By Eric Vandenbroeck 9 Oct. 2019
US. and Kurdish officials said late Tuesday that they expect Turkey to launch a major offensive into northeast Syria within the next 24 hours, after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to give Ankara the green light to begin the operation.
Whereby early in the morning today reports have come in that Turkish troops have begun crossing Into Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who operate in the area are US allies. They are led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Trump's decision to pull troops from the area cleared the way for Turkey to attack.
The scale and size of a potential Turkish operation remain unclear. Officially Turkey wants to create a 32-kilometer-deep, 480-kilometer-long corridor (20 miles deep, 300 miles long) inside Syria along the border to protect its security.
A Turkish military incursion into northeast Syria would likely send hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing into SDF-controlled areas further south and into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.
Who are the Kurds?
A subject I have covered in a different context before, the Kurds live under the rule of several states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire: the Republic of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Kurds also lived in large numbers in Persia or Iran, and there were smaller Kurdish populations in Russia and Lebanon. Their population statistics were disputed because of the states where Kurds lived tended to minimize their numbers, but Kurds made up some 20 percent of the population of Turkey, more than 20 percent of the population of Iraq, and close to 10 percent of the population of Iran. With a total population of some 24 million to 27 million by the late twentieth century, Kurds made up the largest ethnic group without a state in Europe or Western Asia.
Kurdish identity, society, and politics have been heavily influenced by the state-building projects of the countries within which they live. As a result, while many Kurdish nationalists may dream of a greater independent Kurdistan, Kurdish political parties' demands for greater rights and autonomy have traditionally been directed towards the states within which they live, even as Kurdish movements in one part impact those in another part.
Rojava, as the Syrian Kurds call the area they gained control of when the Syrian army largely withdrew in 2012, and which now stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates. Whereby in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), already highly autonomous, took advantage of ISIS’s destruction of Baghdad’s authority in northern Iraq to expand its territory, taking over areas long disputed between itself and Baghdad, including the Kirkuk oilfields and some mixed Kurdish-Arab districts.
Turkey has been appalled to find that the Syrian uprising, which it hoped would usher in an era of Turkish influence spreading across the Middle East, has instead produced a Kurdish state that controls half of the Syrian side of Turkey’s 550-mile southern border. Worse, the ruling party in Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in all but name is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which Ankara has been fighting a guerrilla war since 1984. In the year since ISIS was finally defeated in the siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, Rojava has expanded territorially in every direction as its leaders repeatedly ignore Turkish threats of military action against them.
For the Kurds in Rojava and KRG territory this is a testing moment: if the war ends their newly won power could quickly slip away. They are, after all, only small states, the KRG has a population of about six million and Rojava 2.2 million, surrounded by much larger ones. And their economies are barely floating wrecks. Rojava is well organized but blockaded on all sides and unable to sell much of its oil. Seventy percent of the buildings in Kobani were pulverized by US bombing. People have fled from cities like Hasaka that are close to the frontline. The KRG’s economic problems are grave and probably insoluble unless there is an unexpected rise in the price of oil.
The following map shows on the left Kurdish "Rojava" and on the right the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Syria.
What is with Turkey and Erdogan in this matter?
Turkey’s playbook in Syria has changed dramatically since the civil war broke out in 2011. Erdogan was flying high at home that spring when people first took to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The secularist opposition was in a slump, and Erdogan was set to embark on a program to Islamize the country’s education system. The conflict across the border in Syria offered Erdogan an opportunity to extend his agenda outward. Within months, the Turkish government abandoned Assad, formerly a close partner, and began to arm the Islamist insurgents doing battle against Damascus. Turkey soon became a hub for Syria’s exiled opposition and a conduit for the steady stream of foreign jihadi fighters making their way into Syria. Eventually, Ankara turned a blind eye even to members of the Islamic State (or ISIS), who slipped in and out of the country and sometimes sought medical treatment there. All the while, Turkey opened its borders to millions of refugees fleeing the fighting and built vast camps to hold the new arrivals. The gesture was expensive but morally just, Erdogan argued, an act of Sunni compassion and solidarity in the face of the Assad regime’s atrocities. That narrative struck a chord with the public, and opposition to the refugee influx remained relatively muted. All told, Turkey hosted 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Fighting in Syria, however, were not just Islamist insurgents but several Kurdish militias. For Erdogan, this was bad news. In 2015, his Justice and Development Party had lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in over a decade, owing in part to the unexpected success of a party representing Turkey’s Kurdish minority, parts of which had for decades fought their own low-level insurgency in the country’s southeast. To hold on to power, Erdogan struck an alliance with a far-right opposition party known for its strong opposition to Kurdish nationalism. The government’s years-long peace process with Kurdish militants in the southeast came to an abrupt end.
