There is an array of competing capitalist regimes and military forces seeking to do likewise. The bloody Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — backed by Moscow, Tehran, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias — as well as Ankara, Riyadh and other Gulf monarchies, and Israel all claim they have interests to defend in the area.
All these regimes share one common foe — the 30 million Kurds spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are the largest nationality worldwide without their own state.
They all claim their motivation is the ouster of the Islamic State, a reactionary terrorist army put together by factions from al-Qaeda and former military officers from the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, ousted by Washington’s 2003 invasion. IS took control of huge swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria, stepping into a vacuum left by Washington’s inability to bring an end to the yearslong wars it has intervened in there.
For months, the U.S. rulers have used their air power and a growing number of military “advisers” on the front lines to spearhead the drive of the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga forces and others to expel Islamic State from Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq that it seized in 2014.
The U.S. military confirmed March 27 that hundreds more paratroopers are being sent to Mosul from the 1,700-strong 82nd Airborne stationed in Iraq and Kuwait. Current U.S. troop levels in Iraq stand at about 5,000.
Already more than 300,000 Iraqis have fled the fighting in Mosul and many more remain trapped. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes there.
In Syria, Washington is expanding its use of air power, artillery and boots on the ground, preparing to lead the attack on the city of Raqqa, Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital. The key ground force — despite fierce opposition from Ankara — is thousands of Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The Trump administration has made it clear that Washington has dropped any pretense that its goal is to force Assad to give up power.
Assad and his father before him have ruled for decades. In 2011, mass mobilizations hit the streets, demanding political rights and the ouster of the regime. Assad responded with brutal repression, killing thousands and imprisoning more, leading to civil war.
More than 100,000 people have been arrested or physically disappeared since the protests began. Thousands were taken to special military-run hospital facilities where they were tortured and killed.
Preparations for attack on RaqqaFor months Ankara has sought to seize a place as a bigger player in the wars, allying with Washington or Moscow in an effort to exert its interests. Accompanied by Syrian refugee forces trained in Turkey, Ankara launched an invasion of Syria in 2016, called Operation Euphrates Shield, at first with Washington’s blessing. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said their goal was to push back Islamic State as part of the “war against terror.”
But the real goal was to stop YPG forces, which control a substantial Kurdish region in the east on Turkey’s border and were seeking to link up with another Kurdish area around Afrin in the west. The Turkish invasion cut between the two areas and Ankara demanded the YPG pull back from Manbij to east of the Euphrates River.
But Washington decided YPG military forces were decisive for its offensive in Raqqa. The YPG has proven itself to be the most effective fighting force in Syria. The Pentagon sent troops to Manbij, flying the U.S. flag. And the YPG struck a deal with Moscow and the Assad regime to put Syrian government troops in small towns in front of Manbij in the way of Ankara’s forces.
Ankara was forced to recognize reality. On March 29, the day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due in Turkey to meet with Erdogan, the Turkish government announced that Operation Euphrates Shield was over.
Two days later Ankara explained this didn’t mean it was withdrawing its troops from Syria.
“This is a settling of the status quo, where Turkey is confined to this Euphrates Shield while the U.S. and Russia continue with their war plans,” Aaron Stein from the Atlantic Council told the Financial Times March 29.
At the same time a bitter dispute has broken out around Kirkuk in Iraq. The city and surrounding area has been controlled and protected militarily by the peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government since 2014, when Iraqi army forces fled as Islamic State began its sweep into the country. Iraqi Kurds consider Kirkuk their historical capital. The area is rich in oil reserves.
The KRG began flying the Kurdish flag over the city last week. Both Baghdad and Ankara responded with howls of protest.
“Do not enter into a claim it’s yours or the price will be heavy,” Erdogan said April 4. “Bring down that flag immediately.”
Erdogan says he is speaking in the interests of both Arab and Turkmen residents of the area.
“Turkey fears territorial gains by some Kurdish groups in Iraq and neighboring Syria could fuel Kurdish separatist ambitions inside Turkey,” Reuters commented.
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