• Reeya Rao

Trump, Turkey, and Totalitarianism: The Game of Cobras and Ladders in Syria

There was once a farmer who despite working hard, was not prospering. Then one day, while tilling his land, he observed an anthill, from which a cobra emerged. Thinking that the cobra is a protector of the farm, he thought that by worshipping it, he will start gaining prosperity. With that in mind, he left a bowl of milk for the cobra, and when he came back to collect it, he found a gold coin. The farmer made it a daily ritual, and soon started to prosper. One day, he had to visit another village, so he instructed his son to feed the cobra milk every day. The son obeyed, but it occurred to him that the cobra might be keeping his repository of gold coins in the anthill – so if he killed the cobra, he could possess all the gold coins at once. In his short-sightedness, he attacked the cobra, but it retaliated and killed the son. Upon his return, when the farmer was informed about the ordeal, he only blamed his son, with no care to mourn him. Per usual, he went to feed milk to the cobra – the infuriated cobra, said, “Look at yourself! You have even forgotten your son’s death and have come here out of greed, and not respect.” The cobra announced that such a relationship could not last any longer. It gave the farmer a diamond and asked him never to return. The farmer never did.

This Panchtantra classic is a simplistic metaphor for the postmodern political situation in West Asia. Predictably so, international politics, impenitently, replaces magical realism with political realism. ‘End justifies the means’ – what is important is that the diamond was sought, and that if the cobra had a diamond, it would have more, so the farmer would keep going back in self-interest, but also so other farmers do not acquire control of the diamonds, sometimes coaxing the cobra with display of affection, and at other times, threatening it with a stick. The situation in West Asia is more complex – with no end envisioned, there are many farmers driving their own agenda, both by themselves and through their mercenary sons. To some, the diamond is oil, to others it is access to key ports, while others have merely entered a power contest. It seems that Machiavelli would have stood out as ethical in today’s political context.

Recent West Asian instability has climaxed in Syria. The multitude of actors – the Bashar al-Assad government, IS, the Kurds, Hezbollah, the rebels, Russia, Iran, the Gulf states, US Turkey, displaced Syrian refugees – make the situation a puzzle, whose skewed pieces cannot be put together easily. Especially now, with a rapid escalation being witnessed with US’ exit and Turkey’s entry, the narrative has again taken a sharp turn and anticipatory nervousness is gripping observers. In order to make objective sense of what is going on, the issue can be divided into three themes – first, domestic politics in Syria, second, the Turkish-Kurdish relationship, and third, larger geopolitics in the region.

Syria, an ancient, fertile crescent nation, is placed at a strategic position. It shares its borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, while having access to the Mediterranean Sea. It was under Ottoman control, until 1920, when it was committed under the French Mandate. It was in 1946 that the Syrian Republic gained independence, as a democratic nation-state. Through a 1963 coup, the National Council of the Revolutionary Command gained control, led by the Ba’ath Party. Then in 1966 left-wing military dissidents took charge by imprisoning President Amin Hafiz. However, the prowess depicted in the coup was soon overshadowed by the occupation of Golan Heights by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

This laid ground for a bloodless military coup by Hafez al-Assad in 1970 – terminating civilian-led politics in Syria thereafter. Following the time-tested script for a time-defying reign, Assad began to consolidate power and constructed an organisational structure to this end, yet carefully mimicking a democratic framework. Assad’s stronghold was challenged when both Syria and Egypt lost the 1973 October War they waged against Israel. Another dent in domestic politics was the enactment of a new Constitution, whereby, it was declared that the President need not be a Muslim, contrary to established consensus. Assad, an Alawite was the leader of a Sunni-majority country. In no time were the streets flooded with protestors, at the helm of which was the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the government nipped these protests and even the idea of any future demonstrations in the bud. It was in 1990 when Syria found its place on the international map when it partook in the “US-led multi-national coalition”, to end Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

In 2000, Hafiz al-Assad passed away, paving way for his son Bashar al-Assad to assume power, after 30 years. The fragile constitution was amended to reduce the minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 to facilitate his appointment. The young President initiated his tenure with the ‘Damascus Spring’ – which led to the establishment of various forums of discussion and dissent. He even ordered the release of many political prisoners. However, only months later, clampdown began, dreams of democracy crashed, and the spring froze.

Soon after, tensions at home and internationally started mounting. The international community suspected Syria’s involvement in terrorist activities in Lebanon and Iraq. US went as far as to impose sanctions. At the same time, domestic atmosphere was gradually becoming rife with sectarian disharmony. In a 2003 incident at a football stadium, the security forces are said to have used weaponry against civilians, most of whom were Kurdish. This was followed by widespread humanitarian injustices against Kurds across the country.

