THE unending war in Syria acquired an additional layer of complexity nearly three weeks ago when Turkey launched its ludicrously titled Operation Olive Branch, with the aim of overrunning the Kurdish-controlled town of Afrin.
The Turkish invasion was evidently sparked by an American announcement in mid-January about forming a border force in collaboration with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — which are largely Kurdish-led, although a substantial proportion of its foot soldiers are Arabs.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promptly accused the US, Turkey’s partner in Nato, of setting up a “terror army”, and shortly afterwards launched the military aggression, which relies on the pro-Turkish so-called Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) militias, backed by Turkish forces and air power.
Why do the Kurds continue to be thwarted in their quest?
Given that the Kurdish YPG or People’s Protection militias were instrumental in the US-guided effort to wrest Raqqa and other parts of Syria from the militant Islamic State (IS) group, one might have assumed that Washington make more of an effort to prevent Ankara from carrying out its threats. But US said it understood Turkish “security concerns” and merely advised “restraint” and the avoidance of any conflict with American forces in the area. Russia, which has allowed Turkey use of the airspace it controls in northern Syria, has been similarly cavalier in its approach.
Both the rival powers see Turkey as a crucial ally in determining Syria’s future. Other Nato members, notably Germany and France, have been moderately more robust in their criticism of the Turkish military action. But ultimately the Kurds are on their own.
They are still counting on the US to resist Erdogan’s threatened incursion into Manbij, where US forces are also based, and have received assurances from US commanders. But they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these commanders would be obliged to obey any contrary orders from their unpredictable commander-in-chief, whose soft spot for authoritarian leaders such as Erdogan is hardly a secret.
Never mind that the Turkish supremo did his best to thwart the Kurdish-led defence of Kobani against an IS assault. Or that Turkey was for several years the main conduit for would-be jihadists flocking to Syria. Or that, like Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, it backed Islamists in the Syrian battlefield.
The FSA was effectively adopted by Turkey after its Western support crumbled because of its alliances with outfits such as Al Nusra Front — recently reincarnated as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and active in Idlib province on the Turkish border, where it shot down a Russian warplane on the weekend.
The nature of at least some of Erdogan’s Syrian allies was illuminated last week when a video turned up of the mutilated corpse of Barin Kobani, a fighter in the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units. The very fact that women tend to be prominent participants in Kurdish politics as well as the armed struggle fuels the spite of their invariably retrograde foes.
Turkey refuses to distinguish between the YPG and the PKK — the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party, widely designated as a terrorist organisation, whose leader Abdullah Ocalan has resided in a Turkish prison since 1999, after being apprehended with CIA connivance. His inevitable death sentence was commuted at a time when Turkey was still keen to be admitted into the EU, but he remains in prison despite having given up on the idea of armed struggle and favouring a political solution instead to the Kurdish question ie why does the world’s largest ethnic group without a national home continue to be thwarted in its quest to realise that dream?
Marginally different answers may be obtained from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but they basically boil down to territorial integrity, and the determination to avoid any one of the Kurdish enclaves setting an example. Erdogan’s government was on relatively good terms with the Iraqi Kurds until they voted for independence last year, which instinctively prompted Ankara to threaten an invasion.
The Syrian Kurds have based their recent autonomy broadly on Ocalan’s progressive philosophy that entails a secular outlook, democratic rights for all minorities and equal rights for women — each of the tenets anathema to Islamists. Which may help to explain Erdogan’s animosity.
Kurdish entities have often collaborated with Western and regional powers, but it has invariably been a case of being won over by honest trifles only to be betrayed in deepest consequence. That decidedly holds true also in the context of Israeli backing for a Kurdish state, even as the prospect of a Palestinian state goes down the gurgler.
By the same token, the idea of Erdogan listing Jerusalem at the top of his agenda in this week’s meeting with Pope Francis lacks credibility when he is intent, at the same time, on crushing the Kurds and denying Turkish citizens their basic human rights.
Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2018