Interview with Professor John Jenkins. Sir Jenkins is Junior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University, and Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East.
Q. Professor Jenkins, how do you see American interest evolving in Syria especially in regards to the US’s relationship with Russia?
A. I think this is one of the great imponderables. It’s a very difficult balance. In its approach to the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, does the US seek to uphold international norms of human rights, the law of armed conflict and the legal restrictions on the use of CBW? Or does it priorities the fight against the Islamic State and ignore everything else? The former would inevitably involve significant and domestically unpopular diplomatic, military and intelligence commitments and robust efforts to roll back the advances of Damascus, Russia, Iran and the latter’s proxies. The latter would be simpler but would almost certainly lead to the erosion of regional and international order and probably endemic conflict across the Levant, given the impossibility of completely destroying the Islamic State and its analogues or reintegrating the Sunni communities of the region on these conditions into any new political dispensation. Russia has behaved opportunistically. Iran behaves strategically. But both are wholly unreliable partners who will seek to exploit any perceived weakness.
Q. Furthermore, with the US backing of Kurdish fighters in the Syrian war, how do you think this is affecting the US’s relationship with Turkey?
A. It has made it very difficult to manage. For a number of reasons – some soundly based on concern about the future of Kurdish populations inside Turkey (and distant memories of what many Turks see as a western attempt to partition Ottoman Turkey after WW1) and others manufactured for domestic political advantage by Erdogan and his AKP advisers – the Turkish government sees any support for Kurdish forces in Syria as a hostile act. It does not take quite the same view of support for the KRG in Iraq. But even there it distinguishes between those Kurds who oppose the PKK and have cultivated a client relationship with Ankara and those who are more sympathetic to the PKK and/or have established a client relationship with Tehran. Given that the priority of the US and its western allies has been to defeat IS and the most effective forces have proved to be Kurdish peshmerga – of all allegiances but in particular those belonging to the PYD/YPG – the US has been accused by Turkey of sponsoring terrorists. The position is certainly ambiguous but was made necessary by Turkish reluctance to help combat IS and other jihadi groups inside Syria in 2014-2016 – notoriously at Manbij. The US is now trying to triangle. But this open the question of what happens when IS and JFaS are defeated: what happens in Northern Syria then? Without a political settlement that satisfies the Kurds, again we shall see sustained and endemic communal conflict and an opportunity for external regional actors, notably Iran, to exploit this in its own interests. This has a wider impact on the region, given Saudi, Emirati and Israeli hostility to any Iranian expansion.
Q. In the wake of the current crisis in the Gulf and Arab relations with Qatar, do you think the situation will continue to escalate?
A. I do not think this is ending any time soon. It’s not simply a question of egos. It has made visible a profound differences about the future of the region as a whole – the securities but socially and economically progressive Emirati model, the cash-book consumer Islamism of Qatar or the domestically Islamic Salafi legitimist and now economically reformist model of KSA. I think this is an attempt to build an entirely new security dispensation in the region. It’s not froth.
By Grace Lois Anderson.