“No friends, but the mountains:” Understanding Turkey’s Syrian invasion

One can say with certainty that life is difficult for the Kurdish people – perpetual minorities who live in a mountainous region split between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

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Image Credit: Quora

For almost a century, one could at any time say with certainty that life was difficult for the Kurdish people, who live in a mountainous region split between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Their unique status as perpetual minorities within these four countries explains the title above, a deeply pessimistic Kurdish saying that journalists and others have used for decades to describe their situation.

More recently, in northern Syria, Kurdish militias controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), have been the most effective forces on the ground working with the United States and its allies in the brutal battle against the so-called Islamic State. These militias, along with a few allies from other ethnic and religious communities, collectively called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), took ISIS’ self proclaimed capital of Raqqa with American and allied air support in October of last year.

Just as their negotiating position with Syria’s internationally recognized government in Damascus seemed strongest in terms of their stated goal of maintaining their autonomy in the 25% of the country they control, the SDF faces a new and bigger threat.

After several days of back and forth artillery fire, on January 20th, Turkey began an aerial bombing campaign against these militias, referring to them as a ‘terror army’, with Turkish ground forces moving across their country’s south eastern border shortly thereafter. The first target is the isolated district of Afrin, formerly part of Syria’s Aleppo Governate.

Afrin, which contains numerous villages and a city of the same name, is also surrounded on every other side by a mix of rebel and Syrian government forces and cut off from other areas governed by the SDF’s political wing. More dangerously, Ankara threatened that this was just the beginning of a wider Turkish offensive targeting the areas recently renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria by the SDF in recognition of the growing multi-ethnic character of the areas under their control.

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As Syria slid into chaos in 2011, the PYD were able to take control of areas where Kurds formed solid majorities, calling these areas Rojava (Kurdish for ‘the west’). From the very beginning, the recently re-branded territories were besieged by other rebel groups, many supported by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The reason for this, constantly reiterated by Ankara, is that Erdogan’s government has always maintained that the PYD and its allies are a front for the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has fought for autonomy for Kurds within Turkey for decades, at great cost in human lives on both sides of the insurgency.

Both groups revere the same leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who numerous journalists have reported seeing on posters on almost every wall in Kurdish areas in Syria. They also espouse the same ideas about a proudly feminist, localized direct democracy that Ocalan has called for from a Turkish prison since converting to this point of view from Maoism during the early 2000s.

Nonetheless, the SDF (and, by association, the PYD) deny any links to its Turkish counterpart and the U.S. has accepted this claim, at least officially, considering it has listed the PKK as a terrorist group itself since 1997.

In fairness to Ankara’s position, it’s important to note that the Syrian government allowed the PKK to operate from its territory in the 1990s and it’s hard to believe that this didn’t influence the formation of the PYD. There’s also no way of proving that PKK fighters haven’t crossed the previously porous border and joined the fight alongside their Syrian cousins.

Beating Syria’s Kurds with an Olive Branch?

The bizarrely named Turkish incursion, “Operation Olive Branch”, came as the war against IS and other insurgent groups seemed to be winding down, mostly in favor of the Assad government in Damascus. Increasingly, Turkey, Russia and Iran are taking the lead, and talks took place in the Russian port city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30 between these three powers, the officially recognized Syrian government and a number of the rebel groups that still hold territory in the country.

Although officially invited, UN Security Council members the U.S., France and the U.K., as well as the main western backed opposition, declined to participate in the Sochi Congress.

The problem created by NATO ally Turkey’s incursion for these western powers was explained by Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group in an interview from northeastern Syria, where he’s on a tour of Kurdish areas, “This highlights the fundamental difficulty of a U.S. strategy that requires maintaining active alliances with two forces who are at war with each other.”

The Turks, who took an early gamble on regime change in Damascus and lost, have their own proxies on the ground to give the invasion a local face. These militants, who they still call the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are, according to the Turkish government, a collection of mostly local Arabs and Syrian Turkmen. At least some of them are foreigners and Salafists linked to Al Qaeda, as they reportedly include one notorious Chechen commander, Muslim Sisani, an accused terrorist wanted by both the UN and the United States.

Despite their name, it should be remembered that the FSA were widely despised in the areas they controlled early on in the conflict, due to their perceived criminality. When facing better organized and motivated groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Al Nusrah Front, many of these original FSA ‘rebels’, already rich from ransoms and the theft and sale of oil and antiquities (mainly through Turkey, surprisingly enough), just handed over their weapons and joined up or fled with their ill gotten gains.

Living up to their previous incarnation, as reported by the Turkish news site, Diken, on January 26th, Turkey’s ‘FSA’ partners had yet to arrive in Afrin, slowed almost to a halt by mud that they told the outlet was, “unsuitable for walking on.”

For their part, the men and women associated with the Kurdish militias, and other allies fighting alongside them under the umbrella of the SDF, aren’t going to leave their homes in Afrin or other areas quietly. Of even greater concern, because it’s been relatively stable for most of the war, the district’s population has ballooned from just over 170,000 according to a 2004 census to well over 300,000 today. This creates the very real possibility of another massive displacement of civilians..

As Hamrin Habash, 22, told the BBC five days after the Turkish assault began, “Some of the people who I have met are already refugees from Arab towns controlled by the Turkish-backed groups and ISIS. They ran away from them and they came to Afrin because this was a safe place. Now they have had to run away again from Turkish-backed groups.”

Despite the assurances of Bekir Bozdag, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, speaking soon after Operation Olive Branch began, “Civilians are never targeted, Every kind of planning has been done to avoid any damage to civilians,” multiple sources report that at least 50 civilians have died so far and U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Ursula Mueller told the Security Council on January 30th that at least 15,000 people have already been displaced, many of them made refugees for a second time.

