Why Salih Muslim’s Arrest is a Game changer for Syria?

Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party, the military arm of which (the YPG) has been a close ally of the United States in the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups, has been arrested in Prague after Turkey sent out a Red Notice through the Interpol.

Turkey has started extradition procedures following the announcement of detention. Reportedly, the request was sent after someone took a photo of Muslim in Prague and shared it with the Turkish authorities. Turkey claims that PYD is inseparable from its sister Turkish organization, the PKK, which is listed both by Turkey and the United States as a terrorist organization.

PYD has not been designated as such by the US, which has caused growing tensions between the US and Turkey, culminating in the Afrin operation. While this development may be a test of Czech-Turkish relations, and EU-Turkish relations,  the much more important question is how it will affect the relations between the US and Turkey. Under Obama administration, Muslim was denied Visa to the United States due to Turkey’s pressure, even as the United States employed the assistance of Syrian Kurds against ISIS and supplied them with weapons. More recently, the US-Turkish relations have fallen to a new low. Turkey is holding a US pastor hostage and has attempted to orchestrate a prisoner exchange, with US giving up members of the Gulen movement in exchange for the US citizen. That has, for a while precipitated, a visa crisis between the two countries, which has been resolved, leaving the main issue at an impasse. The tensions over the Kurdish issue continued to escalate, however, with Erdogan continuously pressing the Trump administration to cut off arms supply to the Syrian Kurds, and the Trump administration acquiescing in words, yet continuing the collaboration in practice.

These differences came to a head with Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish stronghold Afrin in January. Afrin’s unique position close to the Turkish border creates the possibility of continuous Kurdish held territory, which Turkey claims is a threat to its territorial integrity. The official justification for the operation “Olive Branch” was to fight ISIS; however, there is no evidence of ISIS in that area. Furthermore, Assad’s forces, launching their own operation likewise claimed ISIS as justification, likewise without evidence. In pursuit of gaining physical access to strategic hills in the area, Turkey brought not only its own forces but the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, as well as converted terrorists, repurposed for the attack.

The United States’ reaction was surprised and subdued; Russia ceded Afrin to Turkey; Assad took the opportunity to call for the US and Turkish troops to leave Syria, eventually sending a pro-Assad militia to Afrin. That the Kurds accepted help from a Shi’a pro-regime militia has been interpreted by some as a sign that  the US cannot fully rely on anyone in Syria; in reality, the desperation of the Kurds, who felt betrayed both by the US and Russia, has been such that they have actually started to relocate forces from Rojava, where the US troops are near, to Afrin, in support of the area. Erdogan, meanwhile, boasted of a complete control over the area. For Assad, this turn of events provided a perfect excuse to try to reassert his control. As a result, he engaged in a protracted attack in the area of Eastern Ghouta, ongoing for over five days, which has killed over 500 civilians, including 120 children. A chemical attack was also launched as part of this operation. Syrian forces almost immediately violated the UN resolution demanding a ceasefire; the YPG forces acquiesced but reserved their right to defend themselves.

The continuous hostilities tested the US resolve and boundaries. Several aggressor state actors took advantage of the chaos to push their agendas. Iranian forces took down an Israeli airplane for the first time since 1982 (pilot error and other factors made their otherwise unlikely step a reality); they have, however, expended over 20 missiles to get just one plane, revealing their own vulnerabilities. Israel, in response, took down an Iranian drone, which was copied off, an earlier American model the Iranians gained controlled of when it crashed, and destroyed 40% of Syrian air defense systems, much to the likely displeasure of Putin. An attack by Russian mercenaries on the US forces precipitated a counterattack, which killed several hundred Russians. The wounded and the bodies were transported back to Russia immediately, revealing that the close connection between Putin and the guns-for-hire. Secretary Mattis, in an attempt to prevent escalation, stated that the attack was a result of miscommunication; nevertheless, the Russians are on notice that the US would not tolerate any further such incidents.

All the while, the US Gulf Allies, and others have been watching carefully as the US tried to balance its relationship with the Kurds and its alliance with Turkey. Twisting itself into a pretzel, US somehow managed to draw differences between the Rojava and the Afrin Kurds, and essentially sacrificed the Afrin territory, as well as any pretense of caring about Syria’s territorial integrity, to keep peace with Erdogan. Furthermore, in a strategy that mirrors US reaction to the incursion of Hashd al-Shaabi militias in Iraq, in an attempt to draw Turkey away from Iran and Russia, US set out on a strategy of strengthening its relationship with Turkey through a series of bilateral measures, and by distancing itself from the Kurds, at least symbolically. Despite a variety of warnings and phone calls urging Turkey to withdraw from Afrin, the United States did not otherwise react or put any pressure on Turkey.

