Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin met recently to open a new chapter in Turkish-Russian relations, normalizing heretofore strained ties between their countries. This tension began last year as a result of Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane that was violating Turkish airspace. This new chapter dramatically changes the entire scene of the Syrian conflict.
At the center of this new development lies Ankara’s deep-seated antagonism toward Kurds, both in Syria and at home. In order to preempt Kurdish plans to connect the three cantons of Afrin, Kobane, and Jazeera, Ankara has taken steps to normalize ties with Russia, Iran and Syria, and gain their support for a military intervention into northern Syria.
Washington and Ankara's tensions over Syrian Kurds
Washington has been remarkably successful in improving its coordination with Syrian Kurds to destroy ISIS, which is now the priority of Washington in the Syrian conflict. The international coalition led by the US has established a successful and effective partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This force, led by the Kurdish YPG, includes the diverse peoples of the region of northern Syria, namely Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, and Circassian factions and large number of women protection units (YPJ).
SDF and YPJ forces have been effective in defeating and taking cities from the Islamic State in Eastern and northern Syria. For this, they have gained the trust of U.S. decision-makers and are now backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces. Under this model, the most recently liberated city was Manbij, a highly strategic city, which served as a hub in ISIS’s main supply routes. Success in Manbij cut ISIS off from the outside world and now prevents them from moving its fighters out of Syria to carry out terrorist attacks in Turkey and Europe.
Nonetheless, Erdogan’s government was extremely unhappy about the support Washington provides SDF because it strengthens the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group ideologically tied to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey’s hated domestic enemy. Ankara rejects any entities bearing the semblance of Kurdish self-rule, either in Ankara or along its border in the south, and considers the PYD to be part of the PKK. Last February, a delegation including US envoy to the international coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, met with the YPG. This led Erdogan to furiously demand that Washington choose either him or Syrian Kurds. "Is it me who is your partner, or the terrorists in Kobane?" Erdogan told reporters on his plane while returning from a trip to Latin America and Senegal.
Not long after Erdogan’s ultimatum, Washington replied by declaring that the PYD is not a terrorist organization and Kurdish fighters have been some of the most successful in fighting ISIS inside Syria. In addition, the US-led coalition has sent military officials and advisers into northern Syria in order to support Kurdish ground forces in the destruction of ISIS. However recently Washington changed its stance by appeasing Ankara and calling for YPG forces to "retreat back to the east of the Euphrates." Although this is a diplomatic victory that Ankara has gained by shifting its foreign policy and seeking support from Moscow, Iran and Syria, it doesn't mean that ties between Syrian Kurds and the US have been completely severed.
Ankara’s new rapprochements and its reflections on Kurds
For nearly a century, the nation-states of the Middle East have united on the common ground of fighting and repressing the Kurds. Today, Ankara’s rapprochement with Russia renews this dynamic by addressing not only their own anti-Kurdish agenda, but also that of Syria and Iran.
For Assad, the rapprochement helps maintain his beleaguered centralized regime because the political project that Kurds in Syria are aspiring to aims at dismantling the power of his centralized nation-state and instead tries to empower the people around grassroots institutions. The regime may also find the chance to retake lands in Eastern Syria now under Kurdish control. Indeed, the latest fight between the Syrian Army and YPG in Hasakah can be interpreted as a gesture of good will by the regime toward Moscow’s rapprochement with Ankara. In return, Ankara may cut off their support of authoritarian Islamic groups in their fight against Assad in Aleppo and direct these -authoritarian Islamic groups- against the Kurds in northern Syria. (Something that is happening now in Jarablus.)
Tehran like Ankara, fears that Syrian Kurds will encourage Iranian Kurds to revolt and demand their civic and cultural rights. A Kurdish revolt in Iran threatens their Islamist regime and national security. Iran may put aside old tensions with Ankara and cooperate against the most “dangerous threat”, Kurds. As for Moscow, the new rapprochement helps maintain Assad’s power.
