The Syrian Knot

by Trent Broeckel

There is not a more complicated issue currently ongoing in the world today than Syria. In Syria there is not just one war, but three: a civil war, wars against Islamic State, otherwise known as IS, ISIS, or ISIL, and a complex series of proxy wars.

The Syrian Civil War, though quite complicated, was recently summed up quite nicely by the Editorial Board of the New York Times:

The disaster has been unfolding since 2011 when Syrians rose up in peaceful protest against President Bashar al-Assad. He responded with barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and now some 250,000 people are dead, and 11 million displaced, including four million who have fled Syria to neighboring countries or Europe. The chaos enabled the Islamic State to move in and seize territory, making the conflict even worse.[1]

Before getting into the fight against Islamic State, lets think about why this particular civil war is so important?

The current Syrian government, headed by President Assad, has military backing from Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They have been fighting against various rebel groups for about five years. These Syrian rebel groups that number in hundreds have diverse backers themselves. The United States supports some, while by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Gulf Arab states and NATO nations each support others. A major point to understand within this brief introduction of the factions is that the United States and Russia are on opposite sides of the civil war. This alone carries immense political implications because an escalated situation in Syria between the two nations could spark a larger global conflict. Currently, both nations do not have active foot soldiers on the ground in Syria and are supporting their chosen factions chiefly with arms, training, and air support. Though the United States and Russia oppose each other in the civil war, they are both against the Islamic State.[2]

It is virtually everyone, not just the United States and Russia, against Islamic State in this second war in Syria. Despite this, it has been the Kurds, an ethnic group of approximately 25 million Sunnis who inhabit southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, who have been the most successful at directly combating Islamic State.[3] This would not be much of a problem if the Turkish government and the Kurds were on good or even neutral terms. However, this is not the case. One example of the unfortunate Turkey/Kurdish relationship occurred on July 24, 2015, when Turkish President Recep Erdoğan publicly announced that Turkey would join the fight against Islamic State. However, the same day he authorized a couple of limited airstrikes against ISIS-controlled territory, he sent waves of aircraft against Kurdish outposts in Northern Iraq. So if the Kurds and Turks are both devoted to fighting Islamic State, then why is Turkey fighting the Kurds? To make a long story short, the Kurds are not united and some of their factions have strong separatist aspirations. President Erdoğan is naturally unwilling to allow Kurds to break off an autonomous state from southeastern Turkish lands. However, he is equally opposed to them forming a state across the border in Northern Syria, even if they took the territory away from ISIS. Mr. Erdoğan has vehemently stated that the Turkish government “will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria.”[4] Erdoğan’s current government claims this Kurdish separatist group, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’ Party), is a terrorist group and is a greater threat than ISIS.

This all poses a major conflict of interests, because the United States and Turkey are NATO allies. There is a complicated political interest love quadrilateral between Turkey, the Kurds, Russia, and the United States. Of course the United States is not the only one involved with this complex situation. The United Nations has been heavily involved and have announced a meeting/summit scheduled for January 29 in Geneva, Switzerland. The talks will be centered on negotiating an end to the Syrian civil conflict. Progress has already been made by the United Nations when on December 18, 2015, the UN Security Council gave authorization for security general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, to create cease-fire proposals.[5] Despite the initial diplomatic progress, the January Geneva talks have been delayed multiple times due to “intense disagreements and different opinions” says UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura.[6] These are of course based on conflicting views of which Syrian factions are “legitimate,” which are “terrorists,” and who is backing which group. The UN discussions will likely be crucial to any possible untangling the Syrian knot.

[1] The Editorial Board, “Agony and Starvation in the Syrian War,” The New York Times (January 12, 2016): Accessed on January 20. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/12/opinion/agony-and-starvation-in-the-syrian-war.html?_r=0.

[2] Sarah Almukhtar, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Sergio Pecanha, “Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War,” The New York Times (October 18, 2015): Accessed on January 18. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/16/world/middleeast/untangling-the-overlapping-conflicts-in-the-syrian-war.html.

[3] “Who are the Kurds?” BBC News Middle East (October 21, 2014): Accessed on January 24. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440.

[4] Sarah Almukhtar and Tim Wallace, “Why Turkey is Fighting the Kurds Who Are Fighting ISIS,” The New York Times (August 12, 2015): Accessed on January 25. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/08/12/world/middleeast/turkey-kurds-isis.html.

[5] “Uncertainty Shrouds Scheduled Syria Talks in Geneva,” Al Jazeera (January 19, 2016): Accessed on January 24. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/syria-talks-geneva-160119041435738.html.

[6] “Syria Talks Rescheduled,” The New York Times (January 25, 2016): Accessed January 25. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/26/world/middleeast/un-envoy-for-syria-says-peace-talks-will-begin-friday.html.

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