Things are happening so fast in the armed diplomacy of the Levant that it is hard for codgers like me to keep up. No sooner do I finish responding to one major development than another laps at my closing period. And now again: I finish “Ceasefire or Bait-and-Switch” and the very next day John Kerry drops the “p” word on us: “partition.” Ka-boom.Let’s pick up where we left off: with the mega-sized Russian bait-and-switch proposition that we let the Russians take care of our ISIS problem, but only after we agree to Russia’s saving the Assad regime “in all the territory of Syria the regime wishes to control,” and if we “stay out of the way of the developing Russian relationships with Iran and the Kurds.”I chose my words carefully on Tuesday. Whatever Bashar al-Assad has said lately about wanting to recover all the territory of what used to be Syria, he has very little capacity to act independently. He has become a satrap to the second power, so to speak, having first become beholden to Tehran and now more so, exponentially even, to Moscow. When the Iranians floated a concept of partition in the weeks after the July 14 nuclear deal, they probably had discussed the notion with the Russians with whom they were about to go kinetic together in Syria.All the Iranians really care about is Damascus International Airport, for that’s how they mainly supply and hence control Hizballah and the murderous Shi‘a Arab militias they have created like so many Stephen King monster-clown automatons. The Russian leadership cares about Tartus, and about regime maintenance as a point of both reactionary-revolutionary principle and ultimate self-protection. (I say “reactionary-revolutionary” because today, in a Western normative context, it is revolutionary to be reactionary in the face of established idealpolitik political correctness, which helps to explain why Donald Trump is so fond of Vladimir Putin, but never mind all that for the moment.)No one in Moscow, Tehran, or Damascus really cares particularly about the eastern desert in Syria, which is the ur-patrimony of Syria’s Sunni Arab population. Yes, over the centuries the Sunnis have migrated to, and gotten a majoritarian grasp to one extent or another, on major cities such as Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus too. But we are witnessing a form of generic ethnic cleansing—seen most vividly now in the weaponization of the Sunni refugee flow out of embattled Aleppo—that in time could make a rump Syria consisting of the Damascus area, the Qusayr pivot zone, and Latakia Province non-Sunni enough to be demographically viable for Assad’s Alawi heirs. It is hard for nice Western people to think in such horrid, draconian terms—and so what?This is where the bait-and-switch comes in. If the Russians, and the Iranians, have been thinking forced partition for some time now, as many believe is the case, then there isn’t going to be any follow through wherein the Russians smash Raqqa, extirpate the Islamic State, and figure out, wishfully with us at their side, how to stabilize and govern the Sunni areas of Syria and adjoining Iraq. That would take a formidable ground force, much time, and much headache in conducting the Russian version of a Phase IV operation. They are not about to attempt that, not after what they experienced in Afghanistan. They are not about to gratuitously stimulate the wrath of the entire Sunni world directed against Russia—at least not any more than they already have. And they are not about to bleed in order to remove a menace that constitutes a real threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states, the better to cow them in future. That is why Putin’s “anti-terrorist” rhetoric is mere brain baffle. It is meant to appeal to good-natured but slow-witted Westerners, and unfortunately it is working better than it ought to (not against Ash Carter, thank God, but still…).The old saw is that Russians play chess, and Americans play checkers (or horseshoes). Well, here’s testimony to the fact. The Russian leadership has carefully and fairly skillfully taken advantage of what reality has had to offer in and around Syria. They have, by putting skin in the game, established Russia as the local and regional kingmaker. They have, by so doing, made any new, serious U.S. attempt to re-torque the battlefield vastly more dangerous, and hence much less likely to happen. They have, by aiding the progress of the Iran nuclear deal—as one of the P5—pumped oxygen into the pre-existent U.S. motivation to head for the exit ramp in the Middle East. They have therefore found it almost child’s play to aid the process of dissolving any lingering trust the Sunni Arab states and Turkey had in American pledges and promises accumulated over decades, but that have been summarily cut off at the knees by the Obama Administration’s seven-plus years of serial strategic malpractice. They have in particular put Turkish President Erdogan in a policy cage formed on its four sides by Kurds, ISIS, U.S. passivity, and Russian threats. They are rapidly in the process of stealing a critical U.S. “futures option,” namely the key external relationship with a rising Kurdish nationalism. In the process, they have found a way to undermine Western resolve on Ukraine via the orthogonal pressure of the migrant/asylum crisis on the European Union.Not bad, for a bunch of guys whose country is weak and getting weaker. And now, having in Vienna and Geneva herded the Obama Administration into the corral with the sign dangling above reading “Assad Can Stay,” they have driven John Kerry through the rat’s maze to ring the little buzzer that says “partition.”If you say partition with regard to Syria, you do at least two other things at the same time. First, if you say it with regard Syria you say it also with regard to Iraq (and maybe also Libya, Yemen, and so on), because once you let that demon out of the cave, it cannot easily be put back. In the Middle East, if you pull on the partition string, there is really no telling where it ends. And second, if you say “partition” with respect to Syria, you are saying at the least Kurdish autonomy if not independence in the same breath.Please understand: Partition has long been inevitable in both Syria and Iraq. If you have been reading this column in recent years, you will know that I pronounced both the Syrian and Iraqi territorial Westphalian units dead a long time ago. It is probably possible in theory for some imperial master with lots of hammers and nails to put these places back together again in the confabulations of the post-Ottoman epoch. But there is no such imperial master to hand, and putting them back together is not nearly so hard as keeping them together when there is no practical raison d’etre for it or national spirit to