Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syria just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria began on October 9 after US troops pulled back, paving the way for Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurdish forces, long been allied with the US. With this, Turkey may be unwittingly sinking deeper into Syria’s country’s civil war.
This is not the first time Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018. Alleged gas attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government followed, which resulted in the US continuing its stay in Syria despite its reluctant President. The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to northwestern Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build-up on the Syrian border ever since. The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’ presence in Syria.
What Turkey Wants
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops into northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
Fear of Independence
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey. Fearing this, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Its second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish society, with many calling for their return. Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is political investment for elections. He first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019. The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Perhaps, Erdogan reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry. It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps. Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates. A total pullout would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation. Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effect. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control. If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria. Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.
(The author is Director, The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation, Charles Sturt University; theconversation.com)
Quest for Kurdistan
The Kurds are an ethnic group numbering some 20 million people spread across four nations — 10 million in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, 3.5 million in Iraq, and a little over 2 million in Syria. They speak an Indo-European language, related to Iran’s Farsi, and are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. The 1,91,000-square-km Kurdish area arcs through a mountainous zone from southeast Turkey to northwest Iran. They’re divided not only by borders but by tribal, political and factional splits that the regional powers have often used to manipulate them.
Struggle and Betrayals
With the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after World War I, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But the treaty was never ratified. Since then, there have been almost continuous Kurdish rebellions in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
In 1972, the US helped arm an Iraqi Kurdish insurrection against Baghdad. It did so on behalf of Iran, then led by America’s ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who hoped to pressure the Iraqi government in an ongoing border dispute. Three years later, the Shah signed a border agreement with Baghdad and shut off the weapons pipeline.
Then-Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani pleaded with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for support but the American help ended. The Iraqi government crushed the Kurdish rebellion. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in the 1980s with Iranian backing during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign, using poison gas and forcibly resettling up to 1,00,000 Kurds in the southern desert. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, Washington ensured Iraq’s new constitution enshrined that autonomous zone. But the US has drawn the line against Kurdish independence.
Everything to Lose?
Syria’s Kurds have hoped for full autonomy in the northeast corner of the country where their population is concentrated. Damascus has not allowed it, and Turkey is vehemently opposed to it. Still, they gained a degree of autonomy unthinkable before the war, including teaching their own language at schools, setting up their own police force and controlling an administrative council that runs day-to-day affairs.
The US found in the Kurds an effective partner on the ground to fight the Islamic State group. Armed by the US and backed by American troops and firepower, the Kurdish-led forces finally put an end to IS’ territorial hold — at the cost of thousands of Kurds killed in years of fighting. The force now controls nearly a third of Syria. The Kurds had hoped the alliance would give weight to their autonomy ambitions. But it raised friction between the US and Turkey. Ankara views the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, as a terrorist group.
Most of Syria has returned to government control after eight years of war. The exceptions are the opposition-held bastion of Idlib in the northwest, where rebels, Islamic militants and their families have been cornered, and the oil-rich northeast, held by US-backed Kurdish groups.
IS stands to gain
Kurdish authorities run over two dozen detention facilities, scattered around northeastern Syria, holding about 10,000 IS fighters. Most of the facilities are unidentified and unmarked, some of them set up in abandoned or repurposed buildings; others are mobile “pop-up prisons.” Guarding those facilities has long been a strain on the Kurdish-led SDF as it juggles multiple tasks in the volatile area.
The outbreak of fighting would likely mean laxer control over the three big Kurdish-run camps holding IS families and die-hard supporters that are potential engines for recruitment for the group. The camps are farther away from the border and outside the safe zone Turkey wants to create, so it is not clear how Turkey would take control of them. It is highly unlikely the Syrian Democratic Forces would coordinate with Ankara to hand them over.
The largest, al-Hol, houses nearly 70,000 people, including over 11,000 foreign women and children from 40 different countries. Two smaller camps, Roj and Ain Eissa, house just over 2,000 foreign women and children. The camps are rife with IS support. Al-Hol has been called the cradle for a new militancy, and the coalition has said IS is actively recruiting new members there. Some of the foreign women have organized an IS-style religious police to impose their own rules, often using violence, and children are often radicalised in the camps.
IS could also easily exploit tensions between Kurdish-led forces and Arab tribes, over control of the resources in the oil-rich east, to recruit new members and regroup again.
On the burn
- April 29, a month after the first protests in Syria that were met with brutal force by the regime, US imposes sanctions on several Syrian officials. The measures extend to President Bashar al-Assad the following month
- August 18: US President Barack Obama and Western allies for the first time explicitly call on Assad to stand down
- In October, US ambassador leaves Syria for ‘security reasons’. Damascus recalls its ambassador from Washington
- In August, the Syrian regime is accused of carrying out a chemical attack near Damascus that killed over 1,400 people. Despite having vowed to act with force if Syria crossed the chemical weapons “red line”, Obama at the last minute pulls back from punitive strikes
- On September 14, he agrees to a deal with Moscow — Assad’s main backer — that is meant to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal
- On September 23, the US and Arab allies launch air strikes in Syria against IS group.
- In October, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Syrian Arab alliance of some 50,000 fighters, is created with US backing
- Dominated by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, it receives US training and aid in the form of arms, air support and intelligence
- SDF later overruns IS in northeastern Syria, driving out jihadists from their last patch of territory in March 2019
- On April 7, US forces fire a barrage of cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat airbase, believed to be the launch site of a chemical attack that killed 88 people in Idlib province
- It is the first direct US action against Assad’s government and President Trump’s most significant military decision.
- On April 14, the US — with the support of France and Britain — launches new retaliatory strikes after an alleged regime chemical attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma. Some 40 people were killed
- On December 19, Trump announces that all of the roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria will be withdrawn because IS had been ‘defeated’
- On January 16, a suicide attack claimed by IS kills four US servicemen and 15 others at a restaurant in Syria’s northern city of Manbij. It is the deadliest attack against US forces since they deployed
- On August 7, Turkish and US officials agree to jointly manage a buffer zone between the Turkish border and areas in Syria controlled by the YPG, which Istanbul considers a ‘terrorist’ threat
- But on October 6, Washington announces that US forces would withdraw from the border areas to make way for a ‘long-planned operation’ by Turkish forces
(With Agencies inputs)