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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Turkey and Northern Syria part one: Invasion?

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

i. Turkey to be ‘allowed’ to enter/invade Northern Syria

The US’ White House Press Spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham announced this morning (7 October 2019) that US forces would ‘no longer be in the immediate area’ of northern Syria, where Turkey plans (in Grisham’s words) ‘to move forward soon with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.’

It is increasingly clear the US plans to withdraw at least some of the 1,000 troops it has in the region at present.

What is not clear is exactly why the White House has contradicted Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson, who on Saturday told Kurdish news source Rudaw: ‘Any uncoordinated military operation by Turkey would be of grave concern as it would undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of IS.’

The White House appears to be tying the decision to the ‘high cost to the US taxpayer’ of guarding IS members arrested in Syria: it says France, Germany and ‘other European nations’ should take back fighters who left from their states.

They should, but we should also note that ‘the cost to the US taxpayer’ of keeping troops on active duty in Syria is far higher than the cost of incarcerating terrorists.

The ‘cost’ explanation appears to be a cover for the Turkish operation, by giving the US the opportunity to say it is handing responsibility for IS terrorists to Turkey.

Of more importance, however, is that it clears the way for Turkey to ‘enter’/’invade’ northern Syria, where its stated aim is to engage in conflict against the Kurdish majority population of the region.

ii. Turkey and Kurdish people

There is far too little time or space here to enter into a detailed debate about the Turkish attitude to and history of its relationship with its own Kurdish population, and those in Iraq, Iran and Syria (all of whom live on and around Turkey’s borders with those states).

We could briefly state that Kurdish people within what became Turkey after the Ottoman Empire disintegrated/was disbanded by Ataturk’s government largely agreed to be part of the new Turkish state, and that the Lausanne Treaty (which also saw the Aegean islands granted to Greece) does, by law, entitle Turkey to ‘act’ if Iraq and (what is now) Syria ‘do not control their Kurdish populations.

We should also note that never less than a sizeable minority – often a large majority – of Kurdish people in Turkey want/ed and campaign for at least a devolved Kurdish region in Turkey, with many wanting a fully-independent state, and that this desire came about at least in part because Turkey banned even the name ‘Kurd’ for several decades (Kurds in Turkey were instead called ‘Mountain Turks’, in much the same way as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq referred to Iraq’s Kurds as ‘Marsh Arabs’: Kurdish people are neither ‘Turks’ nor ‘Arabs’), as well as banning the recording of any Kurdish speech and music (this is, like the use of the term ‘Kurd’ is no longer banned), as well as banning Kurdish clothing and folklore, and banning Kurdish languages from all official uses (this ban remains in place: for example, Kurdish languages may be taught at school, but no subjects may be taught in Kurdish languages).

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan and a small group of his contemporaries set up the PKK – the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. This was originally a Marxist and Kurdish separatist organisation, but within months it had moved away from its left-wing roots, to focus solely on the ‘liberation’ of Kurdish people from Turkish rule and a the ‘restrictions’ which came with it.

In effect, the PKK led three ‘uprisings’ against Turkey, the last of which ended in March 2013 when the PKK, still led by Ocalan, declared a ceasefire, with peace talks set to include discussion of a devolved Kurdish region of Turkey.

At this point we should note that the PKK is listed not only by Turkey, but by most states across the world including the US and the EU, as a terrorist organisation.

However, where the current Turkish government differs from the rest of the world is in its view of Iraqi and particularly Syrian Kurdish groups. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that PKK fighters who have fled Turkey join organisations in those two states, most notably the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and its associated YPG (People’s Protection Units) in northern Syria.

The Turkish government (which may simply be scared of an organised, armed Kurdish movement on its Southern border) argues that this – almost by definition – makes the PYD and therefore YPG, a terrorist organisation. Almost all the rest of the world, particularly the US, which has armed and backed the YPG in its fights against IS in Kurdish regions, disagrees.

In any case, the Turkish ceasefire ended in August 2015, after the PKK announced it had carried out the murder of two Turkish police officers in the wake of the Suruc bombing of the previous month.

The Suruc attack was the massacre of 33 people and injury of 104 more, carried out by IS in the town in Southern Turkey. The people had gathered to march to rebuild Kobane, a town in northern Syria where IS had carried out the murder of almost all the town’s residents, and destroyed its buildings.

The PKK, however, at first claimed the Turkish government had carried out the attack (it had not) and later, that Turkey had backed and developed IS (it did not). Other potential reasons for the PKK’s action include the bombing of Iraqi Kurdish positions by the Turkish airforce, but the most likely cause seems to be that the ‘moderates’ in the PKK (and indeed on the Turkish side) were becoming increasingly side-lined by those on the Kurdish side who wished to seize independence by war, and on the Turkish side who wanted to crush the Kurdish population by the same means.

The response from Erdogan’s government has been completely out of proportion, sending its armed forces against tiny armed gangs and in most cases civilians, who happen to live in Kurdish-majority areas.

iii. Turkey’s plans for Northern Syria

The Turkish government’s statements about and behaviour towards Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria have become increasingly shrill and alarmist, with Erdogan and members of his government more than once claiming that the US was ‘arming terrorists’, and on several occasions announcing plans to invade Northern Syria to ‘remove terrorists’ – effectively Kurds - from the region.

Each time they have done so, they have cited the Lausanne Treaty as justification.

