Columns 26.1.2018 05:20 am

Syria: let the games begin

Syria: let the games begin

This is a very old game. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.

There are comical elements in the current Turkish invasion of northern Syria.

Its name, for example: Operation Olive Branch. Or the frantic back-pedalling by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the announcement that triggered (or at least provided a pretext for) the Turkish offensive.

A week ago the US declared that it was building a new 30 000-strong “border security force” in the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border.

It would be backed by 2 000 US troops. Whereupon Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded and declared that his army would strangle this new Kurdish “terror army” in its cradle.

Tillerson, who had been attending a pointless meeting in Vancouver of all the countries that sent troops to fight in the Korean War 67 years ago, was caught on the hop, and quickly denied it all.

“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said on the way to the plane.

The lack of adult supervision in Washington extends beyond the White House.

In any case, too late.

The Turkish army is now fighting its way into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, with further operations promised to eliminate the rest of the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” that the US used to destroy Islamic State’s troops in eastern Syria.

From Erdogan’s point of view, all Kurds are bad Kurds. And Washington, as predicted, is betraying and abandoning its Kurdish allies.

They were useful at the time, but it’s more important to keep Turkey happy.

It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, it’s a Nato ally (with the second-biggest army in the alliance), and it controls the Straits that give the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean.

So the US confines itself to urging “restraint” on the Turks.

That’s what great powers say when they have no intention of intervening to stop something – and the Russians are also urging restraint, so they are not going to stop the Turks either.

The ally the Russians are betraying is the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

“We warn the Turkish leaders that if they start fighting in the region of Afrin, it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against Syria,” warned Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, adding Syria would shoot down Turkish planes bombing Afrin.

But then Turkish military and intelligence chiefs flew to Moscow on Thursday and got Russian and Iranian approval for their bombing. Why has Russia given the green light for the Turkish invasion?

Because Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to prise Turkey out of Nato and make it a Russian ally. In fact, everybody is lying, everybody has ulterior motives, and the Syrian people’s best interests are the last thing on anybody’s mind.

This is a very old game, so old that the rulers of the first Sumerian city-states would recognise it.

A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard, and then it’s time for the next round.

And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.

Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer


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