For the night of 27 July 2012
Russia: For the record. The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Vice Admiral Chirkov said today that Moscow is involved in talks toward establishing naval bases in Cuba, Vietnam and the Seychelles.
Comment: This is the first public notice of any plan to build more bases.
Iran-Syria: The Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, a general, said today, "Neither the friends of Syria nor the (anti-Israel) resistance movement (comprising Iranian, Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanon's Hezbollah forces) have yet entered the scene… If they do, they will deliver decisive blows to the enemy front, in particular to the despised Arabs."
Comment: This is the third high-level Iranian official to threaten expansion of the conflict. Apparently the Iranians judge there are good Arabs and despised Arabs. A consistent theme of all recent statements is Iranian understanding that the fight is between them and Saudi Arabia, as much as between Shiites and Sunnis.
Syria-Turkey-Kurds: Special comment. An ominous side bar. On 23 July, the day after the bombing in Damascus that killed senior defense and security officials, Syria police and security officers left at least six small towns populated mostly by Syrian Kurds. The forces ostensibly were needed elsewhere. The Kurds are as oppressed by Arabs in Syria as they are in in Iraq and by the Turks, so they took over the towns.
There are two versions of what happened in the media. One is that Syrian President Asad deliberately granted semi-autonomy to the Syrian Kurds as a means of putting counter-pressure on the Turks who are backing the Syrian opposition.
The other version is that Syrian government forces left and the local Syrian Kurdish leaders, primarily belonging to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), just took control of Kobane, Derek, Amude, Efrin, Sari Kani and Girke Lege. No deal was struck.
Syrian forces still control the largest Kurdish town in Syria, Qamishli, a town of 185,000, but reportedly are working with the PYD. Overall, the evidence favors a deliberate Arab decision in Damascus to use the Kurds against the Turks.
Syrian Kurds are spread out and intermixed with Assyrians in northeastern Syria. There are less than 2 million Syrian Kurds, far fewer than the Kurds in Turkey or Iraq. Nevertheless, they share the fantasy of a Kurdish independent homeland.
The Syrian Kurds are fractious, but lately have received moral, political and probably economic support from Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region government. One rumor is that 600 Syrian Kurds received military training by the Iraqi Kurds and have returned to Syria to defend the towns. The Syrian Kurds in the PYD are affiliated with the PKK, the longstanding secular and socialist Kurdish armed insurgency that has fought for Kurdish independence against Turkey for over 20 years.
The Syrian Kurds have tended to remain neutral in the fighting. While they oppose the Asad regime, they distrust the Sunni opposition, whose titular leader, ironically, is an ethnic Kurd. Sunni leaders already have said the Kurds would be afforded no autonomy in a new Syrian regime. The Syrian Kurds said they would not allow the opposition to operate in their area.
Turks near panic
The most interesting development is Turkey's extreme reaction to the idea of a second region in which Kurds are running their own government. Iraq's is the first. The Turks interpret whatever is happening among Syrian Kurds as a direct threat to Turkey.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "if the PKK and PYD, in solidarity with one another, take even a single further step by drawing other formations to their side, it is not possible for us to look on with tolerance in this regard, and merely watch this. All precautionary measures are being taken in connection with this issue. Both our armed forces and our other relevant units on this issue are continuing their work." Turkey sent armored reinforcements to the border this week.
Erdogan also said, "There can be no question of our permitting a terrorist organization to set up camp in northern Syria or this to become an element of threat for our country." Prime Minister Erdogan was responding to questions from journalists at Ankara Airport prior to departing for Great Britain in order to attend the opening of the London Olympics.
The threat to Turkey is that northern Syria could become a safe haven for anti-Turkish Kurdish militia fighters from which to stage raids into southern Turkey, as they have done for years from northern Iraq. If Turkey intervenes with military force, the risk for Turkey is that it will appear to be a villainous, covetous country that is exploiting the Syrian fighting for its own parochial interests.
The key points are that all allegiances in the current fight are based on expediency and are temporary. For example, the Syrian militants might ultimately find Iran to be an effective counterweight to Saudi Arabia, the Turks and the US, as long as their long term goal was to defeat Israel.
The ripple effects of the Syrian fighting are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Now that the Western states, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have unleashed the most ancient poisons in Syria, the ethnic and sectarian side effects easily can extend into Turkey, Iraq and far beyond.
Iran, for example, almost certainly would help the Syrian Kurds if that helped hobble the Turks and the American/Saudi-backed opposition. The statement by the Deputy Chief of the Revolutionary Guards signals that the Qods force and the Guards are ready for action, anywhere in the world, but specifically in the Arab states.
Al Maliki in Iraq must help Syria or risk an escalation of the new Sunni uprising in Iraq. Hezbollah and Hamas also will have a role in undermining the western support operations for the Syrian opposition.
Turkey will be tempted to send special forces units into Syrian Kurdistan, as it has done for years into Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the past 30 years the strategic foundation of the Middle East rested importantly on a relatively predictable Syria as well as on a strong Israel. The organizational skills of Islamists and the inept meddling of outside powers have undermined that foundation in the past two years and the next stable set of conditions is not foreseeable. The turmoil and forces now in motion are much more dangerous than any previously seen in two generations.
End of NightWatch for 27 July.
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