And it is worth noting here that increasingly, in much the same way as Russia and Assad have referred and still refer to anyone who opposes Assad as a ‘terrorist’ (with the clear and very deliberately wrong implication of ‘Islamic extremist such as Al Qaeda or IS’), Erdogan refers to Kurdish people as ‘terrorists’ (with the clear and deliberately wrong implication of ‘the PKK’).

We should be clear that whatever one’s view of the PKK – and it is certainly legitimate to regard their political aims with sympathy even as we decry the means by which they attempt to achieve them – by no means all Kurds are ‘members’ or even supporters of the group.

There is a strong political movement among Turkey’s Kurdish people, with the Kurdish political party the HDP holding around ten per cent of the seats in the national parliament. Erdogan and his government’s use of ‘Kurd’ as interchangeable with ‘terrorist’, as well as the victimisation of exactly those peaceful political organisations such as the HDP, is both driving hatred against innocent people and – potentially – forcing Kurds into the arms of violent groups such as PKK.

We should also note that Erdogan’s plan to move more than two million people into a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria is in part (though only in part) an effort to ‘demographically-alter’ the entire region, to move ‘problem Kurds’ (in all likelihood, all Kurds) away from Turkey’s border and replace them with Syrian people.

This possibility is backed up by a claim made by Erdogan’s communications directors Fahrettin Altun this morning that ‘Turkey will… provide services for people in the parts of Northern Syria we enter’ – a statement made all the more remarkable considering Erdogan himself stated only last week that Syrian refugees in Turkey are ‘a burden… which Turkey cannot provide for alone.’

In the event, Turkey has not yet entered Northern Syria, and the US has previously pledged to ‘defend’ the YPG against any aggression from any group or organisation. It appears that the former situation is set to be altered very soon, and that the second statement may well have been overturned – though the latter is by no means definite, but it is hard to see how the US can possibly, in the knowledge that Turkey wishes to enter to attack and ‘remove’ the YPG, simultaneously announce it will sit by while Turkey enters Northern Syria, and protect the YPG.

iv. ‘Next steps’

It’s reasonable to ask ‘what will happen next?’

The answer is, it’s impossible to say. The YPG will almost certainly react with strong resistance to any Turkish moves in the region, and are, as Erdogan and his government have previously noted on several occasions, heavily armed with US weapons.

The wider Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are likely to fight alongside the YPG, rather than oppose it, and their leaders have already ‘reminded’ the US that it has promised not to allow any Turkish military operations against the region.

Equally, we must note that whatever we think of him – and there is no serious case for claiming that he should not have been removed from power as soon as he started massacring Syrian men, women and children – Assad is unlikely to ‘welcome’ a Turkish incursion into Northern Syria.

The Kurds have been largely uncommitted to, or against, Assad since March 2011, and certainly have been given few reasons to admire or support him before that, but the vast majority of their fighting was carried out against IS, rather than against the Syrian army led by Assad, and on several occasions in the last two years Kurdish political leaders have indicated they would work with Assad against any Turkish activity in Kurdish regions of Syria.

It seems extremely unlikely that Assad will actually fulfil any of his long-term promises to Kurdish people – Russia forced him last year, for example, to offer Kurdish people a devolved area in Northern Syria which he has not mentioned since – but in the short-term, such an ‘alliance’ would be in Assad’s interest, as he regards any Turkish presence in Syria as unacceptable, and the Kurds, for now, regard Turkey as their greatest enemy. They may be right, but Kurdish people stand to gain little or nothing for ‘helping’ Assad at the moment.

Equally, Assad is currently, along with Russia, engaged in the absolutely immoral and illegal (under the Astana agreement which made Idlib a de-escalation zone) attack on Idlib, which began in early May this year and, five months later, is far from likely to end soon: Assad will re-take Idlib, but this has not been a rapid victory, by any means.

This may mean that any active conflict in Northern Syria would come in two ‘stages’ – with Turkey almost certainly defeating the YPG/SDF in the first stage and Assad’s, presumably exhausted, forces leading a ‘counter-attack’ after Idlib is ‘retaken’. Any attack on Northern Syria is likely to be a disaster for the people living there, but this would be the worst of all possible options.

And mention of Russia complicates matters further. Because the US has repeatedly shown it is not willing to oppose Russia in Syria (for a variety of reasons) but Russia attacking Turkish forces openly in Northern Syria is by far the most likely provocation to which the US and the rest of NATO might respond – particularly as the US appears to have given this Turkish invasion the green light.

Effectively, in this situation, either Russia must stand by and ‘hope’ for an Assad-led victory against Turkey, or it must take the greatest risk of US response of the conflict so far, by engaging against Turkey itself.

Once again, the likely outcome of either scenario is disaster for the people living in Northern Syria.

Those people, Kurdish and Syrian alike, have already faced attack from IS and from Assad and now face attack certainly from Turkey and then likely from Assad, plus potentially Russia and maybe even a wider international military operation.

We do not need to look at this solely from the perspective of Greece, the EU or any other single location, but from the perspective of those individuals, who are very likely to face death, being deliberately uprooted (maybe more than once) by one or more of these forces, and/or forced to flee their homes in the face of chaos, war and terror.

It is likely to be too late to prevent Turkey from invading Northern Syria, though we should be making public statements against the invasion as noisily as possible. We must prepare and be prepared to assist those fleeing this latest development in Syria, including by demanding Turkey opens its border to enable people to escape the violence it is creating and adding to.

We must also restart work with the EU, to ensure men, women and children are provided safe places to stay having been forced from their homes.

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