Just as hopes for using Baghdad as a buffer against Iran was a delusional strategy doomed to failure, sacrificing Kurds and other Syrian civilians to Turkey’s paranoid hegemony is a profoundly misguided response to aggression, which, nevertheless mirrors the author’s earlier prediction of US strategy with regards to Turkey, now coming true through action and inaction. Erdogan will not be pacified by minor sacrifices; he is already looking onwards beyond Afrin towards Manbij. Kurds’ ground superiority has proved to be a significant obstacle for Turkey’s planned expansion of operations; nevertheless, despite the fact that Operation Olive Branch took far longer than expected, and proved to be far more difficult than Erdogan bargained for, it appears, tactically, to be a success.

Strategically, too, it has not cost Erdogan anything. Despite mulling imposing sanctions on Turkey over its bloody takeover of Afrin, Congress has not come close to proposing anything concrete yet. Nor has there been a serious discussion about deposing Turkey from NATO membership, or penalizing it at the UN. In fact, the Syria ceasefire resolution has many loopholes and arguably does not cover Afrin. Furthermore, while Turkey’s plans for expansion to Manbij may not come to fruition thanks to its own military shortcomings, US has not issued a strong pushback against any such plans, beyond mild and ineffectual statements that the Afrin operation threatens the alliance against ISIS, a comment that is hard to take seriously as the Trump administration proudly touts its own alleged success in that arena. US weakness in that regard has created an unintended consequence – the increasing presence of pro-Assad Shi’a militias in Afrin, supposedly to defend Kurds from Turkey.

The truth is darker; Kurds are merely an excuse to reassert Assad’s, and Iran’s influence in the area. Because Iran is concerned about Kurdish quest for the economy which can send the wrong message to its own Kurdish population, it will ultimately seek to limit whatever autonomy Assad himself would be willing to grant them. However, limiting Erdogan’s access to what Iran views as its own sphere of influence, and likewise, sending a message to Russia, which has tacitly sided with Turkey in this regard, scores Iran some important geopolitical points. Ultimately, Iran’s goal is to reach Lebanon directly; it will not wish other state actors jeopardizing or competing with this mission. Kurds are likely to be sacrificed if pro-Assad forces manage to regain control.

What’s worse, thanks to US inaction, Kurds may even come to see these pro-Shia forces at least as a temporary ally if not more – exactly the opposite of what the US is looking to achieve through its focus on the bilateral relationship with Turkey. Truth be told, Turkey has already aligned with Iran on other fronts (such as Africa) quite significantly; the fact that the two countries are at odds over a particular piece of territory in Syria does not benefit the US interests in any way; direct clashes between the two are likely to result in further destabilization with all the predictable effects, and now Kurds, who were previously not aligned with either country (which benefited the US), are now, in essence, finding common cause with an Iranian proxy. The  US has now positioned itself that now at least one of the sides in this conflict will be aligned with Iran, and given that Erdogan has no intention in giving up a lucrative growing partnership with Tehran, both will, in essence, continue benefiting the Islamic Republic to some extent.

The arrest of Salih Muslim is a crucible. Salih Muslim and PYD are from perfect; from the beginning of their involvement in Syria, the United States made a mistake of investing effort and resources only in one of the many Kurdish parties, to the exclusion and alienation of everyone else. Arguably, other groups of Kurdish coalitions which rivaled the PYD and its forces were even more pro-Western and had fewer problems with their Arab neighbors. As usual, US policy of choosing only one player to consider “legitimate” served it a poor term. Nevertheless, PYD, which has never attacked European or US interests, and has indeed been valuable in the battle against ISIS, is much more preferable as an ally to any of the multitude of parties the US now has to contend with, and has been peacefully controlling its own area in a way that did not clash with the US security considerations or other plans.

