Erdogan's invasion bluff has Obama warning his Kurdish allies from bolstering their strategic position
Erdogan Is No Lunatic, In Fact He Is a Very Clever Man
These days Turkey's Erdogan often tends to be discounted as a "lunatic" and a "loose cannon" but it's not a characterization I buy at all. Consider that for the longest time his reign in Turkey was associated with a growing economy, peace with the Kurds and a favorable western opinion which glossed over his Islamist ideology and authoritarian tendencies. Far from being a maniac he in fact proved himself to be a skilled politician and a good reader of realities around him.
His present disastrous position stems from one fateful, and catastrophic miscalculation in 2011 when he turned his back on Assad and got behind an Islamist insurgency against him. Previously Turkey had a quiet partnership going on with Syria and Iran essentially based on the fact all three were home to large Kurdish minorities and thus all opposed increased Kurdish statehood in the region. Swept by the enthusiasm for his favored Islamist cause and doubtlessly imagining that an Islamist Syria would look to him as a patron and a model he unrealistically believed that the overthrow would occur quickly – without the disintegration of the Syrian state.
As it was there was no quick overthrow of the Baathist rule in Syria and the Syrian state slowly fractured instead, giving rise to a de facto statehood for Syrian Kurds. Attempting to put the genie back in the bottle he adopted a very ill-spirited stance against the Kurds in Syria which in turn radicalized the Kurds in Turkey and eventually gave rise to renewed Kurdish insurgency in south-east Turkey that he had previously done so well to avoid.
Thus rather than a leader out of control or out of touch with reality Erdogan is somebody who gave in to hubris, paid the price, and is now trying frantically to come back from the catastrophic situation he brought upon himself. Despite the best efforts he has not managed to reverse his fortunes and in fact seems to make things worse for himself as often as he improves them. However, this is far from saying he is no longer able to perform impressive feats of politics.
Let us stop to consider that his parliamentary majority in Turkey is greater than ever, so that it would seem his risky, authoritarian and underhanded methods (up to possibly bombing a Kurdish rally and blaming it on ISIS) employed to secure it actually worked rather well, and also that he has found a way to profit from the political polarization that he originally introduced to Turkey unintentionally.
Also we should recognize that his underhanded and shocking proposition revealed in 2014 for a false flag attack in Syria that would justify an increased Turkish and US intervention in the country if carried out may have very well worked (just as the Ghouta false flag nearly did).
And finally let us consider that ambushing the Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border in November albeit backfiring in some ways (namely economics) at the time actually served to shift media focus away from Paris attacks and renewed will of the west to join Russia in confronting ISIS over to talk of a NATO-Russian war.
All in all we should recognize the reason Erdogan is willing to take on risk is because since 2011 he no longer holds a good deck of cards, but actually he remains an astute politician and all too good at reading the situation around him. In fact, we can see there has been little to no visible fallout from his black op schemes in the sense of US distancing itself away from him. If he is willing to "go off the reservation" it is because he correctly anticipates that Washington will not hold his feet to the fire for doing so. Far from being a lunatic he is perfectly rational, and often very clever.
Getting the Empire to Shaft the Kurds Once More
In his latest political feat Erdogan has succeeded in getting the US to warn the Kurdish YPG from taking more territory from the Al-Qaeda controlled mainstream Syrian rebellion. This means that US, which for a short while now, seemed to have been prioritizing its SDF-centered anti-ISIS war over its Al Nusra-centered anti-Assad war, has now as much as publicly reaffirmed the equality of these (directly opposing) US goals in Syria.
Nor did it take much for Erdogan to accomplish this. Essentially all it took was a military buildup on the border supposed to lend credence to his threat that he is itching to move across the border into Syria. That is an eventuality White House understandably wants to avoid seeing it correctly recognizes the Syria mess it created is complicated enough without the addition of a further unpredictable and destabilizing factor.
However, it is also the case that Erdogan's boast was very likely a bluff from the onset. Of course the Russians raised an alarm about Erdogan's buildup, but they would have done so whether they believed he was actually likely to pour across the border or not – just to warn him off and deter him in case he really wasn't bluffing. The thing is as others have noted a gradual and heavily publicized build up is not consistent with a serious military operation. It is consistent with a buildup performed for show.
It is simply the case that with recent Syrian government advances a Turkish occupation zone in Syria makes less and less sense by the day. The idea of the Turkish push into Syria was always that it would create a safe zone and a base of operations for its Al Nusra proxy, however, with its recent losses of strategic ground it is becoming more difficult to see what Turks can do to benefit it - unless they're willing to directly overrun Syrian positions which would bring them in conflict with the Russians, or Kurdish ones which might finally be too much even for Washington.
An invasion performed last month that brought the Turks to the northern outskirts of Aleppo would have meant it would have been very difficult for Syrian loyalists to ever cut off the flow of supplies from Turkey via Azaz, but now that route, and window to keep it open has been closed.
At most, the Turks can now wrestle a chunk of northern Syria from ISIS and hand it over to Al Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham – this would at least serve to keep the two Kurdish enclaves from linking up, which would have some utility for Ankara as well as hand it a minor bargaining chip. However, being isolated from the main Al Nusra territory in Idlib and Aleppo such a Turkish-sponsored border enclave (in essence an oversized Azaz pocket) would do very little to enhance al Nusra's overall strategic position.
In any case Obama, nonetheless, figured the prospect of Erdogan's military adventure in Syria was credible and awful enough that he has now called on the Kurds to cease their advance against Turkey's al Nusra proxy. In Obama's mind this is doubtlessly a reasonable and responsible compromise – the Kurds do not advance against Al Qaeda, and Turkey in turn does not pour over the border into Syria.
These are pro-deadlock policies that are the result of utter confusion and paralysis in Washington. Without a doubt Obama's was of two minds on the SDF advance since the get-go since after all the SDF was mopping up the CIA-backed Al Nusra which is the cornerstone of his anti-Assad efforts, but in the end he was only able to make a decision one way or the other when pressured and manipulated by Erdogan. This is a textbook example of how it is that very junior (but brash) US allies end up playing such an oversized role in setting the overall policy course of the Washington Empire.
Will the Kurds Listen?
Possibly no other people in modern history has had as many, and been abandoned by as many foreign power patrons as the Kurds. Since 1991 these have usually been the Americans – using them in time of need and sacrificing them to greater interests when they're no longer useful. If anybody has learned to, in the long term, rely on themselves alone it has to be them.
Indeed, let's look at what a deal Obama has for the Kurds at this time. The Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga are invited to carry out an expansive and costly offensive against the ISIS strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul. This would bring the Kurds very little but blood, sweat and tears as these are Arab cities they would not be expected to keep. For Obama meanwhile such Kurdish efforts would mean he could have his cake and eat it too – albeit unwilling to commit and sacrifice US soldiers to the job, he would still have someone roll back ISIS for him.
Even when offering such a lopsided bargain, however, Obama can not bring himself up to stick up for the Kurds against their ill-wishing and fanatically anti-Kurdish nemesis, or to reward them with a green light to also take some territory that is of actual strategic and political significance to them.
It's safe to say the YPG will not stop its advance out of loyalty to Obama and the US, because it feels no such loyalty. The only way it will forsake such gains is if Obama compensates it with even greater ones – perhaps a big bump in military aid. Even so the YPG might simply postpone finishing off Al Qaeda for a later, more opportune moment – and then do it using weapons US had supplied to buy it off.