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The messy US ‘strategy’ in Syria

Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) and "Empire of Chaos" (2014), all published by Nimble Books. His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015.
The messy US ‘strategy’ in Syria
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met last week in Doha to find ways – in theory – solve the Syrian puzzle.

And what followed - predictably - is a bloody mess.

Al-Jubeir has been talking to Lavrov in Moscow. A delegation from the Syrian opposition – no jihadists - has also been to Moscow. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif should have traveled to Ankara to talk Syria with the Turks, but he canceled the trip. Instead he’s in Pakistan and is expected in Moscow next week.

All roads to some sort of peace in Damascus seem to lead to Moscow. Meanwhile, facts on the ground spell otherwise; forces of the Syrian Arab Republic continue to fight what the West calls ‘moderate rebels’ plus a score of drop-dead jihadists.

What came out of the Kerry/Lavrov get-together was in fact an Unidentified Foreign Bombing Object (UFBO). What’s the story with this UFBO?

In theory, UFBO reveals the US finally decided to bomb Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) with a view to clearing the ground towards a political solution. Add to this interpretation the arrival of six US F-16s, two support military planes and 300 US personnel at NATO’S Incirlik base in Turkey.

Yet UFBO’s Turkish branch is outright puzzling – to say the least. Turkey is essentially bombing Kurds, not IS, while providing the Syrian ‘insurgency’ – theoretically non-jihadist - on the ground with a lot of weapons for a ‘restructuring’ process.

Translation (subject to revision): Erdogan’s boys have received the green light to do whatever they want in northern Syria. And they chose not to disturb the fake Caliphate goons, but double down on bombing Kurds and advancing regime change in Damascus all in the same package.

Erdogan’s excuse is that the PKK – as in the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurd YPG units - should be ‘prevented’ from controlling areas in northern Syria that they did not ‘historically’ control.

But there’s the rub. The Obama administration now seems to have adopted yet another 180-degree turn, shelving for now the much-ballyhooed $500 million training/weaponizing of ‘moderate rebels’ to the benefit of trying to work alongside the YPG.

So obviously Washington’s strategy has nothing to do with Ankara’s, which privileges bombing Kurds under the pretext of ‘fighting Assad’.

This being the strategically clueless Obama administration, Washington is not really sure it should embrace the YPG. As if the Pentagon would tremble with fear at Ankara’s wrath. Or the wrath of America’s Arab vassals. Still the Pentagon – always impervious to irony - admits this is a “fragile strategy.”

Isn’t it fabulous that so-called ‘Kurdish sovereignty movements’ are scaring the hell out of everybody?

Where’s my regime change?

A case can be made that the Obama administration’s real plan for Syria actually remains this Brookings Institution regime change mish mash. To a certain extent, that’s what’s already happening on the ground; a subplot of regime change without the real thing, with Damascus unable to control vast swaths of Syrian territory.

So how do jihadist gangs fit into all this?

Ahrar al-Sham - a Syrian Islamist bunch - has already issued a statement “supporting” the US/Turkish strategy of creating an IS -free zone in northern Syria. Even though this is not what Turkey is after.

And Al-Nusra Front – as in Al-Qaeda in Syria, now fully normalized in the US as “moderate rebels” – decided to tactically withdraw from north of Aleppo. Translation: they got their marching orders from the Americans and the Turks.

And that leads to a spectacular cloud of wishful thinking currently drifting via Saudi-controlled media all across the Middle East; the notion that Ankara has displayed a lot of ‘ability’ in dealing with ‘rebel’ (formerly jihadist) outfits so the ‘moderate rebels’ the US favors are ultimately successful.

On the ground though, the development entails a more ominous phenomenon; the coming of age of a so-called buffer zone in northern Syria. But there’s the extra rub: no one knows what kind of ‘moderate rebels’ and/or nasty jihadi mix will be controlling this vast territory.