That US is choosing to side with Turkey, which has been causing significant problems to many other US allies both regionally and beyond (it has been, for instance, sending aggressive spy squads to the US and giving weapons to street gangs in Germany), makes it much less likely that those other allies will trust the US to defend their own interests in future confrontations; they will diversify their interests, likely finding common ground with Russia or causing headaches at the UN and other places, that were easily avoidable. One example of an ally, which if alienated and embittered enough can easily become a problem  are the Saudis, who have been increasingly concerned about Assad’s attacks on the Sunni Arabs in Syria; they have responded by funding Jabhat an-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates, which had served their purpose against Assad, but are now in danger of being co-opted by Turkey – not something anyone is interested in.  Just now, US has gotten into a bit of a diplomatic scuffle with KSA over Pakistani terrorist list.

Due to US’ unwillingness to get further involved in Yemen, the Saudis hired Pakistanis for Yemen border security, which clashed with the US interests in designating Pakistani terrorists. The US, in this instance, managed to lean in and prevail; however, the time will come when it will no longer be able to strong-arm every country that has differences in security interests with the US – and the more US is seen as an unreliable ally with poor choice of allies, poor judgment, poor support of existing partners, and poor ability to differentiate between enemies and friends, the less leverage it will have in the future such instances. In a messy situation such as Syria, the difference of not having extra support could be one of life and death.

What will the US do about Salih Muslim, considering that he was, on the one hand, an important figure in the alliance with the Kurds,  and commands legendary respect among the active groups there, and on the other hand, US had always sent a mixed and noncommittal signal by refusing to host him in the US under pressure from Turkey? Given the general trajectory of events, it is unlikely that the US will intervene in any significant way other than maybe a polite symbolic phone call to Erdogan. As history has shown in Iraq, if the US leadership is bent on wooing Turkey away from Iran, it will go to any lengths to achieve that goal, however wrong-headed, which may mean sacrificing the Kurds altogether. Muslim is a first concrete test of how far the US is willing to go to retain its relationship with Turkey.

Erdogan’s aim here is not just Europe, but indirectly the US. Erdogan figured out that the US can continue to speak out of both sides of its mouth with respect to arming the Kurds for quite a while, and enforcing Mattis’ promise to take away heavy weaponry from the SDF will be problematic. But eliciting tacit agreement from the US and passive acquiescence when Turkey essentially goes after Kurdish leadership is something concrete and measurable. By extraditing Muslim to Turkey and putting him on trial for sedition, Turkey will make an example of him, and send an unequivocal message that Kurds even outside Turkey are considered as many traitors as the Gulenists.  This is the beginning of a full-scale war on Kurds, which the US is still in a position to prevent – but for how long?

The other allies watching this show must be wondering what comes next. How far is the US willing to go to protect its misguided strategy of breaking Turkey away from Russia and Iran through sheer appeasement?  Do they fear that if the push comes to shove, the US will easily sacrifice their security and leaders in pursuit of some fact-free fantasy of regional stability? Whose head will Turkey or Iran ask to be delivered on a plate next?  Salih Muslim’s arrest is a gamechanger;  the course of events in Syria depends on whether the US is willing to draw a red line on mistreatment of its more vulnerable allies, or whether it will inevitably side with whichever ally it perceives as stronger and likely to be of more advantage, even if that ally is inherently unhelpful, manipulative, and is engaged in evil, destructive actions that run counter to everything the US is trying to achieve. The world is watching how the US will respond; if it fails to come to the defense of its ally at this painful and inconvenient time, her other alliances may soon be doomed.

What can the US do in a situation where Salih Muslim is in the hands of another country for the time being? It can 1. strong-arm Erdogan behind the scenes and threaten the process of concrete sanctions or 2. Negotiate with the Czech Republic for the release of Muslim into US custody and provide him with immediate political asylum. If, however, the Czech Republic cooperates with Turkey, and the US does not intervene in any way, does not even make a show of intervening, there will be no stopping Erdogan as he will continue to make increasing demands on EU and the US. Salih Muslim is but a start; there are other Kurdish leaders that Erdogan will label as just as dangerous shortly.

His aim is to undermine Kurdish autonomy complete, and either neuter the Kurds or destroy them. There is only one right choice in this situation – and Kurds are US allies to lose; they are already in our camp, should we come to the assistance we will actually increase our leverage against everyone involved. Will the administration make the wiser but tougher decision or will it continue chasing fanciful visions of appeasing dictators at the expense of her friends? It remains to be seen – but so far, it does not appear as though the Baghdad disappointment has taught the Trump administration anything.

By Irina Tsukerman