On 20 January, Turkey began a battle in the northern Syrian town of Afrin which continues until today with the aim of defeating the Kurdish militias that occupy north-western Syria and threaten Turkey.
It is fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that control the area because they are affiliated to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers Party the PKK, both of which Ankara categorises as terrorist groups.
Afrin is on the southern border with Turkey and has a large Kurdish population. The PYD wants to connect this region with north-eastern Syria in order that it can control a connected geographical area and establish a Kurdish federation it calls Western Kurdistan, implying that it also intends to secede from Syria.
In its attacks to expel the Kurds from Afrin, Turkey has relied on Syrian armed opposition factions it has funded. These have welcomed Turkey’s onslaught on the Kurdish militias since these have been responsible for brutal actions over the past three years, notably destroying villages, burning homes and killing residents in order to achieve demographic change in the region.
The PYD took advantage of the Syrian Revolution that began in March 2011 to form two contradictory alliances. The first is the alliance with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which, though undeclared, has supplied it with weapons and security and intelligence cooperation against the Syrian opposition.
The second is the PYD’s public alliance with the National Coordination Coalition, part of the Syrian political opposition, which has allowed it to infiltrate the opposition and for PYD President Salem Muslim to become deputy chairman of the coalition. This has enabled the PYD to take control of large swathes of northern Syria where the Kurds reside.
As well as these two contradictory alliances, the PYD has forged good relations with Iran and a strategic alliance with Russia. When the PYD realised that siding with the US would be more likely to serve its interests, its militias offered themselves to the US as the latter’s boots on the ground in northern Syria.
PYD militias have committed ethnic cleansing in northern Syria, burning hundreds of villages and expelling their ethnic Arab and Assyrian residents to make way for a Kurdish population. Syrian human rights groups have accused the PYD of committing war crimes in the area over the past three years.
In 2016, the PYD created a federal system in areas under Kurdish militia control in northern Syria, followed by the creation of a constituent assembly for the federation and a presidential and parliamentary system that includes the areas around the towns of Kobani, Afrin and Jazeera. The militias have established self-administration and security agencies (asayish) and military forces (the Syria Democratic Forces), and maintained good relations with the regime.
Some 90 per cent of the Kurdish militias in northern Syria are not Syrian, but consist of Turkish Kurds not related to the Syrian conflict and with aims unrelated to the Syrian Revolution. They are interested in creating a West Kurdistan province similar to the Kurdish region in Iraq, and in so doing they have extended the historical Kurdish-Turkish quarrel using Syria as a battleground.
Turkey views the PKK as a threat to its national security, and it has a long and bloody history of conflict with the group. The PKK has carried out multiple terrorist attacks inside Turkey that have killed hundreds of Turks.
Because the PKK has come close to taking control of northern Syria, Ankara has now decided to abandon its strategic alliance with the US. Washington has refused to step back from its indirect support for the PKK or to create buffer zones in northern Syria. Once the US decided to partner with the Kurds in northern Syria and provide them with weapons and training, Turkey felt it had no choice but to ally itself with Russia.
The US did not lift a finger when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Afrin, however, revealing that its alliances are fragile and leaving the Kurds alone to confront the Turkish war machine. Meanwhile, Moscow took advantage of the battle in Afrin to revive its relations with Syria’s Kurds, which are crucial for Russia as the Kurds currently control nearly one-third of Syria and this could improve Russia’s position in the country.
It has been more than two weeks since the Turkish campaign in Afrin began, and it has used immense firepower and thousands of Syrian combatants. Fierce battles in recent days have revealed how difficult the campaign has been for the Turkish forces owing to the complexity of political, military and geographic factors, strong defences based on adamant political beliefs, and regional and international developments favouring the Kurds and putting pressure on Turkey.
Turkey’s attack on Afrin is not supported by the whole of the Syrian opposition, even though some armed factions are participating. “Turkey has taken advantage of the actions of the Kurdish militias in Arab areas, including extortion, forced recruitment, and expulsion from villages under the pretext of connections with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, to turn the Arabs against the Kurds,” Ali Abdullah, a Syrian opposition member, said.
“The [opposition] Free Syrian Army spearheaded the ground attacks and spilled Syrian blood to serve Turkish plots,” he added.
Abdullah said that Turkey’s ambitions in the area were not feasible, however, even if it defeats the Kurdish militias by military means. “The Turkish campaign could succeed in defeating the Kurdish militias and taking control of Afrin, but this will not end the Turkish-Kurdish conflict inside and outside Turkey. It will simply fan the flames when the Kurds have the opportunity to strike back,” he said.
“It would have been better to make a deal to end the confrontation and pave the way for stability for the people and countries in the region.”
However, the Kurdish militias reject any truce that does not allow them to expand across northern Syria. They insist they will not abandon the West Kurdistan project that threatens all of northern Syria with war for years to come.
“The US believes Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate,” said Syrian opposition figure Saeed Moqbel. “It rejects the creation of an independent Syrian Kurdistan. It abandoned the Kurds when Turkey decided to attack them in Afrin, and it has declared it has no ties with any Kurdish forces in the area.”
“However, at the same time the US has urged Turkey to exercise self-restraint, though this has not meant asking it to halt the campaign. The US will now allow Turkey to take control of Afrin because US policy is based on striking a balance between US interests and its Turkish and Kurdish allies.”
The US will thus seek to reassure Turkey that it will stand up against Kurdish secession or expansion in Syria and any future attempts by the PYD to cooperate with the PKK. At the same time, it will seek to reassure the Syrian Kurds that it will work with Turkey to prevent any Turkish incursions or military operations in pockets under PYD control, boosting US power in this area and pro-US and anti-Iran and anti-Al-Assad and anti-IS forces.
However, there is likely to be no solution in which everyone wins, since with such contradictory aims at stake someone must be defeated.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly