Turkish onslaught

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Turkish Army tanks head to the Syrian border, in Karkamis. Photo: Ismail Coskun/AP

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. Photo: Yasin Bulbul/AP

Turkey’s open military intervention in Syria, with the United States’ backing, evokes sharp condemnation from Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies in its war against terrorism.

The Turkish Army’s incursion into northern Syria, backed by tanks and artillery, opens another chapter in the ongoing brutal civil war in Syria. In the last week of August, the Turkish Army, with the United States’ air support, helped a rebel faction take control of the town of Jarabulus and its surrounding areas. The town was under the Daesh (Islamic State, or I.S.) control and was on the verge of being taken over by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It was at this juncture that the Turkish government decided to intervene on the side of one of its proxy Syrian militias to keep the YPG out of the city. For the Turkish state, the biggest existential threat to national unity is the secessionist threat posed by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. In fact, many PKK fighters are in the Syrian battlefield helping the YPG.

The Syrian Kurds have seized control of vast tracts of territory along the border with Turkey and have established a virtual de facto state. The government led by Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has made it clear that it will under no circumstances accept an independent Kurdish state across its borders. Turkey has been livid with the U.S., its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally, for training, arming and financing the Syrian Kurds as they went about constructing a mini state. The PKK, which has been labelled a “terror group” by the U.S. State Department, has a free run in areas under YPG control. With sanctuaries in northern Syria and northern Iraq, the PKK now has the wherewithal to sustain a guerilla war in Turkey.

It was, therefore, surprising that the U.S. initially decided to support the Turkish military incursion code-named “Operation Euphrates Shield”. The Turkish government had initially claimed that its primary target was the Daesh. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who was on an official visit to Turkey at the time, issued a warning to the Syrian Kurds to desist from crossing the eastern side of the Euphrates river in north-eastern Syria, which Turkey has designated as a “red line”. Biden told the media in Ankara that it was made clear to the Kurdish forces that “they must move back from across the river”. Otherwise, he warned, they “would not and could not get American support”. Interestingly, when the Turkish Army launched its attack on Jarabulus, all the Daesh fighters faded away from the city without putting up a semblance of a fight. They obviously were aware of an imminent Turkish attack. Most of the casualties in the Turkish onslaught in northern Syria were among Kurdish fighters. Turkey’s move into northern Syria was done with U.S approval. The Barack Obama administration wanted to mollify Turkey after the negative fallout from the July coup attempt. Turkish public opinion has turned against Washington as most Turks believe that the U.S. had played a role in the coup attempt.

The Syrian government was quick to condemn the blatant breach of its sovereignty by the Turkish government. Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies in its war against terrorism, have both criticised Turkey’s open military intervention inside Syria although there are indications that Turkey had forewarned them about the impending military operations. Moscow and Tehran had expected a brief military incursion. Turkey, on the contrary, seems to be preparing for a long stay inside Syria so that it can control a corridor to Aleppo. Iran demanded that Turkey immediately stop its military intervention as it “will further complicate the regional situation”. “For Moscow, Ankara’s operation was an unpleasant surprise, demonstrating that the expectation that a convergence of the positions of the two countries on Syria had emerged was premature,” an opinion piece in the Russian paper Kommersant said.

Turkish officials have said that they will continue their operations in Syria until their “national security” goals are achieved. The Turkish authorities want to ensure that the YPG does not have a contiguous strip of territory along their border. Currently, Syrian Kurds, with U.S. military support, are in control of two Kurdish enclaves across the border, Kobani in the east and Afrin in the west, separated by a strip of territory controlled by the Daesh that runs up to Aleppo. This strip was an important route for the Daesh to smuggle in weapons and fighters through Turkey.

After capturing Jarabulus, Turkey installed Arab fighters who had once fought for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They were originally trained and bankrolled by the West and its allies in Jordan and Turkey. The capture of Jarabulus came days after a Daesh suicide bombing in a Turkish border town that killed more than 54 people. After the incident, the Turkish government pledged to “cleanse” the country’s borders. Erdogan, in a speech following the capture of Jarabulus, tried to assure the international community that it had no plans for a full-fledged military intervention. Turkey, he said, was “determined to ensure that Syria retains its territorial integrity”.

Kurdish fighters in Syria, who have been crucial in the fight against the Daesh, have reasons to feel nervous about the continuance of the U.S. support for their cause. Past history has shown that the U.S. values military ties with Turkey more. Continued access to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase is important for the U.S. military for its regional operations. An angry Erdogan is threatening to review the strategic ties with Washington and at the same time giving the impression of forging closer relations with Moscow and Tehran. Turkey and Russia have started talking about closer military coordination in Syria.

Kurds have been betrayed in the past by the U.S. If it happens again, it will not be a new experience for them. The U.S. has, however, once again started issuing warnings to Turkey against the continued targeting of Syrian Kurds, calling it “unacceptable”. The U.S. Special Envoy to the region, Brett McGurk, said clashes in areas involving the allies of the U.S. were “of deep concern”. U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter asked Turkey to stay focussed on the fight against the Daesh and hold its firepower against Syrian Kurds. “We’ve called on both sides not to fight each other,” Carter told the media in Washington. The Deputy National Security Adviser to the U.S. President, Ben Forbes, warned Turkey that further action against Syrian Kurds would complicate matters and hamper moves to forge “a united front” against the Daesh.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reacted by saying that the Syrian Kurdish forces would be targeted if they stayed on the wrong side of the red line drawn by Turkey. The Syrian government has condemned the Turkish Army’s “repetitive breaches and aggression” since it went into Jarabulus. Syria has written to the United Nations Secretary-General accusing Turkey of committing “full-fledged crimes against humanity” in northern Syria. More than 400,000 Syrians have perished so far in the five-year-old conflict stoked by outside forces.

Since it began military operations inside Syria, Turkey has directed its firepower almost exclusively on the so-called Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), a U.S.-backed militia dominated by Kurds. After the capture of Jarabulus, the Turkish force and its local Sunni allies launched further attacks to the south with the aim of capturing the city of Manbij, which was taken over by the Kurds in mid-August. Kurds had fought against the Syrian Army and its allies for control of the north-eastern provincial capital of Hasakah. The U.S., while condemning Turkey’s attacks on its Kurdish allies, called on them to vacate the city and allow the Turkish Army and the Sunni militias in. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has reiterated that military operations “will continue until all terrorist elements have been neutralised, until all threats to our borders, our lands and our citizens are completely over”.

Turkey’s entry into the Syrian war theatre occurred at a time when the U.S. was getting ready to attack the Daesh capital of Raqqa along with the YPG forces. With the YPG under attack from Turkey, U.S plans for “liberating” Raqqa in alliance with the YPG may have to be deferred. The Kurds were also supported by Russian air power and the Syrian Army in their fight against the Daesh and the Al Nusra Front. But the YPG started to get increasingly ambitious in its goal to set up an autonomous Kurdish region. It started turning its guns on the Syrian Army in areas under its control.

When the civil war started five years ago, the Syrian government allowed the YPG and its allies to run parts of northern Syria, where they were in a majority, so that the Syrian Army could focus exclusively on the threat posed by terrorists supported by the West and its regional proxies. Moscow is angry with the Syrian Kurds for turning their guns against the Syrian Army and indulging in ethnic cleansing of the areas they control. Arab populations have been driven out of many areas under Kurdish control in Syria.

Meanwhile, Kurds in northern Iraq have deferred plans to hold a referendum for the creation of an independent homeland. This seems to have been done under pressure from Ankara. Turkey has a military base near Mosul in northern Iraq. The Kurdish region of Iraq, which is autonomous, is dependent to a great extent on Turkey for its economic and political survival. The U.S., of course, midwifed the birth of Iraqi Kurdistan, by first imposing a “no-fly zone” over northern Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein and then letting the Iraqi Kurds go their independent way when the country was under U.S. occupation. American military help was crucial for Iraqi Kurds to stave off the threat from the rampaging Daesh after the fall of Mosul in 2014. The U.S. also looked the other way as Iraqi Kurds seized the contested city of Kirkuk from the central government in Baghdad.

But with the military situation fast changing, Iraqi Kurds, like their brethren in Syria, have reasons to be worried. The central governments in both Iraq and Syria are consolidating themselves. Once Mosul is liberated and Aleppo is completely freed, the governments in Baghdad and Damascus may turn their attention to the rebellious Kurds. And they could find an ally in Erdogan’s Turkey. Iran, too, is against Kurdish separatism in all its hues. There have been periodic Kurdish uprisings in Iran.