Turkish Offensive into Rojava, Reasons and Implications

By Sharif Behruz

Turkey has launched a planned military offensive into the Kurdish territories in northeastern Syria, long held by the Kurdish forces led by Syrian Democratic Forces ever since Syrian regime forces abandoned those territories in 2012.

Turkey’s President,  Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the attack on Wednesday via Tweeter , just days after the Trump administration announced it was pulling US troops back from the border area.

Several foreign media outlets and local media present at the scene reported explosions being heard in the border area of Sari Kani.  The initial attacks of the operation nicknamed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ seems to have been concentrated on Sari Kani (On the Spring) and the surroundings.

Turkish ambitions

The majority of Kurdish territories and population spread between the four countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are in Turkey.  The Turkish state has long denied Kurdish existence and has adopted a harsh assimilation policy, even continuing to this date.  Thus, Turkey regards any autonomous or self-rule of Kurds in neighbouring countries an existential threat to its Turkish state and identity.

syria-territory-map

Following the Kurdistan Independence Referendum in 2017 held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG), Turkey called the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum illegitimate.  Despite strong commercial ties with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of north Iraq, Turkey spearheaded a fierce economic sanctions and blockade of the region, also threatening with military response.

Turkey has also been battling an insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades against the Kurdistan Workers Party or the PKK who has fought a decades-long guerrilla war with the Turkish state for greater cultural and political rights for Kurds in Turkey.  Turkey, then feared the independence vote in northern Iraq could further fuel separatism within its own Kurdish population.

Aside from this episode of tensions, Turkey-KRG relations have been very cordial, mainly because the Region has distanced itself from PKK and its policies.  PKK and the KRG have also been at odds and there have been instances of internal skirmishes dating back to the early 1990s.  So it seems Turkey for now has been able to accept an autonomous Kurdish state to its East, given that the Region remains under Turkey’s economic and political radar.

The Arab Spring of 2011, brought major changes to Syria.  Large territories were lost to opposition groups and Syrian regime handed over the Kurdish territories to an off-shoot political-military group of PKK, known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Therefore, Turkey views the YPG, which forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  PKK is also designated as a foreign terrorist organization by most of the western countries, including the US.  Given the relationship and background, this makes it easier for Turkey to make its attack case against the Kurdish enclave in Syria.

As Erdogan elaborated at his UN General Assembly speech, Turkey aims to establish Safe-zone (PKK free zone) across its border with Syria, miles deep into the heartland of Kurdish territories held by SDF.  Turkey still considers Bashar Asad’s Syrian regime as illegitimate and still supports the Free Syrian Army and the various factions fighting the Assad regime, including groups affiliated with ISIS.  It was never a secret that Turkey preferred Syrian territories to be controlled by ISIS rather than Kurdish groups, especially those affiliated with its archenemy, the PKK.

Therefore, Turkey’s long term strategy is to weaken Kurdish control in regional politics as much as possible and prevent Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan Region) from becoming a de-facto independent or autonomous region just like the KRG in Iraq.

The SDF on its part, has made it easier for Turkey to implement this policy; they have since inception regarded Ocalan, the PKK leader who is now in Turkish custody, as the region’s ideological figure.  Furthermore, most of the command structure of the leadership come from the ranks and file of PKK.

The internal Kurdish politics

The political lines in Rojava has been coming from the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK leadership is.  Salih Muslim, once a prominent PYD leader, was widely outspoken of Turkey and rarely criticized Assad and its regime for the mis-treatment of Kurdish in Syria and their historical anguish.  Ocalan’s portrait was hanging in every office of the Rojava administration.

As mentioned, Turkey has a very clear policy towards Kurds and Kurdistan; A Turkish politician had stated that they would be against a Kurdish state even if it is claimed on the moon.; however, playing in the hands of the enemy as PYD/YPG/PYD/PKK have done, is primarily the end result of what we have witnessed in Rojava.

The Rojava administration has completely alienated other political groups who do not follow the PKK doctrine.  Kurdish flag, now widely accepted as a national flag has been prevented from flying in the area.  Demonstrators have been attacked by the local forces for simply holding Kurdish flags.  Many dissidents and opposition groups have been imprisoned and disappeared.