In 2011, the wave of Arab Spring enveloped Syria as well. Several protestors took to the streets with the aim of overthrowing not only Assad but the Ba’ath party’s rule in its entirety. They were met with severe repression. Soon, another stakeholder emerged – the Free Syrian Army comprising civilians and army defectors. Then started emerging several rebel groups, most prominent of whom were the Kurds.

The Kurds are traditionally a mercenary group, spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. However, the over 30 million-strong community remains a minority group in all countries. A majority of the Kurds identify as Sunni Muslim, however, they have preserved their cultural idiosyncrasies – most prominently, their language – which has found variations across the region. They have vociferously voiced their want of an independent homeland for themselves, since the last century. The international community did take notice of the issue after the first world war, and attempted to demarcate a Kurdish territory. However, the final Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923 for negotiating peace between Turkey and others relinquished the idea of Kurdistan.

This became the impetus of Kurdish rebellions, which were met with state repression. Turkey sought a cultural assimilation route (targeting language, dresses etc). Iraq is said to have launched chemical attacks on the community, with Iran also quashing any attempts oppressively. The Kurds then consolidated their vision by forming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – PKK) under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, a Marxist. The PKK started to attack the military and even many civilians. The Turkish army and the PKK guerrillas had been engaged in an intense conflict from 1984 until 1999 – when Öcalan was captured. PKK continued to conduct intermittent attacks until 2013 and then a ceasefire was initiated until 2015 – when Turkey involved itself in Syria.

The Vox describes the Syrian conflict being divided among four major actors – the Bashar al-Assad government, the rebels, the Kurds and the IS – each being supported by foreign backers with no defined Syria policy. The violent attempts by the Assad regime, in 2011 to suppress protests and the retaliatory formation of the Free Syrian Army, transformed the internal conflict into a civil war. This opened the door for a multitude of foreign players to partake in order to secure their national interests. First, were the jihadists from across the world – who were promoted by Assad in order to dissuade foreign countries from supporting the rebels due to their mixing with extremists. In 2012, Kurds declared secession from Assad’s rule and declared autonomy in northern Syria. Shortly, the Syrian civil war became a proxy war – as Iran entered to back its long-time ally, Assad through weaponry and direct military support. The rising influence of Iran caused nervousness among Gulf states, who then started backing the rebel groups to counter Iran. Further, Iran raised the ante by introducing Hezbollah in the conflict, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia to secure Assad’s front.

By 2013, sectarian fault lines became apparent – with the Assad regime being generally backed by Shia supporters, the rebels being generally supported by Sunnis. That year was also marked by chemical attacks against civilians by the government. This triggered the war to be further immersed in a global power struggle – with Russia supporting Assad, its strongest partner in the region, and the US opposing him. While Russia was already supplying material help to the regime, US started providing weapons and training to the rebels. The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (having broken off from Al Qaeda) in 2014, complicated the war even more. It set out to fight the rebels in Syria, most prominently the Kurds, and occupied an area – declaring it their Caliphate. The US then shifted its focus onto IS, launching airstrikes.

2015 marked Turkey’s entry – as it started bombing the PKK in Iraq and Turkey. However, Turkey did not attack the IS – creating a conflict of interest with its ally, the US. The IS-inflicted Kobanî massacre in the same year led the US to join hands with the People’s Protection Units (YPG – Kurdish militia group) in its fight against the IS – which would also serve to strategically counter Iran and Russia. With American backing, the Kurds usurped control of northern Syria from IS – along the Syria-Turkey border, and gained control of a statelet, known as Rojova. The YPG having close links with the PKK alarmed Turkey. This further deteriorated US-Turkey ties, fuelling mistrust. Further, in 2016 as Trump came to office, there was a shift in the American stance – clearly opposing IS, but supporting Assad’s rule, contradictory to the premise of its involvement in the conflict. However, 2017 saw a sharp turn again – in response to the government’s use of chemical weapons, US directly attacked the government.

The Kurdish-US alliance had been successful in fighting the IS. However, it also led to straining of ties between Turkey and the US, as the former views YPG as a “terrorist organisation” due to its close links with the PKK. Thus, from the Turkish perspective, a Kurdish stronghold in Syria would rekindle secessionist sentiments among Turkish Kurds. This is viewed not only as a threat to national sovereignty but security – as a domino effect of violence would transpire in Turkey and the region at large. Turkey had communicated this concern to the US several times in the past. In order to resolve the issue, the US proposed a buffer zone between Turkey and the YPG in August, 2019 – but to no avail. In the backdrop of a clear Turkish voice against American support to the YPG and Kurdish autonomy in Syria, it had been moving closer to Russia. The realisation struck when it procured the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia – being the first NATO member to do so.