Certified losers will be the Syrian Kurds of the YPG. This is not exactly what Washington wants. Or maybe it is. After all, the Obama administration itself does not have a clue if they want it or not.

What the Turks – and America’s Arab vassals – do want is for Syrian ‘moderate rebels’, jihadists included, to get together and make a decisive play to conquer Aleppo. Syria’s largest city also happens to be Erdogan’s key strategic target. That, according to Ankara and the House of Saud’s wet dreams, would be the beginning of the road towards regime change.

And regime change is exactly what Jubeir spelled out to Lavrov once again in Moscow. Lavrov was polite enough to observe their “differences” over Syria remain – even as Moscow is doing everything possible to facilitate some sort of intra-Syrian dialogue.

Now for the road map

Life is hard for Russia in the diplomatic front, having to deal with so many lightweights. One of them, Khaled al-Khoja, president of a National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (which virtually nobody ever heard of) has just been to Moscow and met Lavrov. He said the Russian-Iranian proposal to end the Syrian tragedy is unworkable; he insists the only way is “Assad must go.”

Assad may eventually go – but that will take a lot of diplomatic work.

Still, it seems Doha yielded a particular important decision; there won’t be a partition of Syria. No imperial Balkanization. If Kerry actually agreed to that, call it a real game-changer.

So a road map now implies a ‘transition’, organized according to a Russian proposal, with input from Iran. That would entail a sort of ‘managed’ departure of Bashar Assad; a real coalition to fight IS, including the Arabs and Iran; and no discrimination against Shia or Alawites in any future Syrian scenario.

America’s Arab vassals are still reluctant to admit that the most developed parts of Syria – which support Assad, and/or are defended by Hezbollah and Iran – won’t submit, by weapons or otherwise, to any possible Sunni majority. And this while Damascus remains calm about the whole military and security situation in the capital and environs all the way to the Lebanese border.

At the same time, the House of Saud at least started to listen – in theory – to what Moscow is saying. That includes Putin’s suggestion of a real coalition against IS – not this US/Turkey UFBO - including Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran, as well as Ankara and Amman.

Moscow’s proposal also includes a major regional conference to clear the final hurdles - including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the UN, US and Russia.

The diplomatic merit of the initiative is obvious. And yet Erdogan chose to spin it in his own reductionist way: “Putin’s current attitude toward Syria is more encouraging than before. He is no longer of the opinion that Russia will support Assad to the end. I believe he can give up Assad.”

There will be blowback

All strands of demented neo-Ottomanism may be attributed to ‘Caliph’ Erdogan – with or without merit. But the facts on the UFBO ground are spelling it clearly; Ankara is going after the Kurds and totally ignoring IS. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu put it bluntly: “There is no difference between PKK and Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS].” And that, in itself, is blowing up the Obama administration’s ‘strategy’.

The Pentagon is fuming. No wonder there have been leaks to Fox News by the proverbial, invisible ‘military sources’, telling of ‘outraged’ Pentagon generals when Ankara started its own UFBO against the Kurds ‘just hours’ after striking a deal to bomb the fake Caliphate alongside the US.

Not even Hollywood could come up with this friendly-fire subplot; US special forces in northern Iraq advising and training Kurdish Peshmergas scrambling to their underground bunkers as the Turkish UFBO attacks the mountains where the PKK is headquartered. Erdogan is sufficiently nuts in his Kurd hatred to risk reducing US Special Forces to ashes.

Not that this fracas is widely noticed in the Beltway. It’s only attributed to ‘tension’ with a ‘reluctant ally’ which formerly ‘turned a blind eye’ to the ‘illicit activity’ of IS. Here’s to the normalization of beheading as a mere ‘illicit activity’.

Spare a thought for ‘Caliph’ Erdogan’s sleepless nights. He looks at his southern border with Syria and all he sees is the ghost of an autonomous Kurdish state. So he bombs and bombs. And just as he’s falling asleep in contentment, blowback strikes.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.