In my opinion, the Rojava administration should have worked towards establishing a democratic regime in Syria where their right and power would be protected under a new constitution; thus, preventing any outside interference in their internal affairs.  In my interview with the Al-Monitor 6 years ago, I stated: “Kurdish forces — whether the PYD or anyone else — should work with other opposition groups for regime change. Moreover, it is not very inclusive, they have excluded a lot of Kurdish parties.”

Also in another interview with Jerusalem Online, I reminded that ““PKK despite being a Kurdish Party advocating for the rights of the Kurds in Turkey widely interferes in the affairs of other parts, regrettably often in line with the interests of the oppressive states.”

PKK leadership’s animosity towards the Kurdish groups not in line with its doctrine is quite evident.  PKK, as a Kurdish Party from Turkey, does not strive to push for Kurdish rights in Turkey and focus its fight against the Turkish state as much as it attempts to destabilize KRG and other Kurdish political parties regarded as a regional adversaries, such as Rojhelat’s PDKI, ENKS in Rojava and so on so forth.

When Kurdish parliamentarians emerged victorious from the ballot boxed by dozens in Turkey, PKK started an unnecessary aggression across town in Bakur, that gave the Turks, a green light in suppressing the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, headed by the HDP, whose current leader Selahattin Demirtaş has been imprisoned by Erdogan’s AKP since 2016.

Furthermore, PKK has exploited Kurdish national sentiments to its own political advantages.  In demonstration against Turkish policies, Kurdish across greater Kurdistan would gather to protest; however, being agonised of such misuse, the Kurds rarely gather in large numbers disgusted by PKK’s political use of these gatherings.

When push comes to shove, as in the defence of Afrin and now the rest of Rojava, PKK chooses silent.  Kurdish legendary leader, Dr. A. R . Ghassemlou talking about the Kurdish politics in Iran in the 1980 once famously said that “We have political parties that resort to guns in the times of peace and abandon battlefields when at war.  PKK has done exactly that.

In a commentary in 2014 on my blog on the verge of ISIS advance and the fight for the Rojava town of Kobani, I claimed:

In my view, if the US had tried to close the gaps between the PYD and the various Kurdish forces in the KNC, we would probably had not witnessed ISIS advances on the Kurdish territories to this extent.

For better or worse, many in the Kurdish areas of Syria do not overwhelmingly recognize the PYD rule over the territories, and for that matter many Kurds, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, have been hesitant to pitch in support, critical of party’s unilateral rule.

The region is volatile and Kurdistan and the Kurdish territories lie in the middle of all these.  The Kurds in all parts of Kurdistan are as pro-western and open as you can find in the region; however, Kurdistan political landscape is also as diverse and fractious as it can get.  The case of US involvement with Iraq’s Kurds prove that it is imperative for the US to well understand the geo-political realities in all parts of Kurdistan and use the political clout at its disposal to promote tolerance and multi-lateralism.  This will also have a domino effect on the neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iraq to respect the status-quo on Kurds propagated by Washington.

The dreadful events in Kobane teach us many lessons with far-reaching implications: US and allies need to have pro-active and unique policy vis-a-vis the Kurds rather than a last minute approach that often requires desperate measures, be it in Iraq, Turkey, Iran or Syria.   Regardless, the Kobane situation is desperate that requires desperate measures.  US must actively engage and pressure Turkey to do the same as well, and work on a dual-track policy of military and logistical assistance in the air and on the ground, and political reconciliation between the PYD and the KNC.  This will certainly help in shifting away the PYD and its sister party PKK from the US adversaries and resuscitate PKK/Turkey rapprochement as well.

Fortunately, the US came to help the Kurds and the Kurds are indebted to the US for much of their advance to control land and territories beyond Kurdish areas; however, the US policy objectives and geo-political restrains are far from those of the Kurds, finally leading to withdrawal of support to the Kurds in Syria and abandoning them on the behest of Turkish aggression.