Homes and businesses have been demolished and even the Neo-Hittite temple of Airn Dara, with its famous sculpted lions, that have stood for well over 2000 years, has been demolished, another devastating blow to the country’s richly diverse cultural heritage.

In a rare English language view of ongoing military hostilities in Syria, The UK Independent’s Robert Fisk, who lives in nearby Lebanon, was able to visit Afrin and see the civilian victims of the offensive at the end of its first week, painting a harrowing picture of the ongoing suffering. The victims that Fisk visited in Afrin’s hospital, including a 20 year old woman who is the only survivor of a family of nine, are surely grateful to know that they weren’t targeted by the bombs that were nonetheless dropped on their homes.

At present, cloudy conditions above Afrin have limited Turkish airstrikes, and advanced weaponry, including anti-tank weapons given to the SDF by the United States, seem to be slowing the advance of ground forces. After a week and a half they haven’t reached Afrin city and most of the fighting seemed centered on one hill called Mount Barsaya.

Betrayed by all?

That the Kurds they’ve been fighting alongside are being called terrorists might come as a surprise to the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops, mostly special operations soldiers and advisors, embedded in the district of Manbij further east, which the Turkish government has said is next in line for invasion.

While the Pentagon has dismissed the threat, with U.S. Central Command’s top General telling CNN that they are committed to remaining in Manbij, Erdogan has engaged in risky behavior throughout the conflict, including ordering the downing of a Russian plane in 2015. At other times, the Turkish bark has been much worse than its bite.

While to all appearances Turkey has been planning this operation for some time, it became inevitable when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who appears increasingly out of his depth in dealing with this and many other difficult situations throughout the world, announced when speaking at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on January 17th, that American forces will remain in Syria indefinitely and work to create a 30,000 strong, mainly Kurdish ‘border security force’.

The idea seems to be to deny the central government in Damascus control of its border with Iraq in order to limit Iranian influence but, as other commentators have noted, increased instability could have the opposite effect: making Damascus even more reliant on the Islamic Republic.

Oddly, rather than demanding that their NATO ally end its assault and come to the negotiating table,Tillerson told reporters on January 22nd that, “Turkey has legitimate concerns about terrorists crossing the border into Turkey and carrying out attacks,” later asking that the country, “…try to show restraint.”

What’s astonishing is that anyone with a passing knowledge of the region’s history would be surprised by the country’s refusal to accept a Kurdish statelet on its border, in either Syria or Iraq. Apparently there is no person in the understaffed State Department or the Pentagon who understands this long held position, a heightened example of the staggering ignorance displayed by the U.S. government in most of its dealings with the broader world for much of its history, a trend that has only intensified since the turn of the century with the ‘War on Terror’.

The U.S. position may have drawn Turkey and Russia closer together, a process that has been playing out for many months. This could have serious consequences for NATO in the future and, in a sign of the warmer relations, despite sanctions placed on Russia by its NATO partners, Turkey and Russian giant Gazprom are going ahead with a large pipeline project.

There has obviously been some kind of deal struck between the two powers, as Turkey has unfettered access to the skies above Afrin, something that Russia could have denied them if they truly opposed the operation.

Further, Rolling Stone reported that unnamed YPG commanders told them that Russia had demanded they cede Afrin to the central government in Damascus or face a Turkish invasion and that they refused to do so at that time.This has the ring of truth to it, and we do know for sure that Russian observers were quickly pulled out of the area after The Turkish Chief of General Staff and the head of its National Intelligence Organization made a visit to the Kremlin on Jan. 18.

Syria’s government has complained about the invasion but hasn’t engaged with Turkish forces. There may be another quid quo pro at work in Damascus’ favor, negotiated by Turkey and Russia, as the Syrian Arab Army has been able to take areas of rebel controlled Idlib to Afrin’s south, including an airbase, with limited opposition early on. This area is under the control of the ‘former’ Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusrah, who have changed their name for at least the third time to Tahrir al-Sham. It may be that Turkey has rethought Assad’s overthrow just as the U.S. State Department is once again calling for it.

American silence on Afrin, where it says it has no interest and which it claims hasn’t been involved in the fight against ISIS, has obviously greatly angered the SDF but it’s really just another betrayal of Kurdish allies who have done much of the fighting and dying for the U.S. and its allies in both Syria and Iraq.

In fact, after an ill considered independence vote called by Masoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan after the liberation of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from IS, the United States did nothing as forces loyal to Baghdad overran parts of their territory with the full-throated endorsement of neighbors Turkey and Iran.

Ideologically, Washington is much closer to the mild corruption and neo-liberalism of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq but in the end this didn’t save their bid for independence. It will be much easier to abandon the Syrian Kurds, whose anti-capitalism would probably have been a deal breaker if the SDF hadn’t proven so effective in the fight against ISIS.

It’s easy to sympathize with the SDF and the experiment begun by the Syrian Kurds in the former territories that comprised Rojava, whose revolutionary politics as stated in their Charter of the Social Contract offer a unique alternative to the reactionary and authoritarian ideologies currently available in the region and indeed, the world. Still, anyone who has followed this wretched war knows that no armed force active in the country is innocent.

The lion’s share of our empathy must go to the long suffering Syrian people of all ethnicity and creeds in a part of the world long known as a meeting place of civilizations. They are victims of venal callousness and incompetence, collateral damage of decisions mostly taken in foreign capitals.

Too few tears have been shed for them, too few voices have been raised in their defense.

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