by Claude Salhani
The situation on the northern and north-eastern edges of the Middle East is becoming precariously tense. That’s the region where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey converge. Only a few kilometres away is the border with Iran.
Much of this terrain is bandit country in the best of times and these are not the best of times because the civil war in Syria and the troubles in Iraq have Turkey worried.
Some say the war in Syria is over. It may be over for some but, in this remote region of the Middle East, a new dispute may see more violence erupt soon. It may be a new dispute but it’s an age-old conflict pitting the Turkish government against Kurds aspiring for an independent Kurdistan.
Adding to the political, financial and military tension in the region was the arrival of the Islamic State (ISIS), which carved itself a pretty decent chunk of territory by extending its reach across the three borders.
Despite claims by US President Donald Trump that ISIS has been defeated in the region, the ISIS defeat is far from final.
This region comprises rugged mountainous terrain where the unaccustomed finds great difficulty in getting around. This is also Kurdish land. Kurdistan, which exists only on some maps, as well as in the hearts and minds of a few million Kurds that geography and history have spread across this breathtaking landscape.
The Kurds, who are in majority Sunni Muslim, were opposed to ISIS, also Sunnis. Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga were supported by the United States in the war against ISIS.
Victory, however, came at a heavy cost for the Kurds and their success may be short-lived.
Now Turkey, worried by the presence of such large numbers of Kurds, particularly the peshmerga, issued warnings that it will resort to a military solution if the current situation continues.
The conflict has taken a new direction with a fresh force in the region to reckon with, Russia. Indeed, Moscow has many troops in Syria and any foreign incursion could be met by Russian forces that would escalate the conflict to new heights.
The borders in this region are fluid, which makes it easier for the Kurds to transit between Turkey and Syria when they need to stay a step ahead of the Turkish military. Turkey calls the Kurds terrorists and has vowed to fight them, even if it means pushing into Syrian territory.
It was with that in mind that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia in late August to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russians, under Putin, have been snuggling up to the Turks, much to the detriment of the United States and NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
The war in Syria has brought in the Iranians, Turks and the Russians into Syria. Meanwhile, Americans are nowhere to be seen.
Washington was furious when Erdogan announced that Turkey was buying Russia’s new missile defence system, the S-400. Now Putin is pushing, even more, trying to convince Turkey to purchase Russia’s newest warplanes.
Russia is clearly making a move on a NATO member. The questions are these:
Is Russia out to undermine NATO? Putin is not one to forget the humiliation suffered when the Warsaw Pact disbanded and several former pact members joined NATO.
What is the United States doing about it? The United States is missing in action, diplomatically, allowing Russia to own the playing field.
Washington’s policy in the Middle East — rather Washington’s lack of policy in the region — will hurt it down the road.
Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs.