The Return of the Russian ‘Great Game’ in Northern Syria

“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

So said Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, just before WWII, decades ago, during the turbulent rise of the now long gone Soviet tyranny. While the eyes of the world are now focused on the daring take out of former ISIS leader Al Baghdadi by US special forces, the question remains. Can the US do these kinds of things if they pull out of Syria? Because like it or not, the war there is still interested in us if we are not necessarily interested in it. Let me explain how.

Americans have almost completed the withdrawal of their troops from the formerly independent Kurdish enclave of northern Syria. The Turks are invading, and the Kurdish militias are withdrawing. The Turks are occupying a “safe zone,” which may extend up to forty kilometres into Northern Syria, perhaps precipitating Kurdish ethnic cleansing there.

At the same time, the Kurdish fighters and communities of northern Syria have struck a deal with the Assad regime to enter their territory and protect them from what looks like Turkish expansionism or, as so many experts now believe a kind of revived Turkish neo Ottoman imperialism. Yet the Syrians are slow to move to the Turkish border.

The Russians, now the most powerful international player in the region, seem to be in charge of this area now, on the one hand playing the Turks off against the Syrians while downplaying the regional existence and rights of the Kurds, which goes back a long time, for as recently as 1937, Stalin expelled the Kurds of what is now Azerbaijan and sent them off to Kazakhstan or Siberia, ethnically cleansing the Caucasus of a major ethnic group.

The Russians cannot believe their good fortune that the US has handed over this strategic area just north of its ally Israel, without a shot being fired or, a diplomatic threat being made. On the contrary, it is the Turks that have been threatening Europe and its so called NATO allies with a forced migration of 3 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey. They have clearly threatened the US militarily, by sending in its troops to areas where there were US forces, about ten days ago.

Today, US foreign policy in the area is in total disarray since the legislation on the books in the US since 9/11, has allowed American presidents to wage mini wars without a congressional vote. On the one hand President Trump justified the withdrawal so that “we can bring our soldiers home” and then just as arbitrarily, decided to keep them in Iraq and eastern Syria to protect the oil fields from falling into the hands of ISIS. Then he announced the killing of Baghdadi.

Had President Trump been a tad more Machiavellian, he could have asked Congress to debate the issue before he pulled the troops out, and then witness a bi partisan groundswell to keep the US troops there and support the Kurds, especially after the daring take out of Al Baghdadi. The Republicans under Mitch McConnell would have supported that motion out of good faith, while the Democrats would have supported it because they will support anything that goes against President Trump’s public wishes or desires. Then the Baghdadi take out would have been “the icing on the cake.” Then again, given the impeachment frenzy coming from the Democrats this may not have worked either.

What has been missing from the oodles of reportage that have been flooding the press these last few weeks, is a clear understanding of the fact that modern Turkey emerged as a 20th century state based on ethnic Turkish nationalism, rather than its previous pan Islamic identity which allowed anyone who was Muslim, to rise within the Ottoman empire’s bureaucracy and state (and which included Kurdish speakers).

As a result, the Kurds today and who are dominant in eastern Turkey, have got the short end of the stick since the Treaty of Sevres in 1923, when the victors of WWI promised them autonomy, if not independence and in the end divided up their historic homeland across what has come to be called Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq and which now, more and more seem like the tentative and false entities created by an earlier age.

For the last one hundred years, Turkish ethnic nationalism has fueled Kurdish ethnic nationalism. They are two sides of the same coin. Neither side can, or is willing to give up its ethnic/linguistic heritage and, find some sort of Canadian style resolution to what in essence has been a civil war in Turkey between Kurds and Turks for more than forty years.

From a Canadian point of view, if the Turks were smart, they would give the Kurds “autonomy” as the English have given Quebecers since the mid 1700s, with certain cultural, civic rights and even economic rights, but not nationalist separatist rights. Yet even here, this state of affairs is always in flux as we can see from this most recent Canadian election with the return of the Bloc Quebecois.