US Strategy

The White House announced late on Sunday (local time) that Turkey would soon move forward with a long-planned military operation into north-east Syria to create a “safe zone” along its borders, adding that US forces would not be involved.

This was followed by mixed signals from Mr Trump, who, after declaring US troops stationed in the area would step aside for the expected Turkish attack, then threatened to destroy the Turks’ economy if they went too far.

Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw support for Kurdish allies was met with criticism even from among members of his own party, who called the move “a catastrophic mistake”, and urged Mr Trump to reconsider his decision.

“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” Mr Graham, a close ally of the president in the US Senate, tweeted in a rare rebuke on Tuesday.

Mr Graham came out in swift opposition to the administration’s plan to remove US troops from northeast Syria, saying it would leave a vacuum that could allow the Islamic State to possibly restore its caliphate while also allowing Turkish troops to begin a massive assault on the Kurds, who the US have considered a strategic ally in its fight against terrorism.

There are many reasons why the Trump administration adopted such a policy; US got what it needed from the Kurds in Syria.  The Kurds managed to defeat ISIS and this is a major re-election stunt for the Trump administration coming presidential election next year.  President Trump can not only argue that he has defeated ISIS, but also pulled American forces back from a volatile war zone, thus sparing many American lives, widely popular in the US.

Domestic US politics determine the course of much of US foreign policy; furthermore, economic and strategic interests are also paramount in US foreign policy.  Turkey is an important NATO ally and major economic and political force in the region and even in the international stage.  This US move to withdraw from the Syria, perhaps comes with a rewarding gesture from Turkey whether it is the sales of more weapons to Turkey or cancelation of S400 system purchase from the Russians.  Strained US-Turkey relation over the fate of the Kurds is not in the best interest of the US, in the eyes of this administration and this US moves shows that Kurds despite being loyal allies, they are not strategically important enough to super-powers vis-à-vis other state actors.

What next

Turkey has managed to supress its Kurdish opponents inside Turkey for years; Now, the campaign to go after the PKK leadership inside Rojava and further into Syrian territories.  Aside from the Kurdish question, Turkey has other regional ambitions that are all at stake in Syria.  Turkey’s dominance of Syrian politics or the lack of it will determine Turkish long-term position in the Middle East and the wider Arab World.

The current Turkish administration is widely disliked in Turkey; major splits and fractions occurred within Edrogan’s own AKP Party. In a future fair and free elections, Erdogan might lose his grip on power in Turkey and this might change Turkish foreign policy calculations in the near future, including pulling out of Syria or abandoning anti-regime policies in Syria.

Whether Turkey stays or pulls out of Syria, Syrian opposition groups aligned with Turkey will remain in power in those areas occupied by Turkey, leaving the Kurds in Syria vulnerable and subject to brutalities of these radical groups.  Once Idlib and other areas are retaken from the Free Syrian Forces, the Assad regime will focus on retaking the Kurdish territories, opening doors to destruction and displacement in the Kurdish areas as the rest of Syria.

The Syrian regime ahead of the offensive on Wednesday, condemned Turkey’s “aggressive behavior” and “hostile intentions,”. “The aggressive behavior of the Erdogan regime clearly shows the Turkish expansionist ambitions in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic and cannot be justified under any pretext,” a source at the Foreign Ministry said, SANA reported.

A source at the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the Syrian government holds some Kurds responsible for what is happening “as a result of their dependence on the American project,” CNN reported.  Given their advances in fighting dissident forces, Bashar Assad is not eager at all to strike a deal with the Kurds in Syria, eve against foreign interventions.  In fact, the regime denies any decentralization and bows to retake all the territories lost or abandoned after 2011, including the Kurdish territories.

As for the current situation of the Kurds in Syria following the invasion of Turkey, they are caught between a rock and hard place.  The US support to avert any Turkish intervention and Syrian regime attacks was their only feasible option; with that being washed away, and once more being victims in the hands of super powers and their interests, Kurdish political groups will go underground and unfortunately, the Kurdish civilian population will pay a heavy price for it, as usual.


The views expressed in this article are of the author(s) and not necessarily representative of Kurdpa editorial views.