To prevent further empowerment of the Kurds, Ankara has sent its ground troops into northern Syria in order to pre-empt the connection of Kurdish cantons of Kobane, Jazeera, and Afrin. Yet in order to intervene in northern Syria at this scale, they must first have had approval from Moscow and Tehran. Having done so, they are now using troops and authoritarian Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar Alsham, Sultan Murad, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki battalion to seize control of Jarablus and Al Bab.
It is obvious that Ankara's so-called fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Jarablus was only a replacement of ISIS fighters with other authoritarian Islamist groups that are carbon copies of the jihadists. The “fight” against ISIS in Jarablus witnessed no booby traps, no ISIS snipers, no lurking ISIS fighters using human shields, no bomb attacks, no ISIS resistance. There was no fight in Jarablus, but rather a matter of given military orders by the Turkish government and the carrying out of these orders by its 'soldiers'. This was clear for the international media and public opinion to see and couldn’t have escaped the attention of western governments.
Turkey's support of jihadists shows Neo-Ottoman aspiratons are alive and well
It is not a coincidence that 24 August, the very day Ankara invaded Syria, is the same day as the battle of Marj Dabiq. The battle took place in 1516–17 between the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate and ended in an Ottoman victory and conquest of much of the Middle East. The symbolism of that battle 500 years ago was used heavily within Turkey before the operation and is a sign of the Turkish government’s continuing expansionist mind-set. Although the government claims it is not in Syria permanently, the attempt is to place the region under Islamist control and the mentality that occupied the Middle East for 500 years. The move is also a message to the entire world that Turkey is still a player in the Syria game and cannot be disregarded.
However, Ankara's intervention will not be a touristic picnic, but rather a nightmare loaded with military and human losses. Already several Turkish tanks have been destroyed and a soldier has been killed in the south of Jarablus. Turkey has launched aerial attacks on Afrin (southwest) and Ain Diwar (southeast) and driven its tanks to the border of Kobane to erect a wall. But it is being met with resistance everywhere, and not just from Kurds, but from Arabs -who Turkey claims to be liberating from Kurds- and other ethnoreligious groups.
Turkey's intervention will escalate violence in Syria and Turkey
The US and the Western governments are pragmatic forces; they only help movements or states gain when it is to protect their own interests. In this regard, the US it seems, is happy about the Turkish intervention in Syria because its main concern is to degrade ISIS. As such the US does not care about the outcomes of this intervention, which will likely lead to years of violence between the Turkish government and Kurds in Syria, and feed the violence, war and instability in Turkey. The ‘Syrianization’ of Turkey in this sense, is becoming more likely. Indeed, things such as democracy, peace and stability, which are needed by Middle Eastern peoples like bread and water are of secondary importance or do not even exist in US foreign policy.
It is not necessary to read volumes to know who is in favour of and has a project for peace and democracy in Turkey and the Middle East and who can initiate an end to the current melee. Reading only one page written by Abdullah Öcalan -imprisoned Kurdish leader and thinker who has inspired the Rojava model- would clarify who wants peace, freedom, democracy, stability, coexistence, fraternity, gender equality, and an ecological and ethical society in Turkey and Kurdistan. All these values and principles are now under lock and key in a Turkish prison. The Turkish government does not want an end to the conflict; if it did, it would have ended Öcalan's isolation to allow him to play an effective role in invigorating the stalled peace process. Instead it has chosen to continue its isolation policy on Öcalan and Kurdish politics in general, even after the recent coup attempt.
This leaves only one thing for the Kurds: resistance. Because resistance is the only thing that can bring the Turkish state back to any sort of negotiation table. As PYD co-chair Saleh Moslem said after Ankara's intervention in Syria, “Turkey will lose a lot in the Syrian quagmire, and will be defeated like Daesh (ISIS).” Now, only a swift Turkish defeat can save the region. The alternative is that everyone involved loses.
- Cihad Hammy
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