Erdogan’s priorities in Syria shifted accordingly. Ankara was now determined to discourage Kurdish efforts to establish autonomy in the region spanning southeast Turkey and northern Syria. Attempts to unseat Assad through Islamist proxies took a back seat to the more pressing concern of denying the Syrian Kurds a contiguous autonomous region along the border with Turkey. In Aleppo, the Syrian rebels’ last stronghold, Turkey now enlisted insurgents who had been fighting Assad to attack Kurdish forces instead, sapping the rebellion of its manpower and facilitating the advance of the Syrian army, which retook the city in 2016. That year, Turkey sent its own military into northern Syria in an effort to contain the Kurdish militias operating there.
By 2017, Erdogan’s about-face was complete, and Ankara was working with the Assad regime and its allies. To the dismay of the Syrian opposition, Turkey, Russia, and Iran agreed to create several so-called de-escalation zones. In theory, regime and opposition in these areas would have to honor limited cease-fires, but in practice, the regime made military gains by frequently violating the truces, often with Russian support. In return, Damascus and its allies looked the other way when Turkey launched a second military intervention into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018.
Just as Erdogan’s domestic concerns about Kurds occasioned a shift in his objectives in Syria, so too have domestic concerns about refugees. The Turkish president senses that his open-door policy has become a domestic liability. His party lost control of almost all major cities in the 2019 municipal elections—an immense blow to the city-level patronage system upon which Erdogan built his power over the last 25 years. The rout owed something to the deepening economic crisis, but it also reflected growing public discontent with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees still in the country.
Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdogan now wants the refugees to go home. Turkish authorities have stepped up house searches and arrests of Syrian refugees. The state has tried to move refugees out of the major cities, and the police have set up a hotline to collect information on those who enter the country illegally. Some have reportedly been deported to the Syrian city of Idlib, even as the fighting there intensifies.
Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdogan now wants the refugees to go home.
Forcing hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Syrian refugees out of the country and back into a war zone is nearly impossible, but Erdogan thinks otherwise. His solution, recently laid out in a speech at the UN General Assembly, is to carve out a large buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey. The area would be 300 miles long and 20 miles deep, under Turkish control, and off-limits to Kurdish forces. According to Erdogan, this “safe zone” would host two million to three million refugees, thus ridding Ankara of a major domestic headache. It would boast 200,000 homes, along with hospitals, football pitches, mosques, and schools, Turkish-built but financed internationally—a setup that would provide much-needed revenue for Turkey’s struggling construction sector at a time of economic downturn. Securing funding for this idea is a tall order, but Erdogan is willing to push the envelope. In September, he threatened that he would “open the gates” and set off another European refugee crisis if he did not get his way.
Erdogan’s proposal might be the perfect solution for his domestic woes, but it is sure to create a host of new problems for everyone else. His plan would send millions of Arab Syrian refugees into Kurdish-majority areas inside Syria—not incidentally, from Erdogan’s point of view, as changing the ethnic makeup of the region would further undermine the Kurds. But doing so would increase Arab-Kurdish tensions, fuel conflict in a region that has been relatively stable, and cause mass displacement in those areas. Under international law, Erdogan cannot force the Syrian refugees to move back, and most would almost certainly not move voluntarily, even into a purported safe zone. U.S. strategy in Syria, which has relied heavily on the Kurds to prevent ISIS from making a comeback, would take a massive hit. And the plan is a godsend to the United States’ adversaries in Syria—Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime—who believe they can stand by while the Turkish incursion prompts a complete U.S. withdrawal, only to recapture the area and kick out Turkey later on.
