Trump blinks, allows Erdogan to revive ISIS in Middle East (Sunday Guardian)
By M D Nalapat Kurds in Syria and Ghani government in Kabul will be the immediate victims of President Trump’s decision to pay heed to the wishes of Erdogan in Turkey and GHQ Rawalpindi in Pakistan.
WASHINGTON: Energised by his success in weakening the influence of his archrival, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia, President R.T. Erdogan of what was once a secular Turkey is now seeking to destroy once and for all the Kurdish militias that he has long considered his most deadly foe. So far as the numerous ultra-Wahhabi armed formations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are concerned, from around 2007 onwards, President Erdogan sought to follow the Pakistan example in Afghanistan (which involved the backing of the Taliban in order for GHQ Rawalpindi to ensure primacy over that country) in conflict zones within the Middle East. This took place through Turkey joining hands, together with elements of the ruling establishment in Qatar as well as anti-MbS elites in Saudi Arabia, in assisting ultra-Wahhabi fighters throughout the region to take on their secular and moderate foes, a list that includes the Turkish President’s three hates: moderate Sunnis, Kurds, and the Shias. President Erdogan, who makes no secret of his adoption of the Wahhabi ideology, has used ultra fighters to harry and wherever possible destroy moderate Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria, Shia armed groups in Syria, and Kurdish militia wherever he finds them. Through a brilliant set of tactics that have made leading newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Guardian his PR outlets, Erdogan has used the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to geo-strategic advantage. The Saudi dissident, who dabbled as a columnist for the Washington Post, was working energetically and expensively on behalf of a particular (and largely excluded from power) branch of the Saudi royal family. Their plan was to bring down Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the first Al Saud to openly confront the Wahhabi cancer that hitherto spread across the world from its base in Saudi Arabia. Through selective leaks based on illegal interception of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the President of Turkey has weakened the hand of his key geopolitical rival, a Saudi Arabia effectively led by MbS. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now, with trademark clumsiness, confronting an expertly-orchestrated campaign led by the Wahhabi International and its dupes and agents across North America and Europe to dethrone the chosen heir to King Salman. As a consequence of the well-orchestrated global outcry against the Saudi Crown Prince, the Kingdom is unable to challenge Turkish designs in the region as effectively as was the case prior to Khashoggi’s demise.
TRUMP SUCCUMBS TO ERDOGAN
President Donald J. Trump of the United States, despite his aversion to Wahhabism—a creed that all his predecessors in effect backed, some with kinetic force—seems to have succumbed to pressure from Erdogan in the 19 December decision to withdraw the 2,000-odd US troops in Syria. These are presently in the path of Turkish forces primed to battle lightly armed Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq. Many of the relatively small US forces in Syria are Special Forces assisting the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish people in their battle with elements of the ISIS, much of which comprises those assisted by the anti-Kemalist regime in Turkey over the years, especially since 2013, the period when ISIS accelerated its military campaigns in both Iraq as well as Syria and captured substantial territory in both countries soon afterwards. That push was mainly funded by donors in the Middle East whose identities are known to US authorities. However, as yet, neither the Barack Obama nor the successor Trump administration has sought to hold to account those within HNI (high net-worth individuals) within the Middle East who facilitated through cash and weaponry the expansion of ISIS in the region and beyond. Officials privately say that the reason for such forbearance is because the Middle Eastern ruling establishments fuelling the drive by ISIS against the Kurds, moderate Sunnis and Shias persuaded the security setups in France, the UK and the US to join in the process, as a consequence of which Atlanticist governments are hesitant to expose those Middle Eastern groups and individuals who funded and armed ISIS “because much of that operation was carried out jointly with certain western governments”, who were, in this recital, “fooled” into helping ISIS after being given the impression that the beneficiaries of the funding, arming and training of Wahhabi extremists were “only fighting to overturn the Bashar Assad regime in Syria”, which has been an overt NATO priority since 2011. Incidentally, President Erdogan has ritually mouthed the vow to “destroy ISIS” even while several of the fighters backed by him are indistinguishable from the group.
The unknown in President Trump’s hugely consequential decision (which led to the resignation of the capable US Defense Secretary, James Mattis) will be the approach taken towards the US retreat in Syria by the Damascus-Teheran-Moscow alliance. Should they brush aside bluster from President Erdogan and reach out to the Kurdish formations, the latter may well be in a mood to join hands with them as a consequence of what is clearly a gross and unmerited betrayal of Kurdish interests by the Trump administration. In exchange for accepting a high degree of Kurdish autonomy in select enclaves of Syria, the combined forces of Russia, Iran and the legal government in Syria would get an incalculably large boost in their strength were the Kurdish YPG to switch from the US side to the coalition led by Moscow. Should Turkish forces seek to move in on a Moscow-Teheran backed YPG, they would be sure to get a bloody nose in the encounter, thereby substantially weakening the domestic support base of Erdogan. A prize such as a Kurdish switch from Washington to Moscow would more than compensate Vladimir Putin for the meagre benefits he is getting from the fickle goodwill of R.T. Erdogan, whose backing for extremist groups even while remaining a member of NATO has established him as a high-wire trapeze artist par excellence of diplomacy. A rapprochement between the Kurds and the Moscow-led coalition in Syria would immediately translate into substantial strategic gains for Iran and Russia in a crucial theatre of operations, that too in a context where NATO member-countries are openly seeking regime change in Moscow.
