‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense,’ said Alice. ‘Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?’
For the United States, and for the rest of us, Lewis Carroll is as good a guide as any to what is happening in northern Syria right now. Turkey — America’s Nato ally — has sent tanks rolling across the border to attack the Kurds, America’s ally against Isis. Thus the United States finds itself supporting both sides in the same war. You see?
Some wit in Turkey’s defence ministry has named the offensive ‘Operation Olive Branch’. It is joined by thousands of fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The US spent years supporting the FSA in a (semi) covert CIA programme. More recently the US has poured arms and money into the Syrian Kurds. Thus the current conflict can also be seen as a proxy war between the CIA and the Pentagon.
To be fair to Donald Trump, this state of affairs was always the most likely outcome of how the Obama administration left the pieces on the board. As Trump tweeted, he inherited ‘the Syrian mess’. But he adopted it as his own when he implemented Obama’s plan to arm the Syrian Kurds last May. It seemed that they were the only group the US could find that were actually any good against Isis. But those Kurds (the YPG) are tied by blood and ideology to Kurds in Turkey (the PKK) who have waged a 30-year war of independence against the Turkish state. President Erdogan sees the two as a single enemy and complained bitterly to Trump about arms flow to Syrian Kurds.
The two men had a telephone call in November. The bland White House statement said Trump spoke of ‘pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria’. The Turks thought they had extracted a promise that no more weapons would be sent. ‘He clearly said that this nonsense should have been ended sooner,’ said the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was in on the call.
So the Turks were incensed last week when the US army announced that a 30,000-strong Syrian border force would be created out of the Kurdish militias. Training of recruits had already begun. Erdogan declared: ‘A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders. What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.’ He continued: ‘Those who stabbed us in the back while pretending to be our allies… can’t stop us.’
One immensely complicating factor is the presence of America forces in Kurdish areas. Some 2,000 marines and special forces were sent, on Trump’s orders, to train and assist the Kurds. What if the Turkish offensive runs right into them? The Pentagon says there are no US units in the way. But this possibility was raised by Erdogan just before things kicked off at the weekend. He warned the Americans: ‘Lower your flags over the terrorist bases… so that we are not forced to bury those who stand by them.’
Trump and Erdogan have found themselves on either side of the truism that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Yet the US reaction to Erdogan’s fury has been instructive. Defense secretary James Mattis said Turkey had ‘legitimate security concerns’. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backpedalled frantically: ‘Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all…That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed.’
Mattis and Tillerson perhaps had in mind that the US needs to maintain access to the Turkish airbases at Incirlik and Izmir. This echoes the situation with Qatar. Trump took sides with Saudi Arabia against Qatar, but Doha hosts the Americans’ biggest and most important military base in the Middle East. Mattis and Tillerson had to patch things up with Qatar as they are now doing with Turkey. Even so, the Kurds — and others — may wonder what kind of ally disappears as soon as the first shot is fired. American credibility is on the line in northern Syria.
To cap the misery for the Americans, Erdogan made clear he had not bothered to discuss the offensive with Trump, though there had been ‘telephone diplomacy’ with Vladimir Putin. At least, you might think, for Trump, the Syria mess has nothing to do with the Russia mess. But special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry is said to be looking at whether the former National Security advisor, Michael Flynn, blocked arms for the Kurds because he had been paid as a lobbyist for Turkey. If that’s true, it would be powerful leverage for Mueller to get more from Flynn about any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Trump did look at the options for arming the Kurds in January last year. The Obama officials who prepared the briefing told me scathingly that Trump could only be given a few pages and then with ‘lots of pictures’. They painted a devastating portrait of a man neither capable of being president nor even particularly interested in doing the job.
But Syria’s problems don’t stem from Trump’s inattention. The Kurds accuse Turkey of giving Isis safe haven for years, using them to stop the emergence of a Kurdish statelet. Now Tillerson says the US military presence in Syria — that is, in Kurdish areas — will be ‘focused on ensuring Isis cannot re-emerge’. So is the US still supplying weapons to the Kurds that might now be used against the Turks? A Pentagon spokesman told me they were ‘reviewing adjustments’ to Kurdish military support. Weapons had been supplied only for use against Isis. ‘We do not condone the use of coalition-provided weapons for any other purpose.’
A colleague repeatedly asked Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led militia (the Syrian Democratic Forces) if the arms were still flowing. Each time, he would reply enigmatically: ‘Our will and our faith is the greatest weapon of all.’ He carried on: ‘We will continue to defend our land, even if just with our kitchen knives.’
Bali accused Turkey of the ‘massacre’ of civilians from the air. Two families had died in one strike, he said. The president of the Turkish Red Crescent, Dr Kerem Kinik, told me that half a million civilians were trapped in the conflict zone. Many were in miserable makeshift camps. He blamed the Kurdish militias, accusing them of closing roads to stop people leaving. The Kurds say they are resisting Turkish ethnic cleansing.
So, US arms sent to the Kurds will only be used against Isis; the Kurds on one side of the border have nothing to do with Kurds on the other; our Nato ally Turkey has nothing to do with the jihadists; with Isis almost gone, reconstruction can begin; displaced Syrians will go home and (to quote from the White House account of the Trump-Erdogan call) Turkey and the US will ‘ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens’.
As the Red Queen said to Alice: ‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent.