Prediction is a precise, elusive and dangerous science. We journalists are usually asked to practise this dodgy skill on political anniversaries, elections, before invasions or – even more perilously – during invasions.
Take the city of Afrin. The Turks invaded the Syrian and largely Kurdish province just under two months ago. They took their time. They had few tanks. Their “Free Syrian Army” allies appeared to be nonexistent. Alas, their new found Islamist allies were not.
But when I visited Afrin less than two weeks after the start of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” – as sinister a name as any in recent decades for armed aggression – its citizens were shopping in crowded streets, their homes unbombed, the restaurants open; I reported that if the Turks really used all their firepower, they could have entered the city in half an hour.
They appeared to be “sheep in sheep’s clothing,” I suggested, quoting Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee. I should have known better. Attlee won the 1945 election. And the Turks entered Afrin city on 18 March.
Well, at least I hadn’t said they wouldn’t capture the place. But back in Damascus this month, an old Syrian friend cheerfully reminded me that when I returned from Afrin in January, I did tell him that I thought the Turks had no intention of entering the provincial capital.
“You said the Turks would not go there,” he admonished me. “What you said about Turkey was right from the start of the war – but this time, you got it wrong.” I fear he was right.
The problem, of course, was that the Kurds, especially the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its associates, were already famous in song and legend for crushing Isis. How could they destroy so much of this vicious cult, I had asked myself, but then lose to the Turks?
My mistake. I forgot – a real error in the false art of prediction – that the Kurds had not stood their ground against Iraqi forces in Kirkuk. They had largely abandoned their front lines. Which is exactly what they did again in Afrin. But why did the Russians leave the Kurds to their fate?
Well, here are a few reasons. Firstly, the Russians were tired of the Kurds’ decision to act as America’s footsoldiers in Syria as well as Iraq. They had, in the words of my Syrian friend, “put all their eggs in the American basket”.
Secondly, the Russians suspected…