THE DAMASCUS, TEHERAN, MOSCOW FACTOR
Although the media in NATO capitals places the credit for the rollback of ISIS enclaves since 2016 at the door of the US and other alliance forces in Syria, the battle formations responsible for the destruction of ISIS forts were the combined armed forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran. The other effective formation behind the setbacks suffered by ISIS during the past three years in both Iraq as well as Syria has been the Kurdish YPG, which despite its effectiveness and its sacrifices has consistently been denied adequate frontline equipment by the US and its NATO allies for fear of angering President Erdogan, who in effect has long backed ISIS, in its war against the Shias and the Kurds. The latter is an ethnicity Erdogan detests for its refusal to comply with the “Creeping Wahhabisation” program of the Turkish Head of State and to accept his overlordship. The Kurds have, in their entirety, resisted the lure of Wahhabisation and are far and away the most socially moderate group in the Middle East. Another is the Alawite sect in Syria, which, however, is allied with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran and with other groups whose social vision is much more hardline than those of the Alawites. The Kurds have backed the US consistently since the days when Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, despite being serially short-changed by Washington. Consequently, they have earned the ire of Russian supremo Vladimir Putin, who has in some ways joined hands with Turkey’s Wahhabi leadership to constrict the Kurds and thereby punish them for their loyalty to Washington. Similarly, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) sees the Kurds as potential foes, given the presence of large numbers of them in particular regions of Iran. Interestingly, President Assad of Syria (a partner of the Iranians and the Russians) has a much more nuanced position on the Kurds, and has largely left them unmolested in their battle against ISIS and other Wahhabi militias, many of which are being assisted by NATO at the same time as some relatively meagre assistance is being provided to Kurdish YPG units to do battle against those ISIS elements as are still active in Syria and Iraq. President Trump’s unexpected acceptance of Erdogan’s condition that the US should withdraw forces that are stationed between Turkish and YPG formations may result in a re-ordering of regional alliances. Doing a deal with the Kurds would have far more value to the Moscow-Damascus-Teheran alliance than reliance on the mercurial Erdogan, whose failures in economic policy is inexorably leading to a loss of public support within Turkey, despite NATO dancing to his tune.
As of now, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together in their antipathy towards the till now US-aligned Kurdish forces, although neither Moscow nor Teheran share Ankara’s partiality for extremist Wahhabi fighters, and have indeed wreaked substantial damage on such forces through air and ground operations since the closing months of 2016. Given that the Kurds are moderate, only their decades-long loyalty to the Pentagon and its sister agencies within the US has made Bashar Assad acquiesce thus far in some of Ankara’s stands that go against Kurdish interests. Where Syrian territory is concerned, the immediate priority of Damascus is to free from Wahhabi militia control the few zones where the latter still dominate. Rather than go by his natural instinct and fight against an Assad backed by Teheran and Moscow, the aim of President Erdogan will be to empower ultra-Wahhabi armed groups to take back territory from the Kurds, a scenario that would lead to a bloodbath on the Yazidi model, were Turkish-backed fighters to succeed against the Kurds. In contrast to the skimpy assistance in terms of money and weaponry provided to the Kurds by the US (a miserliness similar to the scanty provisioning thus far of military equipment by the US to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan), ultra-Wahhabi fighters have been given lavish funding and supplies of weaponry by their regional patrons, all of whom are either allied to NATO or form part of that organisation. As there is no firewall between non-ISIS and ISIS fighters within such groups, the flow of funds and equipment to them has resulted in a replenishment of stocks with ISIS that may be sufficient to enable the group to launch a new round of offensives in Syria and Iraq before mid-2019, besides strengthening the enclaves they hold in Libya. The Patron-in-Chief of such groups is Erdogan, and he has lately found a surprise backer in President Trump, who has downscaled assistance to Kurdish forces over the past year in deference to the demand from Ankara that all such help by the US to the Kurds be discontinued. As for any goodwill with Turkey, any moves in support of Erdogan pit Washington against the growing number of Turks who are uneasy with the creeping advance of Wahhabism that they are seeing in their country over the past decade.
U.S. AS AN UNREALIABLE ALLY
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US forces still embedded with the YPG will result in the latter becoming immediately vulnerable to an assault by much better-equipped Turkish regular forces assisted by Erdogan-backed militias that include elements of ISIS. This second major abandonment of the Kurds by Washington (the first being during the 1990s when Saddam Hussein battered them unobstructed by nearby US forces posted in the region after Operation Desert Storm) is serving to convince the entire Middle East that reliance on US material support (as a reward for faithfully going along with the suggestions of the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA) would be an act of folly. The US dance with Erdogan against Kurdish interests contrasts Washington’s unreliability in the matter of standing by their partners in the Middle East, with the muscular manner in which Moscow has backed the Assad regime in Damascus, save for a few occasions in which President Putin was tempted into making their Syrian allies make concessions in the expectation (that never materialised) of US-EU sanctions on the Russian Federation being removed or at the least, substantially diluted. Instead, each concession led to more demands that were asked to be met by Moscow before the matter of sanctions could even be considered. Leaving the consistently loyal Kurds to the non-existent mercies of President Erdogan would show the US up as a partner with zero reliability, a country that will abandon its most faithful regional supporters as a consequence of short-term adjustments and agreements entered into by the White House and its subsidiary agencies with other players.
