The Turkish incursion in northeastern Syria, which aims at creating a buffer zone for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to get rid of the Kurds, has long been his strategy. But Erdogan also wants to send millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey to this area.
This military operation raises many questions in a troubled region. There is already the ongoing war that has torn Syria apart and there is an unstable Iraq, where Iran tries to prevail through its allies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has the upper hand on foreign policy thanks to its control over decisions of war and peace against Israel and those who oppose its internal and regional defense strategies.
At this point, it is still not known how long Turkish forces intend to carry on this operation. The few US forces that were in this area before President Donald Trump decided to pull them out were a warning to stop Turkey from attacking. Their withdrawal — which was decided by Trump after a phone conversation with Erdogan — is considered by the Kurds and their allies as a betrayal that will have a dramatic impact on the region and the Western world too.
From a humanitarian point of view, there is the fear of a massacre of the Kurds, as the world is aware of Ankara’s hatred for them. But there are also fears of a possible new population displacement, with civilians fleeing Syria’s northeast in great numbers. The Kurdish fighters abandoning their war against Daesh, and possibly their prisons, make the terror group’s resurgence almost certain. What impact the Damascus regime’s support for the Kurds will have remains to be seen.
The US decision to withdraw its forces from northern Syria was part of Trump’s commitment to “bring the boys back home.” A total American withdrawal from Syria would mean an open invitation to Russia in this part of the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has an interest in getting Turkey away from NATO and closer to Russia to reinforce the Astana partners in the Syria peace process.
Iran has criticized the Turkish incursion, but for its own reasons. It does not want to share control of Syria with Turkey. At the same time, Iran, which also has a Kurdish population, similarly does not want an autonomous region for the Kurds.
The Turkish attack on the SDF, coupled with a highly possible total US withdrawal from Syria, could lead to a partitioning of the country, with different areas under the respective control of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and Turkey.
Lebanon’s deteriorating economy will increase Hezbollah’s grip on the country’s foreign policy. This is already the case, although on occasion it is limited by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies.
The American betrayal of the Kurds could provide encouragement for Hezbollah’s Christian allies in Lebanon — the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, the Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil — to get even closer to Hezbollah and Syria. Bassil’s ambition to succeed his father-in-law as president could see him bet on the alliance with Hezbollah rather than getting closer to the US, despite the threat of more American sanctions on his pro-Iranian partner. The danger of isolating Lebanon from the Gulf countries will thus grow. Their financial support for Beirut has already dwindled dramatically because of Hezbollah.
A total American withdrawal from Syria would mean an open invitation to Russia in this part of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Aoun and Bassil might be tempted to copy the Turkish plan and try to push Syrian refugees from Lebanon into northern Syria and the “safe zone.” The Lebanese president could even let Hezbollah do the job for him. Aoun and Bassil have been pressing the West, and Europe in particular, to help them get their Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon immediately because of their economic weight on the country. European leaders, namely French President Emmanuel Macron, have argued this is not possible as long as their safe return is not secured. Aoun and Bassil don’t want to hear such arguments and Hezbollah supports their position.
The Russians claimed they have a plan to get the refugees back to Syria, but the Russian plan is empty. Will Hezbollah do the job for its Christian friends? This is not certain since Assad does not favor the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis to his Alawite-controlled country.
Finally, the Turkish military operation and departure of US troops from northern Syria would free Iran to complete its uninterrupted highway from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut — a fact that Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani had warned about during a meeting with former French President Francois Hollande a few years ago.
The latest developments are bad news not only for the entire Middle East, but also for the West, which is terrified of a possible return of Daesh and attacks in their cities. Erdogan’s move and Trump’s Twitter diplomacy are pushing part of the Levant under the wing of two extremist regimes: Aggressive Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Turkey. This is a curse for future generations in the region.