While his troops have started to move, Erdogan will visit the United States on 13 Nov. at Trump's invitation, a White House spokesman said. He announced on Monday that U.S. troops had started to withdraw after a phone call he had with Trump.
Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northeast Syria has rattled allies, including France, one of Washington's main partners in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, usually one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, has threatened to sanction the Turkish government if it sets foot in Syria. Erdogan, however, is likely prepared to take that risk. His rule is at stake, and that is all that matters to him, even if it means economic penalties for his country and yet more chaos and suffering for Syria.
Thus Kurdish leaders are now scrambling to prepare for the worst. Gen. Mazloum Kobani, the top SDF general, announced amid the haze of strategic surprises, diplomatic miscommunication, and public backpedaling, that an alliance with Assad against Turkey is “on the table.” The SDF is “ready” for talks with Assad, SDF-affiliated diplomat Sinam Mohamad told the National Interest. But Assad’s two main backers, Russia and Iran, are towing a careful line.
The Rojava Information Center, a media organization based in northeast Syria, confirmed to the National Interest that pro-Assad forces are massing near Manbij and Deir ez-Zour, but it’s not clear whether they will help or hinder the Turkish campaign. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, claimed that Assad was mobilizing his forces for an invasion of his own.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov condemned U.S. support for the SDF, but also left the door open for a Kurdish role in Syrian politics.
“The Americans have established quasi-government structures there, keeping them functional and actively promoting the Kurdish issue in a way to cause dissent among the Arab tribes traditionally populating these territories,” he said, according to Russian state media. “Our stance unequivocally proceeds from the need to solve all problems of that part of Syria through dialogue between the central government in Damascus and representatives of the Kurdish communities that have traditionally lived in these territories.”
According to Fawri Hariri, an Iraqi Kurdish official who met with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister promised to help mediate between Damascus and the Kurds.
Given there earlier pattern Russia is likely to try to reach arrangements with everybody involved.
Whereby Iran’s established position has been to encourage the Kurds to reach a kind of compromise with Assad to prevent any kind of Turkish invasion in that part of Syria.
Late on Tuesday, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif condemned any Turkish military action, but also brought up the Adana Agreement of 1999. In the pact, Syria had agreed to cut off its support for Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey and expel Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Azizi explained the comments as a “shift in Iran’s position from trying to reach the compromise between the Kurds and Damascus to trying to reach a compromise between Turkey and Damascus.”
“I think [Russia] wouldn't be happy with a major offensive, but at the same time, if there was a smaller incursion, they would not be as opposed to it as they publicly state,”
Signaling a further potential shift in the region's power balance, the Kurdish-led forces said they might start talks with the Syrian government and Russia to fill a security vacuum.
The SDF, which has vowed to defend itself against any perceived Turkish incursion, called on the US-led coalition and the international community to implement a no-fly zone over northern Syria similar to the one implemented in Iraq.
But the latter is not happening for example at the time of writing heavy smoke was seen billowing from an SDF position, hit by Turkey airstrikes on the outskirts of Ras Al Ayn:
With many people seen flying Ras Al Ayn:
Civilians are also fleeing several other places like, as seen next, the border town of Serekanyie as Turkish warplanes and artillery target positions of the Kurdish forces.
The Turkish Army is also bombarding SDF positions in Qamishli City, where hundred of thousands of civilians live.
What happens in the longer term depends on whether the US keeps a military presence in other parts of the northeast and east.
A full withdrawal could expose the area to the risk of more Turkish advances, an IS revival, or attempts by Iranian- and Russian-backed government forces to gain ground.
As evening fall today: