JARABULUS — For a while, the view makes us forget the unbearable heat. The green shores of the river Euphrates in the evening sun, great cypress trees standing like classic statues in between the old buildings of the little village.
However, the idyll is deceptive. Suddenly three detonations tear apart the rural peace along the Turkey-Syria border. More explosions follow sporadically. The Turkish army is busy clearing mines in and around the Syrian city of Jarabulus.
The operation "Euphrates Shield" is a turning point in the ongoing Syrian civil war. For the first time, neighboring Turkey, a NATO member state, has openly and directly intervened. On the one hand, nothing has changed in the "tremendously chaotic humanitarian tragedy," as the German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger puts it: "The conflicts of interests in Syria are particularly complex. It's confusing, it's a dog-eat-dog situation."
For Americans and Europeans on the other hand, things have changed. For more than six years now, two constants have been shaping the Western approach to this civil war. First: There's no military solution in Syria. Second: The dictator, President Bashar al-Assad has to go. Both commandments have degenerated into the realm of meaninglessness.
A year ago already, in September 2015, the Russians stepped in. "There can be a military solution," says Harald Kujat, former Chief of Staff of the German Bundeswehr armed forces. Kujat, however, notes that there is one condition to any such solution: "In order to make progress in Syria, we need ground troops. If you don't want to send them, you need on-the-ground allies." And that means engaging with some sinister characters.
The Russians are in cahoots with Assad. And the Turks? Officially, Ankara claims to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA has been the biggest military alliance of the opposition to the Assad regime. It was considered moderate. But today, many of its subgroups are guided by religion rather than a pro-Western orientation, let alone any democratic tenor.
On top of that, one of the radical groups aligned with the FSA plans a merger with al-Qaeda colleagues from the al-Nusra Front. The Turkish military command even allowed members of Nour al-Din al-Zenki to join them in the operation — even though the brigade made headlines in July after their militiamen in Aleppo beheaded a 10-year-old boy in front of cameras.
It's simply hair-raising, if I read of moderate forces, says the German general Kujat: "It's nothing but a fig leaf. The so-called moderate forces don't exist anymore, maybe they've never existed." In the long run, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan counts on al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. "Those are his allies that are closest to his conservative Sunni worldview," says Kujat.
In the short term, Erdogan is largely focused on fighting the Kurds. The offensive against ISIS has probably been nothing but a pretext in order to invade Syria. The terror militia had only 250 fighters stationed in Jarabulus, of which the majority quickly took flight. Shortly before the Turkish secret service had informed Erdogan that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were about to conquer a continuous and autonomous territory at the Turkish border — a worst-case-scenario for Ankara. Erdogan called a crisis meeting where the decision was taken to launch the offensive in order to stop the rise of SDF.
For Ankara the multi-ethnic military alliance of the SDF is a terroristic camouflage organization because the majority of the fighters are from the Kurdish militia YPG. They fight alongside Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen. The YPG has long been classified as a terror organization because it is a branch of the forbidden Kurdish Labor Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.
The Free Syrian Army commanders, indeed, confirm that central to their mission is keeping the Kurds beyond the Euphrates' eastern bank. "Should the Kurds defy that, we'll fight them," says FSA chief of staff Ahmad Berri. "If needed, the U.S. and the coalition have promised us military support."
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu has accused the Kurdish militia of "ethnic cleansing" in the territories they had conquered.
Up until the Turkish offensive, the Americans and other members of the international coalition had supported the Kurds, considered the most effective in the fight against ISIS and committed to a secular system in Syria. And yet on the other hand, they are fighting for their own independence, something no Western state would support — especially not against NATO ally Turkey.
Still, it is unclear if the West turning away from the Kurds, towards the Turkey-backed FSA, is the right long-term policy to fight terrorism. At the end of the day, too many elements within the FSA want a strong centralized state, based on radical Islamism.
At the same time, Erdogan is now cooperating with Russia and Iran, Assad's two main allies, which only a few months ago Turkey denounced as the "slaughterers of the Syrian people." Erdogan now even appears ready to accept Assad as part of the transitional government. It all gives the impression that Russia, Iran and Turkey are about to design Syria's future. Meanwhile, as usual, the West keeps quiet.
The Syria policy of the U.S. and Europe has been a disaster, watching silently as Assad massacred the civilian population and Islamic terror groups proliferated. The West never found the political will to step in, and therefore has to take on the moral debts of humanitarian catastrophes like the one we are witnessing now in Aleppo. "The West's Syria policy has feet of clay," says the diplomat Ischinger. "We have repeatedly requested Assad's resignation. But we have done almost nothing, politically nor militarily, to add authority to our strategic goal."
The U.S. doctrine of non-interference — one of the consequences of its failed Iraq policy — led to a power vacuum in Syria in which Russia's President Vladimir Putin forced himself last year. When it comes to Syria, Putin has a clearly defined strategy. First of all, he wants to prevent Islamists from infiltrating Russia via the region. Secondly he wants to secure the port city of Tartus, his access to the Mediterranean. And last but not least, Syria offers him the opportunity to restore Russia's position as a global player on par with the U.S.
Putin doesn't care about Assad, personally. Instead, he is concerned with how the regime can secure Moscow's influence in the region. And Erdogan has rationally understood that a Syria without Assad, or at least his backers, is not an option for the moment. In order to remain in the game, he changed his course, conceding that Assad is a key player.
"I think that the Turkish change in course towards Assad is, at least, understandable," says Ischinger. "And I plead for the West to join me. That's the thing about facts — we can't ignore them."
Ischinger says that denouncing Assad is the moral position to take, "because it is right to fight a mass murderer. But then you also have to take action. We have done nothing, or not enough. And that's why our plan has failed."
Putin's sitting firmly in the corridors of power, while Erdogan strives to get in. The West's influence is reduced to some individual actors. Progress toward a diplomatic solution, not surprisingly, is scant. "If the military situation keeps evolving the way it has so far, peace efforts become irrelevant," predicts General Kujat. He too pleads for the Europeans — German policy included — to admit that the Syrian house of cards would utterly collapse without Assad.
The Americans have understood that. But they will probably not say so out loud, at least not before electing a new president.