THE AFGHAN THEATRE
Turkey is to the ultra-Wahhabi fighters in the Middle East what Pakistan is to the Taliban and other groups (including elements of Al Qaeda) in Afghanistan. It should not therefore come as a surprise that President Trump, after seemingly turning his back on the Kurds on behalf of Turkey, seems on the cusp of announcing a similar withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan as another Christmas gift, this time to GHQ Rawalpindi. Both Russia and China are known to be assisting the Pakistan military in its operations involving the Taliban, and during the past two years, lethal assistance provided to that force has increased substantially, lubricated by record revenues from the narcotics trade in the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle. Despite his record of always following the dictates of the US (a habit presumably acquired during his World Bank days), President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan will find the security of his country severely compromised as a consequence of an abrupt US troop withdrawal from a country where ultra-Wahhabi radicals have regained complete control of 40% of the territory and are working towards securing the same dominance that they had during the period before 9/11 and its immediate aftermath during 2001-03. China, in particular, will benefit from this show of US fickleness towards its allies, given that Beijing and Washington are increasingly on opposite sides of a conflict, the way Moscow and Washington have become as a consequence of the Atlanticists getting the upper hand over Trump in policy towards Russia as a consequence of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s witch-hunt against the Trump family.
INDIA MUST STEP IN
The double withdrawal of US forces from both the Kurdish enclaves of Syria as well as from Afghanistan transparently reflect the fact that the US has lost the wars it has conducted in the Middle East and in South Asia since the dawn of the 21st century, despite initial victories on the (conventional) battlefield in locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In Syria, even such short-run successes proved impossible as a consequence of the backing given by Teheran and Moscow to the Assad regime. The cutting and running by US forces in two major theatres will have its impact in India, a country that under Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi has begun the process of entering into a defence partnership with Washington. Given the size and scale of both countries, this is still an idea whose time has come. However, the US withdrawal may mean that Delhi will have to step into the role of providing security for the lawful government in Kabul against the Taliban, possibly in alliance with Teheran and Moscow so far as this theatre is concerned. Should Beijing reconsider its 100% (i.e., in all circumstances, even in those instances where backing Islamabad goes against Beijing’s interests). The experience of the Kurds and others has shown that relying exclusively on Washington as a security partner would be a risk too far for the interests of the 1.26 billion citizens of India.
The Kurds in Syria and the Ghani government in Kabul will be the immediate victims of the decision by President Trump to heed the wishes of President Erdogan in Turkey and GHQ Rawalpindi in Pakistan. However, the fallout from the implicit and effective backing given to these two neo-Wahhabi establishments will generate a situation such that Washington will be compelled to step back into the mess it has substantially helped to create, possibly within the present term of President Trump. However, this time around, whatever allies the US has left in the region will be wary about Washington’s demonstrated propensity to cut and run from theatres of conflict despite in the process betraying those who have stood by the US, sometimes for decades. Both New Delhi as well as Seoul (which is on the cusp of declaring independence from Washington in order to move forward jointly with Pyongyang towards the coming together of the Korean peninsula) will be re-doing their calculations on the extent of a security partnership with the US, given the unreliability of the US as a security partner after what is a surrender by the Trump administration to the dictates of Ankara and GHQ Rawalpindi. A surrender that has the potential to give a second life to ISIS and its modules across the globe, unless Moscow, Teheran and Damascus rework their sums to prevent R.T. Erdogan from giving a boost to the Wahhabi International and its extremist brigades in Syria. In an Afghanistan denuded of US troops, China will need to be talked to by India to accept that GHQ Rawalpindi is a security threat and not a suitable partner, and that Beijing will need to work with Delhi to ensure that the Kabul government not fall once again to the Taliban. President Xi Jinping will also have to stop the efforts of the PLA to get Moscow to support GHQ Rawalpindi the way the Central Military Commission in Beijing has been doing for decades, often at the cost of not just money, but vital Chinese interests. While the US, as the world’s other huge democracy, will obviously be the Partner of Choice for India in matters of security. In specific theatres, secondary alliances will need to be established by Delhi, given the frequent propensity of Washington to cut and run from major theatres of conflict on the most transient of grounds, much of which relate to domestic politics rather than to global geopolitics. The least President Trump can do to re-assure loyal allies would be to ensure that adequate supplies of essential weaponry are made available to the Kurds and Afghans before US forces depart, and ensure that the Kurds and moderate Afghans are kept resupplied in what will soon be an existential battle for Kurds and moderate Afghans against a cruel and ruthless foe that has been plentifully stocked by allies of the very NATO alliance that claims to be fighting extremists across the globe.