Turkey’s recent military operation against Afrin in Syria’s Northwest aims, as similar incursions before, to prevent a congruous Kurdish-controlled area to come about along its southern border. It looks as if the Syrian Kurds will have to reduce their aspirations for independence, just like the Iraqi Kurds were forced to do last September. For their outlook to improve, Kurds will have to wait until democracy returns to Turkey. That may take some time.
On 19 January, Turkey launched its latest offensive against Syrian territories adjacent to its border around Afrin in Syria’s Northwest. Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan is justifying the incursion with the need to fight “PKK terrorists”. PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is the outlawed organisation of the Turkish Kurds.
The Kurds in Syria are defending their positions around Afrin and there are reports about numerous civilian casualties.
Already in August 2016, Turkey invaded areas south of its border with Syria, that time farther east from Afrin. The stated rationale of the 2016 offensive was to support the US-supported fight against ISIS. But in truth, the main motive was, then and now, to prevent a congruous area under Kurdish control to come about along Turkey’s border (see map below which spells Afrin as Efrin).
Only five months prior to Turkey’s 2016 offensive, in March 2016, the Syrian Kurds had declared the establishment of a “Federal System” in a congruent zone parallel to the Turkish border, reaching from Afrin in the West up to the border with Iraq. On the Iraqi side of the border, the land is also inhabited by Kurds, even though it lies outside of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
The sudden emergence of a continuous stretch of Kurdish-controlled land had become possible through the retreat of ISIS. That retreat had been achieved mainly by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia organized by the United States, and consisting of Arab and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Letting SDF do the heavy fighting against ISIS – and supporting them with arms, US advisors, airpower and intelligence – was then US president Obama’s recipe for avoiding the involvement of large numbers of US ground troops.
Turkey tolerated SDF’s fight against ISIS, calmed by US assurances that Kurdish fighters would not move West of the river Euphrates, less than 100 km east of Afrin. But when the space opened due to the retreat of ISIS, Peshmerga fighters, organized in the YPG, the armed wing of Syria’s main Kurdish party, did exactly that and declared the Rojava federation, also called Western Kurdistan (see map above). The US, along with Turkey, condemned this step.
This did not prevent the US from continuing its support for the SDF, partly because it was needed to bring about the defeat of ISIS. Raqqa, the ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, fell as late as October 2017 and even today, there are some smaller areas under ISIS control. The other reason for continued US support of SDF is that it is the main force ensuring that the US will have a say when it comes to settle the future of Syria. This is the more so since Russia has increased its leverage in Syria with its successful military intervention of 2015-17.
For all these reasons, US support of the SDF has continued under president Trump and may even have increased. In consequence, however, the risk of a military confrontation on the ground between US and Turkish troops is rising. Never before has the risk of a clash between two NATO members been so big.
What is the solution?
There are no easy solutions in Syria’s civil war, which reminds in its complexity of Europe’s 30-years war of 1618-48. Turkey is simply too scared of the Kurds to tolerate a congruent Kurdish-controlled region along its southern border. 15 million Kurds are living in Turkey, predominantly in the southeastern part of the country (see map below) and Turkey does not trust their loyalty. Turkey and the PKK reached a ceasefire in 2013, after almost 30 years of fighting but it held less than two years. Mistrust between the two sides is enormous.
It looks as if the Kurds will have to contend themselves in future with an autonomy status in only those non-congruent regions of Syria where they represent a majority. These regions are, ironically, Afrin itself, as well as Kobane 25 km east from the Euphrates and Qamishlo in the very East. In addition, there is a sizable Kurdish minority in Damascus and there was an important Kurdish element in Aleppo – at least until the city’s merciless bombardment in 2016 by Syrian and Russian forces.
In Iraq as well, the Kurds have suffered setbacks. After a referendum in September 2017 on the declaration of an independent state in the autonomous Kurdish region of the country, which was not recognized internationally, Iraqi forces occupied the Kirkuk region. The latter, while not part of the Kurdish autonomous region, had been controlled by the Kurds and had provided a significant part of their oil revenues.
The Kurds have shown great courage in fighting ISIS. Furthermore, they introduced exemplary democratic institutions in the Syrian areas under their control, ensuring for example full equality for women. Significantly, the democratic orientation of the Syrian Kurds is influenced by the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on an island prison near Istanbul. This shows that the PKK is not only a fighting force but also a political movement with a democratic orientation.
In order to reduce Turkey’s hostility vis-a-vis the Kurds, similarly democratic forces would need to gain an upper hand over authoritarianism in Turkey. It looks as if the Kurds will have to wait quite some time before this happens.