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Belle of the ball: A Syrian morality tale

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We probably all remember playing as children and immersing ourselves in fantasies in which we were the star: saving the world, beating the baddies, the belle of the ball.

Rex TillersonWhile all of that is natural and an important part of human development and a growth in self-awareness, assuming the world is a stage upon which we are the pre-eminent player is problematic when applied to real life — particularly if we happen to have some advantage which allows us to get away with the illusion for a time. The perils of such hubris can be seen particularly acutely in the current Syrian situation.

The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (pictured) recently announced that the indispensable power was staying permanently. It is, after all, the most heavily armed and funded military in the world and nothing seemed to stand in its way of its dream of another Middle East conquest. Admittedly, President Assad had stayed in office against all expectations (with the help of Russia, Iran, Iraqi militias and Hezbollah). Nevertheless, he was tied up fighting Al Qaeda in the north-west and his battered army certainly wasn't about to open another front.

Considerations of domestic or international legality were not mentioned and don't seem to have factored too highly into Tillerson's calculations. Certainly, the annexation of territory is illegal at international law, as Russia is often reminded, and Congress is supposed to approve declarations of war. Nevertheless, the invasion of Iraq, the extraction of Kossovo from Yugoslavia and the initial US deployments to Syria were not approved by the UN or the relevant governments. Congress seems to have little say in the US's wars anymore — even when it is functioning.

A Pentagon spokesman accordingly informed the world that the US would establish a Kurdish-led 'Border Force' (formed from the existing Syrian Democratic Forces and such other allies — mostly ISIS defectors and Eastern Syrian tribes — as it could muster) which would defend the areas it controlled against all comers.

It might, however, have occurred to a more empathetic and humble (and better advised) administration that the prospect of a Kurdish-dominated state would be the one and only way to instantly unite Shi'a Iran, Baathist Syria, Muslim Brotherhood-favouring Turkey and multi-confessional Iraq (all with their own restive Kurdish populations) in opposition to the idea.

In particular, NATO ally Turkey, led by the nationalistic Recep Tayip Erdogan, had already been chafing at being forced to cooperate, even on a limited basis, with the Syrian Kurds. As is now widely known, the US move was the last straw and, on 20 January, he launched an attack on US-backed Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. It was apparently supported by a last-minute volte-face by the US — belatedly realising the hornet's nest into which it had stepped — which now 'supports Turkey's security concerns'.


"I would be surprised if the relationship between the US and the Kurdish factions lasts for much longer."


By the same token, the Kurdish leadership in Syria has (like their counterparts in Iraq) played a potentially strong hand poorly — it seems because they, too, believed that they were indispensable to the mighty US military. They have indeed fought hard against IS and the US's other enemies in collaboration with Uncle Sam and doubtless expected some reward for loyal service.

However, by assuming that they were the star of the Syrian show and rejecting Russia's offers of a negotiation with Turkey and the Syrian Government out of hand (apparently on the basis that the US would support them, come what may) they now have no patrons to protect against a Turkish takeover. (On a strictly realist reading, they, like the US, would probably have been better served by recognising the fears and divergent interests of their neighbours and negotiating piecemeal with each of them — and thus avoided being outmanoeuvred by all of them.)

The result of these miscalculations is that the US seems to have realised (rather late) that it does not, after all, value the Syrian Kurds sufficiently to carve a Syrian-Kurdish entity out and hold it against all comers — particularly if that means estranging a NATO ally. The Kurdish parties will, by the same token, have concluded that the US is a decidedly bruised reed upon which to lean. As a result, I would be surprised if the relationship between the US and the Kurdish factions lasts for much longer.

Turkey's refusal to deal with its own multi-ethnic nature and its lashing out at the Syrian Kurds is unlikely to be cost free either. The Kurds are doughty fighters and I doubt, given Erdogan's purges after the 2016 coup, that the army could sustain a prolonged occupation. Even in these early days of 'Operation Olive Branch', the army has already lost men and materiel and suffered cross-border incursions which are likely to worsen as the fight lengthens and its own aggrieved Kurdish population makes common causes with the victims of the invasion.

Things move fast in the Middle East and predictions are dangerous (especially where they concern the future). Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the probable eventual upshot will be that the US, Turkey and the Kurds will all suffer as a result of their precipitate decisions. The only beneficiary is likely to be the Syrian state (which all of them oppose).

Turkey's campaign is quite likely to cause a lot of blood and horror on both sides of the border (particularly if it goes on for a while). Eventually, however, due to the army's weakness, the sturdiness of the opposition and the difficulty of the terrain, the invader is likely to be forced to withdraw. Both sides will, however, be severely weakened (for minimal gain) and the US and its nominal allies will all have suffered an acute loss of mutual trust. Accordingly, the end result will probably be an accommodation whereby the Kurds reconcile with the Syrian government (for all its faults, likely to be the only long-term show in town) in exchange for a healthy degree of autonomy and some sort of security guarantee to save Turkish face.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Syria, Kurds, Turkey, Rex Tillerson



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Existing comments

It's complicated, isn't it. Since I haven't been watching the SBS news lately (due to watching too much of a particular sport) I am not really up to date with the complexities. Sometimes, when situations are as complex as these it's difficult to sustain concentration. However, we must never give up hope that the situation can be resolved peaceably. Where is the United Nations in all of this?

Pam | 23 January 2018  

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