On October 7, 2019 – through a tweet the American President announced that American troops would be withdrawn from Syria, and, “Turkey will be moving forward with its long-planned operation in Northern Syria.” In terms of face value, it seems only fair that an American ally, with a stronghold in the region would be taking its place, however, this announcement caused panic among observers and other US allies. America had merely 1000 boots on the ground – a political symbol of American presence. Soon after the withdrawal, Turkey launched an offensive along with other Syrian rebels. The aim of which is not only to end the Kurdish self-rule venture but also to wrest control of Northern Syria.

In view of dubbed national interests, Turkey is also looking to repatriate the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it accepted. The decline in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity in the recent polls has been attributed to the refugee question. Turkey has proposed to make a 30 km “peace corridor” or a “safe zone” in Northern Syria, along the Turkish border, where the refugees would be repatriated. The potentiality of another conflict has been indicated, as largely Arab refugees would be settled in a largely Kurdish area.

Another significant dimension of the narrative is the American betrayal of Kurds, once again – which found no mention in his string of tweets. Although the Kurds are recognised as tactful militias, they are incapable of fighting against Turkey’s sophisticated military. It was clear that eventually the US would choose its powerful ally – Turkey over the Kurds, who are not supported by any major power in the region. However, what was shocking, was the blatant and abrupt nature of the withdrawal. It was anticipated that if and when it takes place, it would be over a period of time, and with a security framework negotiated beforehand. This hasty decision has caused great harm to the long-revered American credibility. The Economist in one of its October issues, asked a bold question on the cover page, “Who can trust Trump’s America?”

The decision was not entirely based on security concerns as the New York Times had reported, “The decision by the Trump administration to quit Syria stands apart because the status quo was entirely sustainable. American forces were not taking high number of casualties. The region under control of the Kurds was largely quiet.” It is said to have been motivated by domestic concerns – of Trump’s will to have delivered on at least one of his bold promises made in 2016, ahead of the upcoming elections in 2020. The larger geopolitics might point to the renewed American attempts at protectionism – in order to consolidate its military and economic strength to counter China’s burgeoning influence and might. Despite the rushed exit, American troops could not be brought back home. As P&P went to press, the troops were being moved to Western Iraq to continue the American fight against the IS. These contradictory signals from within the US not only point towards lack of coordination, but also an ailing power’s desperate attempts at maintaining a façade of its supremacy.

Turkey and the Kurds were caught in a conflict almost immediately after the pull-out. With no other option left, the Kurds then struck a deal with the Assad government to seize back control of Northern Syria – declaring Moscow the biggest player in the great game. The strongest backer of the Assad regime, Russia is being viewed as a power broker – whose immediate role would be to prevent a confrontation of the Syrian government and the Turkish troops. Consequently, the government and Kurds have joint forces to combat a third-party Turkish incursion.

Ironically, the conflict has come full circle – it started with people calling for overthrowing Assad and the Ba’ath party, but the establishment remains the only hope of survival and stability, and is one of the few remaining players. However, this is also a contended statement, as it is being argued that the lack of a Kurdish influence and the emergence of a new ‘enemy’ would create an opening for the IS to re-emerge in Syria. Unlike the Panchatantra story, what the cobra possesses does not seem to be the end, but to keep the cobra in turmoil is an opportunity to exert power, to dominate – which is what the many farmers and sons are seeking an end in, if at all.

The writer would like to express gratitude to Ms. Merve Ozturk for her valuable insights on the Turkish perspective.


  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_history_of_Syria#Under_Bashar_al-Assad,_2000%E2%80%93present

  • http://www.talesofpanchatantra.com/the-brahmin-and-the-cobra

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFpanWNgfQY

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoL0L_DbuQQ

  • https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/turkey-attacking-northern-syria-kurds-6071019/

  • https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/10/18/america-forsakes-syrias-kurds-in-a-ceasefire-deal-with-turkey?cid1=cust/dailypicks1/n/bl/n/20191018n/owned/n/n/dailypicks1/n/n/AP/328224/n

  • https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/10/14/turkeys-invasion-has-thrown-a-once-stable-corner-of-syria-into-chaos?cid1=cust/dailypicks1/n/bl/n/20191014n/owned/n/n/dailypicks1/n/n/AP/325041/n

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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About the Author

Reeya Rao has been India's representative at the 2016 G20 Youth Summit held in China. She holds Master's in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and holds a graduate degree in Sociology from the Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. A former President of her college's National Service Scheme, Reeya's research interests include Education, Gender, Migration and Youth Affairs. A binge watcher of television sitcoms, Reeya also has a penchant for Modern Calligraphy.

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