here.

At this stage, Syrian Kurds are just about the only “good guys” left in Syria, as they have indeed been all along in Iraq. The fact that they still don’t have a state of their own, nearly a century after having been promised one as part of the post-WW1 settlement, is a historical travesty of epic proportions. If one eventually emerges as a result of the post-2003 turmoil in the region, it will be one small consolation on an otherwise dark vista. And it will be in the teeth of the opposition from just about every country in the region, which possesses its own Kurdish minority, particularly Turkey, where that minority is significant, restive, often violent, and a genuine threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. As Turkey becomes less European-oriented and less reliable as a NATO ally, while drifting ever more towards Islamist and authoritarian, I’m losing what sympathy I used to have for the country’s position.

The US has been trying for years to balance the often conflicting interests and aspirations of its Turkish and Kurdish allies. With that in mind, it has been reluctant to fully support the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, particularly militarily, for the fear that the well provisioned and equipped Kurds might actually trounce ISIS, and having done so, use their newly acquired dominant status – and guns – against the governments in Baghdad, Ankara and Damascus. The last one is not strictly speaking a problem for the US, since Assad is an enemy, except that a de facto independent Kurdish statelet in northern Syria would act an amplifier for the sovereign aspirations of Iraqi and Turkish Kurds – something that both the governments are hell-bent on hampering, even if only the Turkish government has the strength to try to do something about it – hence the bombardment of Darbasiyah and other Kurdish areas across the Syrian border.

America’s neutral stance, while understandable from a realist point of view, in hindsight has probably been a mistake, the Kurds being just about the only genuine and reliable ally the US has in the region apart from Israel. The failure to arm the Kurds, something they have been begging for for years now, has arguably prolonged the war against ISIS both in Syria and in Iraq, sacrificing at least tens of thousands of lives for the sake of not antagonising the Iraqi and the Turkish governments.

Whether or not the recent American action are an indication of a major change in approach to the problem, it is a step into the right direction. The Kurds need support and protection, as they face the Islamic State to the south, with their backs to Turkey. But it is very much uncharted waters for the United States.