Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said in an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt on February 11 that a threatened ground invasion of Syria by Western allies Turkey and possibly Saudi Arabia would lead to a “new world war”.
On February 18, Hawar News Agency reported that “dozens” of Turkish armoured vehicles had advanced 200 metres across the Syrian border.
The nightmare scenario of a full-scale confrontation between the world's major nuclear powers — the US-led Western powers and their global rival, Russia — appears horrifyingly possible a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War was supposed to have ended such dangers.
For the past five years, Syria has vied with Ukraine as the key conflict with the potential to revive the Cold War nightmare. But the fact the conflict in Ukraine — the former industrial and agricultural heartland of the Soviet Union — has not led to World War III shows that neither global superpower really wants it. The Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” still holds.
The war in Syria is a multi-sided civil war and regional war, which involves brutal conflict between proxies of the rival global and regional powers, as well as their growing direct involvement.
More than 250,000 people have been killed since 2011, at least 7 million have become internally displaced and more than 4 million have fled overseas. Bombings by Syria's Assad regime cause the largest number of casualties.
The danger of the Syrian conflict igniting a global war comes from the intersection of global rivalries with pre-existing regional and local conflicts.
The threat of Turkish and Saudi invasion officially comes in response to Russia's heavy aerial bombings around Aleppo. Russia's bombings have killed more than 1000 civilians and hit several Doctors Without Borders-run hospitals, as well as inflicting a devastating military setback on Islamist militias fighting beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad.
However, Hawar News Agency reported, the Turkish incursion was not directed against Assad's forces. Instead it targeted the forces of the Kurdish-led multi-ethnic feminist and ecological socialist revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).
Turkey attacked Efrîn, one of the self-administered revolutionary democratic cantons of Rojava. It was preceded by a week of intense Turkish bombardment targeting the Peoples and Women's Protection Units (YPG/J), the armed forces of the Rojava revolution.
The Russian and US air-wars are officially against the same enemy: ISIS, the ultraviolent Islamist fundamentalists that occupy territory in Iraq and Syria. However, for both the West and Russia, fighting ISIS is more of an excuse than the reason for their interventions.
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 when dictator Bashar al-Assad tried to military crush a civil uprising. For its first three years, the conflict seemed a relatively straightforward proxy war.
The West — directly through the CIA and indirectly through regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — militarised the opposition. In the process, it caused the secular, civil uprising to be overshadowed by Islamist militias.
Russia backed the Assad government with huge amounts of military and economic aid. It fears losing its closest regional ally, which hosts the only Russian naval base outside Russia at Tarsus.
However, when the US began air strikes against ISIS in 2014, the Islamist militias did not prove reliable allies. The only force effectively resisting ISIS was the YPG/J — the same force now being targeted by the Turkish invasion. After initially hesitating to come to the aid of the besieged town of Kobanê in Rojava, the US made a tactical alliance with the YPG/J in late 2014.
The outbreak of the Rojava Revolution in 2012 was initially seen as peripheral by both the West and Assad. But for the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it risked inspiring Turkey's long-oppressed Kurdish majority.
This helps explain Turkey's aid to ISIS, the Nusra Front and other Islamist militias on the basis that they would focus their fighting not against Assad, but the Rojava revolution.
Historic Kurdistan is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but Turkey occupies the largest part. The Kurdish freedom struggle in Turkey is also deeply entwined with other working-class and progressive struggles against the Turkish state.
The example of socialist-oriented grassroots democracy, feminism, religious tolerance and ethnic harmony in Rojava has helped galvanise opposition to the neoliberal Islamist Erdoğan government.
Last year, YPG/J military advances in Syria gained them control of more than three quarters of Rojava. In Turkey, political advances by the pro-Kurdish, left-wing Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey were met by an increasingly violent response from a panicked Erdoğan regime.
By the end of the year, this had developed into a full-scale war against the population in Turkish Kurdistan. It has been matched by increasingly violent repression of dissenting political activists, lawyers and academics in the rest of Turkey.
The US attitude towards the Rojava revolution remains ambiguous. While coordination of US air strikes with YPG/J ground assaults against ISIS has been effective, the US and other Western powers have accepted NATO member Turkey's blockade of Rojava. US provision of light arms and ammunition to the YPG/J has only slightly mitigated this — being considerably less than the weapons provided to the Islamist militias.
