The little town of Ayn Al-Arab, called Kobani by the Turks and Kurds, is becoming a more important place in the Middle East political map than the great city of Aleppo. The plight of this small Syrian town, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Kurds, has provoked a massive American and international reaction in contrast to the scant regard accorded to the three years of suffering endured by Aleppo, the great Syrian metropolis, the world’s second oldest city (after Damascus), and the administrative capital of the province where Ayn Al-Arab is located.
These are difficult times for Aleppo, as the city is facing dangerous escalation of the Assad regime’s attacks. The regime, supported by sectarian militias, is now trying to lift the blockade imposed by Syrian rebels and Islamist fighters on the neighborhoods and nearby villages still loyal to Assad, as well as seizing the military initiative in the rest of northwestern Syria. These developments have been made possible by the decision of the international community to ignore the regime’s crimes and concentrate its efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), albeit in the absence of a clear strategy for a post-ISIS Middle East.
Washington has thus far refused to clarify what the future holds for the territories it hopes the ongoing air strikes will drive ISIS away from. Indeed, it is quite unlikely that leaders in Washington, as well as other Western capitals, spend sleepless nights worrying about the fate of these territories. This is based on pronouncements made by senior US officials alluding to the fact that bringing down Assad’s regime is no longer considered a priority. This position conflicts with the declared policies of Washington’s Arab coalition partners, as well as Turkey.
Why has Ayn Al-Arab suddenly become the Danzig of the Levant? Why does this small town now appear to be the focal point of a major international military campaign, when the mere threat of a similar intervention would have been more beneficial to Syria and its ethnic and sectarian communities three years ago?
The likely answer to both questions is that the whole story is now that of the re-drawing of the map of the region. This is what Turkey, Iran, and—of course—Israel seem to realize.
The competition between regional powers is nothing new in the Middle East. More so, Turkish – Iranian rivalry goes back centuries in various guises, and Arab lands were sometimes arenas where this rivalry played out. The last and perhaps the most significant example were the Ottoman-Safavid confrontations. These carried a Sunni (Hanafi)–Shia (Ja’fari) sectarian dimension that is now threatening to destroy the fragile fabric of some Arab states.
For Turkey, whose border with Syria Ayn Al-Arab lies on, it does not make sense to be drawn into a regional conflict that will not secure Turkish geo-political interests. Turkey has no interest in solving the old Kurdish problem solely at its own expense.
Furthermore, Ankara—under Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan—can ill afford to be sidelined as a major regional Sunni player while the Islamic Republic of Iran expands its sphere of influence, and claims to be the protector of the Shiites in lands that were part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918.
Iran, on the other hand, has been active for decades now in establishing its own “protectorates” within the Arab world, especially in the Arab Mashreq, beginning with Iraq. Today only the most naïve observer would fail to see that Iran controls a wide seafront extending from Tyre in southern Lebanon near the Israeli borders, northwards to Lattakia in northern Syria, not far from the Turkish border.
Last but certainly not least, how strange is Israel’s official silence on what is going on? Is it possible that Israel sees no threat as Islamist Syrian rebels move closer to the ceasefire line in the occupied Golan Heights? All we hear from Tel Aviv today are well-prepared intelligence leaks, mouthed either by retired army officers or discussed by strategic researchers, as to what the best options for Israel are. In fact, as this takes place, flames of war engulf Syria, and the polarization between the ISIS’s extremism and Tehran’s regional strategy gains momentum.
Initially, Iran was the main beneficiary from the Iraq Invasion of 2003, very much sponsored and supported by the Likudnik “Neocons” in Washington. Then, one has to admit, Turkey was the major obstacle that prevented the partition of the now fragile and disjointed Iraq. Actually, I believe that Turkey would have been in a much stronger regional position today had it not been drawn into an ill-advised conflict with Egypt in the aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood’s exit from power in Cairo.
The Erdogan government made the mistake of being too hasty in reacting against the change, just as the Brotherhood was too hasty in its attempts to tighten its stranglehold on power. A similar haste is now, unfortunately, evident in the Syrian opposition, whereby Islamist groups seem to think they can force through their vision and monopolize the leadership of the revolution at the expense of building a united movement. What is worse still is that they must know that such a monopoly would worry Syria’s minorities, pushing them to remain on the regime’s sinking ship, as well as endorse its discourse that the region can do without another example of political Islam taking power.
Ankara’s mistake in degrading Turkish-Egyptian relations, and subsequently Turkish-Gulf relations, has facilitated the unchecked expansion of Iran’s influence from the Levant to Yemen.
In addition to the above, Washington’s implicit adoption of the Russo-Iranian stance on the uprising in Syria, is now compounded by its total silence on the pro-Iran Shiite Houthis’ takeover of Yemen. Here, only extremist Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda seem to be capable of confronting the Houthis’ sweep across the country. Thus, we find ourselves experiencing déjà vu, as the international community, led by the US, rushes to aid extremist Shiites against extremist Sunnis. This is largely thanks to the international community’s—particularly Washington’s—approach, which has weakened the logic of moderation and enhanced the credibility of extremism and extremists.