The Turks cannot and will not give the Kurds autonomy, for a variety of reasons, one of the most important being that most of the fresh water that serves this developing state is located in Kurdish dominated eastern Turkey. There the Turks are busily constructing 1950s like mega hydro dams, which will displace scores of thousands of Turkey based Kurds and put their local water resources firmly in the hands of Ankara’s Turkish nationalist bureaucrats. Let us remember the Kurds are not a foreign group within the boundaries of the modern Turkish state. They have been there for centuries.

Although the Kurds have certainly “beaten up” on the Yazidi both past and present, their slowly modernizing elites recognize that a Western, Israeli, Kurdish alliance against Turkish and Arab nationalists and Islamists is in their interest. And, although the Iraqi Kurds abandoned the Yazidi to ISIS in 2014 in northern Iraq with genocidal results, it was the “Syrian Kurds” who cut a swath into Northern Iraq and saved many of them from slavery and extermination under ISIS and from American military passivity under Obama.

For those who are familiar with the writings of Rudyard Kipling, the Victorian English Imperial author and essayist who described the penetration and threat of the Russian Empire into India, it would appear that the Russians of today have returned to the “Great Game” of the 19th century, for as communism died, the old Tsarist desires have returned. Russia wants a naval base in the eastern Mediterranean and they now have one in Assad’s Syria. And, they would love Turkey to leave NATO so that Asia Minor would become a dependency of the “Great Russian Empire.”

Six years ago, analyst Hilary Appel explained to Americans that, “Russia has always made the near abroad—as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders is called—a priority. And while Mr. Putin acknowledged the impossibility of restoring the Soviet Union, he also found unacceptable any further unraveling of Russia’s territorial integrity, for example through the loss of secessionist regions in the Caucasus. His first actions as Prime Minister and acting President were to prevent Chechen independence, even if this required tremendous brutality and violence against Russian citizens in Chechnya.”

Now that Putin has the Caucasus under control(remember that he invaded Georgia and created Abkhazia as a breakaway state from European leaning Georgia?) and has conquered the Crimea, the Russian bear is now moving westwards, towards Istanbul/Constantinople which was its goal during the entire 19th century.

Part of the Great Game of the 19th century included the Russian expansion and conquest of Turkish Muslim Central Asia which is now divided up into countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. The Russians are still the dominant military power there. The Russians also feel comfortable pushing their military and political power there and to the ends of the Turkic world, to Istanbul and Mediterranean Turkey. The Turks under Erdogan seem willing to oblige, as their declining adherence to NATO under an Islamicizing, ethno-nationalist Turkish regime moves them voluntarily away from Europe.

The other NATO countries are doing themselves a great disservice by not making common cause with the Kurds, who are the only people in the region who look Westward, and who have just grievances against the Turks and the Russians (remember Stalin’s expulsions of the Kurds in 1937?). They are constrained by the “technical truth” that Turkey is a “NATO ally” and that we have agreed that the Kurds of Syria are linked to the Kurds of Turkey’s Kurdish guerillas (the PKK) whom NATO has categorized as terrorists. We are out of step here. Turkey does not behave like a NATO ally and its membership should be reconsidered. Politically we are way behind on this! The Kurds have behaved like allies!

Instead, we have perversely abandoned Kurds again and again; a people who have fought with NATO and the coalition in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. Even under Trudeau’s former majority government, Canada is officially at war in Syria and Iraq (Operation Impact) and it earmarked more than four hundred million dollars of tax-payers money towards this initiative.

Is it not rather amazing that none of this was discussed or debated in public by any of the candidates during this most recent election? That is because, as I remind the reader, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

NATO countries,especially Canada and the US have yet to wake up to the fact that although the various Kurdish factions are indeed “not angels”, they are still NATO’s unrecognized allies against Russian and Turkish expansion in the “Near Abroad”. We abandon them at our own peril.

About the Author
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, Minerva Magazine and is a Contributing Editor at the New English Review.
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