serve.It is not true, as is often claimed, that this is all the fault of the British and French for creating “artificial” territorial entities after World War I. The heterogeneity of these places existed also in Ottoman times and before those four centuries as well, and heterogeneity has its beauty as well as its challenges (remember E pluribus unum, perhaps?). And post-World War I Syria, and even Iraq, were not as newly or as wildly heterogeneous as all that, and their economic logic persisted from the Ottoman experience as well—but never mind the history for now: These territorial states will not be reconstituted in reality, theory once again be spited.But it is one thing to understand—not that the U.S. government has showed any signs of it—that partition is inevitable in Syria and Iraq, and another for a Secretary of State to come right out and say it in a way that sounds like a minor descant in a symphony written and conducted in Moscow. This is part of a desultory pattern. The Iranian regime wanted to retain its ability to enrich uranium; we ended up blessing that desire in return for some wishes we cannot by ourselves redeem. The Cuban regime decided to finally bite the bullet of normalization; we blessed it without extracting the slightest useful condition from those thugs. The Russian regime wants to partition Syria in a way that aids its clients, allies, and itself but that hurts U.S. clients and allies, and we again bless it.No matter; he said it, and now what?This is not the place, a mere blog post, to go into what lies ahead in any detail. It will, however, be quite a shit show, and a multidimensional one at that. Let me only briefly note what partition always means in human terms, and then finish with a word about the Kurds.As necessary or inevitable as partition may be in Syria and Iraq, as it was nearly seventy years ago in Palestine and the Raj, it is never much fun. There are population transfers and these are always accompanied by violence and mass tragedy. So anyone who thinks that an agreement on partition among outside powers will end the nightmare Syrians have been suffering now for more than four years needs to think again. Things will get worse for many and probably most ordinary people before they get any better, if they ever get any better. It may stop the current civil war, but partition is no protection against new wars, both civil and crossborder (again, see Palestine and India/Pakistan).Russian diplomacy is long-practiced at using the Kurds as a lever against its neighbors, particularly Turkey. Do you know what it means to recall the Republic of Mahabad? If you are like most normal Americans—and, I’d be willing to wager, if you are John Kerry or Barack Obama—you have not the slightest idea. The Republic of Mahabad was a short-lived puppet Soviet client state created just after World War II, which, along with an equally short-lived Azeri “state,” was designed to subvert both Iran and Turkey. The Soviets of course reneged on their wartime pledge to evacuate northern Iran after the end of the war, and these puppet states were designed in part to be cover and pretext for their remaining on the ground. Harry Truman had to wave a nuke at Josef Stalin to get the Russians out of there. Mahabad was a Kurdish state; a fake state yes, but a Kurdish state all the same.After the 1946 Mahabad escapade, the Soviets switched their methods but not their aims. The PKK was, to a considerable extent, a Soviet creation. When Soviet agents found Abdullah Öcalan et al., they weren’t much to look at. But at the price of espousing Marxism-Leninism, meager PKK cadres soon found themselves awash in weapons, bombs, money, intelligence, and networking aid to ideologically like-minded groups elsewhere in the region and beyond (for example, the East German and Czech secret services).Now pay attention, please, because this is where things get pointedly relevant to current matters. Of course there have always been Kurds in Syria. During the Cold War the Soviets set out to use these Kurds, living in a state with which the USSR was closely allied by the 1960s, to “liaise” with PKK-affiliated Kurds inside of Turkey. That is how the PYD got created, and that it why it has long been “ideologically” associated with the PKK. Soviet aid to the PKK via its Syrian Kurdish agents worked very well. It was designed to create violent havoc up to and including civil war in Turkey (as earlier in Greece), or, failing that to prompt military intervention into Turkish politics, the better to roil relations between the United States and its NATO ally. That worked pretty well, too—not that the Soviets lacked ample raw Turkish material to make use of.Then, in the 1980s, Soviet machinations against Turkey via the Syrian PYD-PKK connection got so be so dangerous and brazen that Turkey threatened to go to war against Syria. That threat, backed quietly by the Reagan Administration, helped to calm things down a bit. Later, in October 1998, Turkey mobilized its army on the Syrian border and threatened invasion if the Syrians continued to give refuge to Öcalan, who was directing a war inside of Turkey. They buckled, expelling Öcalan from his comfortable exile in Damascus, which is how he fairly soon ended up in a Turkish prison.The point of this pocket history lesson, in case it still resists entry to consciousness, is that Russian statecraft is very long practiced in this sort of thing, and cannot be compared to U.S. experience in these matters. Even the Israelis, for reasons of their own, know far more about the Kurdish business than we do, and have been more deeply if quietly involved in it, as well, for decades.What it means in simple schematic terms, among other things, is that the dominant valance of Kurdish politics may now shift away from the moderate and pro-Western bastion of the Barzani-led Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq to the far less pro-Western leaders who now govern what is called Rojava, the Kurdish autonomous zone in what used to be northeastern Syria.This is not good—not good for the Kurds themselves, for any of their neighbors, or for the United States. Maybe there was never really more than a slight chance that Kurdish nationalism would develop in a benign, liberal direction, even as it seemed to be doing exactly that. But if the Russians get their hands on this budding nationalist dynamo, as they are now well positioned to do, there will be no chance at all. If I were Mustafa Barzani, I’d be worrying about now. I’m not Mustafa Barzani of course; but I’m worrying anyway.
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Published on: February 25, 2016
The Middle East UnravelsThe P-Word
In the Middle East, if you pull on the partition string, there is really no telling where it ends.