Can NATO Militaries Generate Mideast Stability?

Can NATO Militaries Generate Mideast Stability?Can NATO Militaries Generate Mideast Stability?

The historic developments last week along the western portion of the Turkish-Syrian border pack more drama than a hundred Turkish television soap operas, and like those dramas, we will have to wait until the end to see if this all ends in tragedy, war and death, or peace, love and happiness.

The agreement between Turkey and the United States on a yet-to-be-defined plan to establish a 95-km-long zone in northern Syria adjacent to the frontier with Turkey anticipates that their troops, artillery, drones and jet fighters, working with selected Syrian rebels on the ground inside Syria, will keep the area free of Islamic State control, Rami G. Khouri wrote for Agence Global.

This move is at once decisive and dangerous. It positions two of the world’s and the region’s leading military powers, and NATO members, within half a dozen major local fighting forces of very different ideologies, and hundreds of smaller units with equally kaleidoscopic goals, identities and allegiances.

If you thought that NATO attacking Libya in 2011 was a risky venture, given the mess it has left behind there today, this plan for northern Syria is potentially more dangerous and destabilizing if it goes wrong.

Aleppo, Damascus and Syria are significantly more strategically important than Tripoli, Benghazi and Libya, so the outcome of this dramatic move in northern Syria will be a game-changer, but it remains unclear if the change would be to wind down the war and chaos in Syria or exacerbate and expand it even more.

 Multifaceted Plan

The basic concept of keeping IS out of this stretch of northwestern Syria is that, for one, it would allow Syrian refugees and displaced people to find decent shelter there in their own country. It would also provide rebel groups with vital havens for planning, training and other purposes in their battles against both IS and the Syrian government in Damascus.

The more complicated part is the political-military-demographic situation in the area in question captures the critical and often confounding complexities of the war in Syria, where many different local, regional and global powers are involved in multiple conflicts in parallel, and also in superimposed battlefields.

For starters, it is not clear if the US and Turkey as well as some of their NATO partners plan mainly to fight to defeat IS or topple the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, which could be weakened psychologically by this initiative.

For another thing, as the US and Turkey work with local Syrian rebels that they vet and approve to establish a zone free of IS control, it will be difficult to know who are the good guys and the bad guys in the eyes of Turkey, the US and NATO.

Some of the leading rebel groups that are fighting against both Assad and IS are organizations that the US and partners shun (except when the US embraces them, as it did in Afghanistan, but that was a long time ago, in a faraway land that the US is apparently trying to leave forever).

 Stance on Kurds

Equally problematic will be how the US and Turkey look on some of the Kurdish fighters who have pushed back IS in parts of northern Syria, and who also would fight the Syrian government if need be to maintain control of their growing Kurdish region.

The key Kurdish military force here is the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, that has fought well against IS and also covets control of the same 95-km stretch that NATO armies now will patrol from the skies.

The US supports the YPG as a valuable partner whose forces on the ground have worked well in coordination with US airstrikes against IS. But Turkey views YPG as bad guys who are associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, who have had an on-and-off running war with the Turkish government for decades.

Ankara launched a two-pronged “anti-terror” offensive against IS militants in Syria and the PKK camps after a wave of attacks inside the country. But so far the bombardments have focused far more on the Kurdish forces.

This is while Turkey’s President Recep Teyyip Erdogan Erdogan said last week the Syrian Kurds were seeking “to form a corridor from the utmost east to the Mediterranean” but IS blocked their plans in Jarablus in northern Syria on the Turkish border, where extremists and Kurdish forces clashed.

Turkey sees the Kurdish YPG militia fighting IS in northern Syria as a local offshoot of the PKK and sharply opposes the idea of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

How the US and Turkish militaries operate in and near the new zone and who they support, ignore or attack, will determine the impact of this bold move.

  Glaring Dilemma

A senior Obama administration official told the New York Times Monday, “The goal is to establish an IS-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria.”

The glaring dilemma here is that military force that the Turks have used against Kurds for decades, and the Americans against regional groups for a quarter century, has produced neither stability nor security.

However, it has contributed to making this region one of the most violent, fractured, polarized, militarized, and unstable landscapes of mass human misery in modern times.

Last week, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, said the so-called “safe zone” is an attempt by Ankara to stop the Kurds from forming their own territory, adding that Turkey’s operation against IS militants across the border was a cover to target the PKK forces.

Any move to protect civilians and assist refugees in Syria is sensible, certainly requires international assistance, and deserves widespread support. We will soon find out if last week’s Turkish-American decision falls into that category.