CommentaryMiddle East

The bankruptcy of American and Coalition diplomacy in Syria and Iraq

By Bruce Mabley, Director of the Mackenzie Papineau Group

It was only a question of time. Ever since the Turkish military operation known as Euphrates Shield in late 2016 and early 2017, it was clear to anyone capable of reading a map that a second operation would be required if Turkey was serious about eradicating the presence of Syrian Kurds along the border.

Turkey warned Coalition politicians repeatedly, making multiple demarches including several visits to the Canadian Foreign Ministry. Everyone knew what was coming and that the Turks could not tolerate another Kurdish threat on their borders. They already have the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on their southern border. As late as last week at the U.S.-Canada organized summit on North Korea in Vancouver, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu sought out U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to warn him of the impending military action.

The new Turkish ground and air operation has a deceptive name ‘Operation Olive Branch‘ but has the same objective as its predecessor – root out the Kurdish YPG from its three cantons located along the Turkish border in northwest Syria. Afrin is especially hard hit.

Euphrates Shield managed to create a land obstacle to linking the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Jazira. Olive Branch seeks to prevent the Kurds from establishing a small state linking all three areas under their control. Olive Branch is being conducted with the support of elements of the Syrian rebel opposition and includes prior Russian knowledge and possible logistical support.

How did we arrive at this result?

It began with arming the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by the United States and its allies ostensibly to put an end to Islamic State in the region. Emboldened by Western military assistance and victories over Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds held the September 2017 non-binding referendum on Kurdistan’s independence.

For the Kurds, it was a historic sign of solidarity, yet it is not improving their cause and should never have happened. Both are signs of the continuing bankruptcy of U.S. and Coalition diplomacy in the Middle East and their inability to exercise influence through diplomatic means. The translation is a loss of regional power.

Of course, destroying ISIL and ensuring its eradication continues to be the Coalition priority and that of almost every regional power. The Kurdish army or Peshmerga was available and willing to take on ISIL in Iraq and Syria. With U.S., European Union and Canadian advisors on the ground, it wasn’t long until the Kurdish fighters began achieving results where the Iraqi army had failed miserably. Everyone remembers the pathetic images of the uncoordinated retreat of the Iraqi army from Mosul in summer of 2014 leaving hundreds of Coalition armored vehicles and other arms in the hands of ISIL fighters. The Western coalition would need to rearm the Iraqi army.

So, the Coalition was now arming both the Iraqi government forces and the Kurds in northern Iraq at the same time. No one expressed serious concerns that these two forces would one day be fighting against each other once ISIL’s case had been more or less put to rest. As if Western diplomats were unaware that Bagdad and the northern Kurds were already fighting over the ownership and management of the oil fields including control of the city of Kirkuk, the new Eastern Jerusalem for the native Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians, all of whom have competing and legitimate historical and cultural claims.

So, Coalition and Peshmerga forces retook the Iraqi city of Mosul in July 2017. In Syria, Raqqa is no longer in ISIL hands. The military game plan was working perfectly. Too bad the political and diplomatic strategy did not follow. In order to protect its sovereignty, the Iraqi state headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took things into their own hands in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and retook it as Peshmerga forces melted away much to the chagrin of their chief Masoud Barzani in Erbil.

The importance of Kirkuk to all the parties should not be underestimated and it was highlighted by the anger set off after the Kurdish referendum. For the parties, Kirkuk is their political and cultural capital just like Jerusalem is for the Jews, Arabs and Christians. The Turks are anxious to hold influence there because of the presence of the Turkmen ethnicity and the oil pipeline that passes through Kirkuk to the west. The Sunni Arabs are also a party as are the Kurds who view Kirkuk as their natural capital.

One can make a case for arming the Kurds to rid the region of Islamic State. It is also understandable that the Coalition needs a stable Iraqi central government with a well-equipped army to defend it from ISIL and possible Iranian pressure and infiltration. Muqtada al-Sadr’s popular force of Shia activists and militia is still in play and represents a factor of instability in Bagdad.

Kurdish referendum on independence

However, the next step is unforgivable. It stands as a blunder of major proportions, a trigger that helped to ignite the region. On September 25, the Iraqi Kurds held a non-binding referendum on independence, which passed easily. None of the regional powers recognized its validity. The Coalition did nothing to prevent this and, in doing nothing diplomatically, the result was a fresh outbreak of violence in Kirkuk this week between the Kurds on one side and the Iraqi forces supported by the ethnic Turkmen and Arabs on the other.