In July, as Erdoğan reignited the war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the oldest armed left-wing Kurdish group, the US welcomed Turkey into the “anti-ISIS coalition”. Predictably, Turkish air strikes have been directed against the PKK (in Turkey and Iraq) and the YPG/J in Syria — not ISIS.
However, since October, the US has increased its diplomatic recognition of the YPG/J. It recognised the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD), an alliance between the YPG/J and other, mainly non-Kurdish, forces. These were mostly remnants of the Free Syrian Army — the umbrella of anti-Assad militias formed in 2011 but since either displaced by or absorbed into the Islamist militias.
By welcoming Turkey into the “anti-ISIS coalition”, the US implied tacit acceptance of the “red line” declared by Erdoğan — that the YPG/J should not cross the Euphrates to reunite the two cantons it controls with the last remaining canton of Efrîn. Doing so would cut off Turkey's supply lines to its Syrian proxies.
In late December, QSD forces tentatively advanced across the Euphrates, capturing 640km² from ISIS with apparent US support.
Erdogan began insisting that the US must choose between its NATO partner and its effective, but ideologically suspect, tactical ally. The US's exclusion of the QSD from the February 1 Syrian peace talks suggested the US was tilting toward Turkey.
However, the peace talks — between Assad and a Saudi-based opposition whose minimum demand was his resignation — inevitably failed. Their failure was accompanied by Russia's devastating and deadly offensive around Aleppo.
For its part, the QSD capitalised on the Russian airstrikes.
The February 16 Guardian said: “As Lebanese Hezbollah, militias from Iraq, and Syrian troops — all led by Iran — have inched their way around the top of Aleppo, the Kurdish YPG … has been making strident moves towards areas they have avoided throughout the conflict.
“Over the weekend, the YPG moved towards two Syrian towns between the Turkish border and the almost besieged Aleppo, after earlier seizing an airbase that had been held by the opposition.”
Western media has accused the QSD of working with Assad government forces, particularly in the capture of the Menagh air base. But this assertion has been rejected by the Rojava forces.
“Do they want the Nusra Front to stay there, or for the regime to come and occupy it?” Saleh Muslim, the co-chair of the Rojava-based Democratic Union Party (PYD), said in a February 14 Reuters interview.
Turkey responded by bombarding Rojava and threatening to invade. However, these moves were condemned by the US, France and the UN Security Council — and prompted Medvedev's threats of World War III.
Turkey's incursion into Efrîn was preceded by the bombing of a military convoy in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on February 17, killing at least 28 people. Erdoğan immediately claimed he had specific evidence implicating the Rojava armed forces.
In a statement released on February 19, responsibility for the bombing was claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), a group which in 2004 split from the PKK, who it said were “too soft”.
Last year, ISIS terrorist attacks in Turkey routinely targeted Erdoğan's opponents. This included the October bombing of an HDP election rally that killed more than 100 people.
The Erdoğan government routinely blames the PKK for terror attacks but this was the first time they blamed the Syrian YPG.
The allegations were strenuously denied by the YPG, which insisted: “We have no links to this incident. It is not specific to this case alone, as we have never been involved in an attack against Turkey. The Turkish state cannot possibly prove our engagement in any kind of attack on their side because we were never involved in such an action.”
It said Turkey wanted to “pave the way for an offensive on Syria and Rojava, and to cover up their relations with ISIS which is known to the whole world by now”.
There seems little doubt that blaming the YPG is a pretext for invading Rojava, though it is unclear who the intended audience is. It is possibly aimed at getting US support for the invasion.
It is also possible it is aimed at sections of the Turkish military command, who have been unconvinced that invading Rojava is worth going to war with Russia while US support looks doubtful.
Meanwhile on February 18, Reuters said 2000 Turkish armed-and-equipped Islamists crossed the border into Rojava.
Turkey's escalating war against the Kurds is a further escalation of an already out-of-control, multi-sided conflict — with unpredictable results. As a NATO member and US ally, it can only cause such carnage to the extent the US is willing to allow it to do so.
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