As bom­bard­ment begins, fam­i­lies flee

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - GREG SHERIDAN ANAL­Y­SIS

Turkey has be­gun its as­sault on north­ern Syria with bom­bard­ments and troop move­ments, and in re­sponse we see again the sig­na­ture song of Syria — women and chil­dren in refugee con­voys, not know­ing where they’re go­ing, or why, just know­ing that once more they must flee.

Prob­a­bly the re­cent rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity in Syria was never sus­tain­able. Now, in any event, ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be thrown in the air again in the most vi­o­lent coun­try in the world.

Don­ald Trump says he did not give Turkey’s Re­cep Tayep Er­do­gan a green light to in­vade north­ern Syria, and the as­sault is a “bad idea”. How­ever, he did tell Er­do­gan the US would get out of the way and not im­pede his op­er­a­tion.

Many of Trump’s most im­petu­ous ac­tions come af­ter tele­phone calls or meet­ings with strong­men whom he thinks he can do a deal with. Trump seems to share with Barack Obama the presidenti­al delu­sion that the force of his per­son­al­ity, the chem­istry he es­tab­lishes with lead­ers, can change geo-strate­gic facts on the ground and the in­ter­ests­based de­ci­sions of na­tional lead­ers. It can’t.

Shocked by the do­mes­tic re­ac­tion, Trump sub­se­quently said he would de­stroy the Turk­ish econ­omy if Er­do­gan were to pro­duce a cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion.

Trump’s words on the Kurds them­selves have ranged from re­spect­ful “we like the Kurds, they’re al­lies” to weirdly dis­mis­sive “they weren’t with us at Nor­mandy”. It is there that Trump’s words have caused the great­est dam­age, in call­ing into ques­tion US com­mit­ment to US al­lies. None­the­less, it is far too early to as­sume for sure the out­come will be as bad as we fear.

The strength of US po­lit­i­cal re­ac­tion against the of­fen­sive, and Trump’s de­mands it be car­ried out in as lim­ited and least de­struc­tive a fash­ion as pos­si­ble, give the Turks an in­cen­tive to go mod­est rather than big. How­ever, there are so many play­ers in­volved, and each is re­spond­ing to such a range of mo­ti­va­tions, that the worst cer­tainly can­not be ruled out. Turkey has three mo­ti­va­tions. One, it is host to 3.6 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees. So it wants to es­tab­lish a safe zone in Syria, about 500km long and 30km deep, into which it can re­turn most of these refugees.

Turkey is suf­fer­ing an eco­nomic down­turn and the pres­ence

of the Syr­i­ans is deeply re­sented by many Turks.

Two, it wants to pre­vent any cross-bor­der fer­til­i­sa­tion be­tween the Kur­dish sep­a­ratist and ter­ror­ist out­fit, the PKK, which op­er­ates on Turk­ish soil, and the Kurds in Syria, led by the YPG.

Three, it wants to pre­vent the con­sol­i­da­tion of a Kur­dish de facto state, which by its very ex­is­tence would be a huge boost to Kur­dish sep­a­ratists inside Turkey.

The Kurds also have com­plex mo­ti­va­tions. They are more di­verse than short­hand ac­counts of their ac­tiv­i­ties sug­gests.

How­ever, there are three main com­mu­ni­ties. The Kurds in Turkey have been se­ri­ously op­pressed, but the PKK is rightly la­belled a ter­ror­ist group.

The YPG is not a ter­ror­ist group. It did the bulk of the fight­ing against Is­lamic State. It was one of the only forces op­er­at­ing in Syria for whom the de­feat of ISIS was a top pri­or­ity. Maybe 11,000 Kur­dish fight­ers died. How­ever, although the Syr­ian Kurds do not at­tack the Turks, they have close con­nec­tions with their Turk­ish brethren.

The third Kur­dish group is in Iraq and has the near­est thing to a de facto state, which is the most civilised statelet in the re­gion by some dis­tance. The Iraqi and Syr­ian Kurds have a long al­liances with the West, and qui­etly a lot of co-op­er­a­tion with Is­rael.

The Kur­dish-dom­i­nated Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces were the only group the US could trust in Syria so they ended up ware­hous­ing 12,000 ISIS pris­on­ers while no one else knew what to do with them.

If the Turks take a rel­a­tively small chunk of their ter­ri­tory and don’t kill too many civil­ians, the Kurds might yet feel that the worst has been averted. A rel­a­tively bad sign is that some of the airstrikes have been beyond this zone.

US mo­ti­va­tion is also com­plex. Trump is al­most al­ways be­hav­ing smarter than it looks. It’s not clear that is the case this time. He wants to bring US troops home, but the US has only about 1000 troops in north­ern Syria. At this stage it’s not clear any of them at all have been brought out of Syria. Rather, they’ve been moved away from the Turk­ish in­va­sion path.

It’s just barely pos­si­ble that to some ex­tent the Turks have called the US bluff. No pres­i­dent, not just Trump but none you could pos­si­bly imag­ine, was go­ing to go to war for the Kurds. Trump’s de­sire to pull his troops back home is un­der­stand­able, but it is more than use­ful for the US to have in­flu­ence at key geo-strate­gic points. One of the main vec­tors of US in­flu­ence is its al­liance with the Kurds.

If the US is seen fi­nally to have be­trayed and aban­doned the Kurds com­pletely, it will never be able to re-es­tab­lish that in­flu­ence. A thou­sand troops not di­rectly in­volved in con­flict seems a small on­go­ing price for Wash­ing­ton to pay for in­flu­ence in Syria, which also means in the sur­round­ing coun­tries. The Kurds could be slaugh­tered, or they could yet be forced into an al­liance with the regime of Bashar al-As­sad.

The other big player is ISIS it­self. Its ide­ol­ogy has not dis­ap­peared, nor are all its fight­ers dead.

ISIS sees the con­fu­sion of com­ing days as an op­por­tu­nity to lib­er­ate thou­sands of its fight­ers and reestab­lish a guer­rilla pres­ence.

The other play­ers, As­sad, Iran, Rus­sia, will all be look­ing at the new con­fu­sion as an op­por­tu­nity.

Scott Mor­ri­son has han­dled the small but im­por­tant Aus­tralian di­men­sion of this cri­sis well. He has said and done three key things.

First, rightly, he has not crit­i­cised Trump and has cor­rectly said that the de­ploy­ment of US troops is a mat­ter for Wash­ing­ton.

Sec­ond, Mor­ri­son and For­eign Min­is­ter Marise Payne have rightly crit­i­cised the as­sault. It is risky, desta­bil­is­ing and es­ca­lates vi­o­lence. More than that, we ap­pre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tion the Kurds have made to the fight against ISIS.

Third, Can­berra has re­voked the cit­i­zen­ship of Aus­tralians who have iden­ti­fied them­selves with ISIS and have dual cit­i­zen­ship.

This is a tough but rea­son­able move.

It is also tough but rea­son­able to take the view Aus­tralia will not put sol­diers or of­fi­cials at risk to rescue peo­ple who have in­ten­tion­ally gone to ter­ror­ist-in­fested ar­eas with the aim of help­ing the ter­ror­ists. And yet any Aus­tralian chil­dren in­volved are com­pletely in­no­cent. If they end up in a ter­ri­tory where they can be ac­cessed, Aus­tralia should help them.

AFP

Sig­na­ture song: civil­ians flee the Turk­ish bom­bard­ment of the Syr­ian town of Ras Al-Ain on Thurs­day

GETTY IM­AGES

Turk­ish mo­bile ar­tillery on the move in Syria

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