The Levant War: 2011 – ?

The Syrian revolution now has to be seen as part of a wider conflict in the region. There is no use just talking about the revolution and the subsequent outbreak of civil war, and then viewing the Turkish-Kurdish war as a separate event, as well as the international effort against ISIS as something different again. All of them are interlinked and overlap.

For this reason, I thought that perhaps the Levant War is an appropriate title to give the conflict which now sees around a dozen states (Syria, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, UK, USA, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) and various non-state armed groups (Hezbollah, ISIS, various militias, Kurds, Syrian rebel groups, Al-Qaeda linked groups) actively engaged militarily across three countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq) in the region.

Turkey’s latest cross-border intervention – under international law it would probably be called an illegal invasion – into Syria highlights a number of things. Firstly, that President Recep Tayip Erdogan is now fully in control of his military forces following the attempted coup against his leadership in July 2016. Secondly, that the country continues to drift away from the West and is getting closer to Russia. And thirdly, it confirms for me that despite Erdogan’s rhetoric in the early years of the Syrian revolution, overthrowing Bashar al-Assad was never a priority of his.

When the forces of Assad sit along Turkey’s borders, Erdogan does nothing to intervene, when ISIS lay siege to Kurdish border towns such as Kobane, Turkish troops sit and watch, and when refugee camps are targeted by Russian and Syrian regime forces, again Turkish forces stand idly by.

There have only been two instances that I am aware of whereby Turkish forces have crossed the border into Syria in order to physically intervene. The first was to protect and remove the tomb of Suleyman Shah and every other occasion has been to attack Kurdish forces. These facts, along with the continued crackdown on Kurdish political groups and civilians inside Turkey, leads me to the conclusion that Erdogan never cared about overthrowing Assad, and instead saw the Syrian revolution/civil war as a potential opportunity to further his ambitions against the Kurds.

The Kurds lay fractured across three countries, surrounded on all sides by enemies, and unlikely to receive any substantial international support. Both the USA and Russia see them as pawns to be used in a much larger power struggle in the region, and the communist-leaning Kurds are now ironically better supported by the USA than they are by Vladimir Putin’s Russia who seems to have given his tacit approval of Turkey’s latest military offensive by allowing Erdogan’s airforce access to Syrian skies.

Though the Kurdish reply may be a little more subdued than my own imaginings, it is not an impossibility that in response to the Turkish invasion of their territory, the favour is returned and attacks on Turkish soil increase in number and potency. It may relieve some of the pressure on the forces currently under attack by forcing troops, energy, attention, and money to be diverted, and it may go some way to reminding Erdogan that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It would come as no surprise therefore to see retaliation from the Kurds, with the possibility of seeing Turkey itself slip into a state of war – something that I have been concerned about for the last few years – at least in the Eastern part of the country where the Kurdish populations are largest. Indeed, it could be argued that many of the cities (Cizre, Sur, Silvan) in that region are already warzones.

Rather than seeing a resolution to the regional conflict, 2018 may now have seen a re-ignition, and with Donald Trump in the White House stoking the flames of social unrest with his policies towards Israel/Palestine, and the war in Yemen continuing into its third year, the Levant War may continue to get worse before it starts to get any better.


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