It was a no-brainer. Arming the Peshmerga would inevitably alienate the central government in Bagdad. In the aftermath of yet another American brainchild idea like invasion of Iraq as payment to Al Qaeda, Iraq had become an uneasy federation of three groups – the emerging Kurds in the north, the resurgent Sunni tribes in the middle and the dominant Shia majority in the south. The Shia dominated government was already angry with the autonomous Kurds over the question of oil, a good quantity of which is located in the north, and the management of that resource. Arming the Peshmerga, while essential to reduce ISIL’s power and territory, has also laid the basis for an armed conflict between Bagdad and the Kurds.

Barzani’s September 25th referendum simply put salt into what was already an open wound.

The retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi government forces was the result.

The Kurds have apparently learned nothing from the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which ignited the hope for a Kurdish transnational homeland. Without a regional champion, and given the resurgence of the Turkish state from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Kurds’ dream fell on hard times. Their own internal squabbling, ideological, tribal and generational differences make a Kurdistan state even more improbable.

The Coalition arming of the Peshmerga has simply upped the ante, divided further Iraq and weakened its stability and made a dangerous region even more fraught with violence. In return, the Coalition has been able to tighten the noose around ISIL at the cost of Kurdish blood. For the Kurds, there will be no prize other than the relative peace they have been able to establish in the north at Erbil. The long-suffering Kurdish people are still far from their historic destination.

Turkish moves in Syria and Iraq

Although the Turks are in a war against the military wing of a section of the Turkish Kurds (PKK), the Turks play a shrewd game by working with Barzani and Erbil while opposing any effort to create a trans-national Kurdish state. Much of Erbil’s infrastructure is a result of Turkish construction companies with contracts as lucrative as their back shish to the Barzani family. As such, the Turkish government is largely supportive of Iraqi government military action to curb Kurdish independence such as the dispatch of Iraqi forces to Kirkuk. The Turks are supportive of their Turkmen brethren in Kirkuk and would be loath to have control of the city fall into Kurdish hands.

Another consideration for both Kurds and Turks is the oil pipeline that flows through the oil fields of Kirkuk and ends at Ceylan in southern Turkey. Economic considerations are also paramount in determining the Turkish strategy vis-a-vis the different Kurdish factions.

In Syria, the Coalition refused to arm any moderate factions of the Syrian rebels with the result that a) many were co-opted into extremist Islamist battalions and b) Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen have been able to hold onto power. Yet, in Iraq, Coalition thinking was radically different albeit still illogical and politically naïve. In Iraq, both sides were armed and now we have resumed fighting in both countries.

The Trump factor

Under President Donald Trump’s presidency, the conduct of foreign policy suffers from a lack of knowledge, insight and vision. There is division and dissension between the White House and the State Department on policy and the use of diplomacy. In State there is defiance and when there is a will, initiative is crippled because diplomats do not know what policy the White House is following from one day to the next. There is no policy, there is only deal making or deal ruining. Such is Trump’s vision for foreign policy. Knowledge, history, culture, ethnicity etc. are of no intrinsic value when it comes to promoting U.S. strategic interests and values abroad.

The entire U.S. diplomatic effort is being sapped by a weak and incoherent foreign policy. Barack Obama’s destructive policy of ‘leading from behind’ has given way to Trump’s ‘not leading at all’ in the Middle East. In the presence of a diplomatic vacuum, military considerations take precedence over political issues. The destruction of ISIL is surely important but the way in which it is done will determine whether the victory will be sustainable over time. In the case of Iraq, the diplomatic inaction and precedence of military considerations has resulted in igniting a crisis threatening the entire region.

International action is unlikely

Turkey’s NATO allies have reacted with prudence to Olive Branch and Turkey’s incursion into Afrin. France has called for a Security Council meeting to discuss the issue. Little can be expected at the international level since any Security Council action is likely to be vetoed by Russia and or China.  At NATO, prudence is again the rule of the day as Turkey can invoke NATO rules of self-defense and implicate the entire NATO membership.

Once again, the lack of international leadership in solving crises condemns the world to localized military action unimpeded by international law and justice. This is the legacy of three U.S. Presidents who have both violated international law (Bush and Trump) or blissfully ignored it (Obama).

In the absence of any international action, the Kurds, now heavily armed by U.S. and Coalition countries will react militarily to the Turkish incursion. The Turks are fighting a new Kurdish enemy (YPG) which, unlike the PKK and its mountain fighters, are well armed, well trained, numerous and battle ready. The attack on the Turkish border town of Kilis is just the beginning.


Islamic State’s demise throughout 2017 has given rise to the expected new battle between Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds. There is a danger that Trump may be prove to be worse for the region than anything George Bush and his neo-conservatives were able to concoct.

Bruce MableyBruce Mabley is the Director of the Mackenzie Papineau Group. Follow him on Twitter: @cbmabley

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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