Recently, in a very faraway place called the “Americas” in local foreign service parlance, an event stunned (apparently) not only the interested bystander like yours truly but also the U.S. justice authorities. A Mexican top general by the name of Cienfuegos was taken under custody in Los Angeles and then released upon political pressure by the Mexican army and government. Once expatriated back in Mexico, Gen. Cienfuegos walked out free.
Why this “fait divers” may or must hold our attention, lead us to pause and ponder so to speak down here all the while as already our anecdotal plate is full what with the Kurdish issue, Syria, ISIS, Iraq etc.? It is because to my mind this “Cienfuegos incident” exposes sharply the limits of what the almighty U.S. can or cannot do in national security and foreign policy matters in our time even, forget about the Middle East, right at a stone’s throw distance from its southern borders. Needless to remind also ourselves perhaps that the U.S. has just that: one northern and a southern border anyway.
Now, it’s a thrilling story in its own sake for all the Hollywood action movies lovers and the Netflix drugs series aficionados. But here, the twist in the story is that the top point person on the Mexican side for DEA anti-smuggling cooperation campaign turns out to be “El Padrino” himself. Only so much the US can do then even though, compared with the Arabists of the Foggy Bottom and Langley, one would assume there would so many more Hispanic/Latino DEA agents. If we ask ourselves again the same question in a different, a political way, how many “el padrinos” amongst the political elite in the Middle East would one have?
Perhaps, when one enters the even more mischievous territory of diplomacy away from the gangland and the drug enforcement world, the answer would be “but it’s OUR El Padrino”. So much so for draining the swamp then. Reference points, be them ethical or political, blur. The opportunity to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier out in the Pacific to proclaim “mission accomplished” down somewhere in MENA exceedingly proves to be rare or elusive. (By the way, GW Bush never had uttered that notorious phrase but a banner used as backdrop had carried that statement to put the record straight.) Even just defining the mission, the swamp, the accomplishment is a challenge.
Taking stock of all this, let’s then try and re-visit, Turkey-U.S. relations while trying to take into account the inevitable Kurdish angle. President Erdoğan committed an unforced error and went along and bought S-400 air defence systems from Putin’s Russia. Circumventing Iran sanctions via the manipulation of Halkbank, a state bank, was also a bad idea. Now, with Biden administration freshly in place, some say that S-400’s will be a bargaining chip to use on the negotiating table in exchange of establishing a direct no.1 to no.1 communication line between the two presidents.
For others, the same S-400’s will or may be mothballed in exchange of an even freer hand in north and east Syria to crush the YPG. According to that script, the US would have turned the Syrian burden over to NATO ally Turkey and have checked Assad, Russia and Iran with that single move for free. In the meantime, during a rare meeting with journalists, Ambassador Satterfield would have stated that there would be no joint commission whatsoever to explore a middle ground for the potential use of S-400’s, hence denying indirectly yet flatly the tune sang relentlessly by the presidential spokesperson cum national security adviser Kalın.
In the background, to stabilize that US creation of “AANES” (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria), PKK affiliated PYD (the Syrian Kurdish party of which the YPG and the YPJ are all male and all female armed wings respectively) and the KRG backed KNC are supposed be in committee to find a way to iron out their political differences. KNC, in fact is mostly affiliated with the KDP and backed as “good Kurds” by Turkey as well. Their armed militia force the Roj Pesh is not battle tested yet it mostly deploys as back up unit for the Turkish Armed Forces’ “clear & hold” operations in the northern tip of the IKR against the PKK. Whatever it is that is keeping the PYD and the KNC apart appears so far to be insurmountable.
Or, the reason is obvious. If the PKK leaves its mountainous hideouts in the IKR, it will mean committing suicide. That is “a” solution for Ankara. Without the PKK, the PYD on US’ life support wil in turn more palatable for Ankara but as in being the next bite, as far as being more palatable goes. Once cornered more than it is now, and seeing the blade falling the PYD would then turn towards Russia which will push it towards Damascus. Ankara, which effectively stopped the PYD from taking part in already useless Geneva talks, had time and again made clear that the PYD’s place was among the regime ranks. Last but the least, Iran following the Islamic Republic’s traditions prefers to keep the waters murky and this would be as murky as it can get.
By default then, there exist structural contradictions in US’ Syria-Iraq-Turkey policies when the Kurdish angle is in the picture. These fissures threaten to take down the entire edifice sooner or later. If taking the Kurdish element out is also “a” solution for Washington DC to consider, that transforms its NATO ally into its’s sole partner on the ground in both Syria and to a certain extent in Iraq. Not taking the Kurdish/PKK element out of the equation altogether but transforming it is just rhetoric if not merely hot air. To hope for the two transformations to happen simultaneously is not project but an oriental dream.
Therefore, it is either that the new Biden administration can continue with stop-gap measures that it inherited with US’ middle eastern “el padrino” partners or it can choose to change tack and come up with a comprehensive policy. The ill-fated nation building experience in Iraq created understandable aversion in successive US administrations for any further interventions and similar undertakings. Accompanying or leading its NATO ally towards an irreversible democratic transformation can start by setting out the parameters for a solution to the regional Kurdish issue though.
As with those hypothetical rough Hispanic/Latino DEA agents with a superior knowledge of the terrain and people, the likes of Secretary of Defence Gen. Austin and NSC MENA Coordinator McGurk on the one hand for Syria and Iraq, and the likes of Sloat, McEldowney and Gordon among others for Turkey share formidable firepower among them for potential real change. Naturally the buck stops with Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan. As I argued in my previous column (here-above referenced) oil and gas in the IKR can play the part of catalyst –as usual. Iran focus on which the US Syria and Iraq policy is built may shift if the JCPOA is revived. The mess or the chaos Ambassador Jeffrey is so proud of creating in Syria is actually a swamp that, in my opinion, the U.S. should shrug itself out off. Otherwise, with “el padrinos” in tow, the U.S., I am afraid, can only go so far –down south, to Mexico.