Syria’s 30 Years War and Trumpish isolationism

Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria will obviously change the political landscape in the Middle East. There are still countless actors left however (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Kurds, Hisbollah, and a potential resurgence of the „Islamic State“) – if it wasn’t that devastating, one would feel as if a new season Game of Thrones had just begun.

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The US and the „Islamic State“

Donald Trump just accused Barack Obama of being the „founder of ISIS“ while calling Hillary Clinton its „co-founder.“ Although he did not go into detail, his remarks once again highlight the need to revisit the US‘ role in the region in general and the rise of the „Islamic State“ in particular. Unfortunately, Trump’s remarks are not completely off the mark.

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Syria: The spiral of violence continues

No surprising news from Syria; as BBC reports, the Russian involvement has in turn led to an increased level of Saudi assistance to the „Rebels“ under attack while the US has just delivered 50 tons of ammunition. Once again, interventionism from one side leading to a reaction from the other. Small wonder that a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria is nowhere in sight. Once again: This is a proxy war between Iran/Russia and Saudi Arabia/Qatar/the US and its allies. No side is putting enough effort into the conflict to end it decisively, but enough to keep it going.
Relatedly, the New York Times has published some useful maps on the impact and locations of the Russian airstrikes.

The West’s role in the rise of the Islamic State

two powerful essays on this delicate topic; to put it in most basic terms: The US (and its allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Quatar) supported „moderate“ opposition groups in their quest to overthrow Assad and ultimately it turned out that many of those where not as moderate at as they had thought.

Turkey’s legal justification for its recent attacks against the Kurds and ISIS/ISIL

The official notification by Turkey concerning its attacks against ISIS/ISIL in Syria can be found here:

Similar to the US and its allies, Turkey relies on the right to self-defence and, more specifically, the„unwilling or unable“-doctrine, as the legal basis for striking against ISIS/ISIL inside Syria. Most interestingly, however, the letter to the Security Council does not refer to the threat emanating from Kurdish fighters but only ISIS/ISIL (Daesh):

The terrorist attack that took the lives of 32 Turkish citizens in Suruç on 20 July 2015 reaffirms that Turkey is under a clear and imminent threat of continuing attack from Daesh. Most recently, on 23 July 2015, Daesh attacked the border military post in Elbeyli and killed a Turkish soldier.
It is apparent that the regime in Syria is neither capable of nor willing to prevent these threats emanating from its territory, which clearly imperil the security of Turkey and the safety of its nationals.
Individual and collective self-defence is our inherent right under international law, as reflected in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.
On this basis, Turkey has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions against Daesh in Syria, including in coordination with individual members of the Global Coalition, in order to counter the terrorist threat and to safeguard its territory and citizens.

The legal basis for its military strikes against Iraq, then, is the consent given by the Iraqi government:

His Excellency called on the Turkish government to coordinate with the Iraqi government about any military operation in those areas, stressing Iraq’s keenness on Turkey’s internal security and its people’s safety, praising the Turkish decision which allowed the use of its airbases by the international coalition to attack the terrorist Daesh organization.

Regarding the attacks against Kurdish fighters located in Iraq, however, the Iraqi government has voiced harsh criticism which comes close to a (partial) withdrawal of its consent, or at least a threat of doing so, denouncing these as „a dangerous escalation and an assault on Iraqi sovereignty“ and calling on Turkey to avoid further escalation and seek a resolution to the crisis.

As a reaction, Turkey has stated that Iraq was not fulfilling its duty to prevent any attacks/not to harbor such „terrorists“. All in all, it seems as if Turkey is stretching the Iraqi acceptance to conduct attacks against ISIS/ISIL and the Kurds on its territory quite far; however, as long as Iraq does not expliticitly withdraw its consent, there is a legal basis for the Turkish attack:

[…] the negative attitude adopted by the Iraqi Government regarding the steps taken by Turkey within the framework of international of law towards the terrorist attacks faced by our country and the operations conducted by Turkey, in this context, against the PKK terrorist organization located within the borders of Iraq has caused disappointment.

Although the Iraqi Government emphasizes its commitment for not allowing any attack towards Turkey from the Iraqi territories, it is clear that this commitment has not been fulfilled and numerous armed PKK militants have continued to harbor in the Iraqi territory for years. Therefore it is not possible to comprehend or accept that those, who cannot fulfill their commitments, do not have the possibility to keep their borders under control, and one-third of whose territories are under the control of the terrorist organization, have taken a stance against Turkey in its fight against the PKK terrorist organization perpetrating armed attacks towards its citizens and security forces.

That being said, although there is indeed a (somewhat shaky) legal justification – in line with those which have been invoked by other states in attacking ISIS/ISIL in the past, the problem is that Turkey does not restrict its attacks against this group. It is obvious that the balance between striking against ISIS/ISIL and, simultaneously, against the Kurds, the most reliable allies of the West and the US in particular, will cause political and, relatedly, perhaps also legal problems in the near future. Until now, however, Iraq would only withdraw or explicitly restrict its consent for military strikes by Turkey if the US allows it to do so (which seems highly unlikely for the time being).

Lastly, here are some good articles on the Syria/Iraq/ISIS/ISIL/Kurds-quagmire: (scroll down for some helpful infographics) (in German)

good read on Syria

The Syrian government does not publish casualty figures by sect, but martyrs’ notices pasted on the walls in Jabal Alawia, the Alawite heartland in the hills east of the port of Latakia, indicate that the Alawites have suffered a disproportionate share of deaths in the war to preserve the Alawite president. A myth promulgated by the Sunni Islamist opposition is that the Alawites have been the main beneficiaries of forty-four years of Assad family rule over Syria, but evidence of Alawite wealth outside the presidential clan and entourage is hard to find. The meager peasant landholdings that marked the pre-Assad era are still the rule in Jabal Alawia, where most families live on the fruits of a few acres. Some Alawite merchants have done better in the seaside cities of Latakia and Tartous, but so have Sunni, Druze, and Christian businessmen. This may explain in part why, from my own observations, a considerable proportion of Syrian Sunnis, who comprise about 75 percent of the population, have not taken up arms against the regime. If they had, the regime would not have survived.
The rising number of Alawite young men killed or severely wounded while serving in the army and in regime-backed militias has led to resentment among people who have no choice other than to fight for President Assad and to keep their state’s institutions intact. Their survival, as long as Sunni jihadists kill them wherever they find them, requires them to support a regime that many of them oppose and blame for forcing them into this predicament. 

In addition, there is new insight from VICE news, including the alliance between „moderates“ and Islamist groups in their recent advances against Assad’s troops: