A Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighter stands on a rooftop in Suran, Syria decorated with posters of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. File photo: Ozan Kose / AFP
On his recent visit to the United States in late September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his intention to expand his attacks against his Syrian Kurdish adversaries. This time he says he will focus his crosshairs east of the Euphrates River on the two-thirds of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish-led forces under the pretext of establishing new “safe zones” for Syrians there.
Referring to Turkey’s two past incursions into Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch – Erdogan vowed to “take similar steps east of the Euphrates”.
While the Turkish president routinely threatens to attack the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), his latest statement
cannot be readily dismissed as mere rhetoric since he made it shortly after seeking parliamentary authorization for additional cross-border operations into Syria.
Erdogan has referred to YPG-controlled parts of northern Syria as a ‘terror-corridor’. Syrian Kurdistan – which the Kurds call ‘Rojava’ – is divided into three separate Kurdish-majority regions called Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin.
Jazira and Kobane are both situated west of the Euphrates River and were linked together in the summer of 2015 after the YPG liberated the Arab-majority border-town of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) from Islamic State (ISIS). Afrin, situated in northwest Syria, was invaded by Turkey and its Syrian militia proxies at the beginning of 2018 and remains occupied.
Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch were both largely aimed at destroying the western wing of this so-called terror corridor. Euphrates Shield cleared ISIS from the northwest border region separating Kobane from Afrin. Olive Branch was an outright unprovoked invasion of Afrin itself.
Turkey touts both the Euphrates Shield area and Afrin as “safe zones” where displaced Syrians can live safely in their own country. To its credit, Ankara has made some admirable achievements in making the Euphrates Shield area a stable region through its help in reconstruction and its sponsorship of new projects. This is giving locals both gainful employment and some hope for the future.
Afrin, on the other hand, has seen much of its Kurdish population displaced in what is clearly a flagrant effort to alter the canton’s long-established Kurdish-majority demographics.
The Kurdish region was already a safe-zone for Syrians before Olive Branch. Hundreds-of-thousands of displaced Arabs were welcomed and protected by the YPG. Turkey’s invasion caused major instability. Kidnappings, aimed primarily at extorting local families, by its Syrian militiamen proxies are common, as are bomb attacks targeting those occupying forces. All of this is rapidly undermining Afrin’s pre-Olive Branch status as a safe haven.
It is difficult therefore to fathom how another Turkish cross-border operation against the YPG in Syria’s northeast could fare any better.
Erdogan likely aims to push the YPG out of Gire Spi and garrison that region with his militia proxies. Such a move would sever overland connections between Jazira and Kobane and make each region more vulnerable to future Turkish attacks.
While it is true that the YPG adheres staunchly to the ideology of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Ocalan, and its political wing was essentially established as the Syrian branch of the PKK in 2003, the group has notably honored its pledge not to attack Turkey. The YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), made this pledge roughly six years ago after a series of meetings in the neighbouring Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Despite Turkish threats and Ankara’s assault on Afrin, the YPG has largely adhered to this pledge and consequently does not pose a clear and present danger to Turkey. Were the YPG to renege on this pledge, Ankara would have at least some justification for resorting to military action against it.
The YPG and the larger Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which the YPG is an integral part – have also proven instrumental in pushing back ISIS in Syria. Although Turkey’s Euphrates Shield pushed ISIS back from a 60-mile swath of border territory, Ankara has done comparably little to confront ISIS.
The YPG sacrificed large numbers of its fighters in first defending their homeland from a brutal ISIS invasion and breaking the 2014 siege of Kobane. Then it went on to successfully remove the group from its de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, last October.
At present, the SDF/YPG is fighting ISIS in its last few redoubts in Deir ez-Zor province with the support of the United States and France. Were Turkey to launch another cross-border invasion in Gire Spi, or any other part of northeast Syria, the SDF could feel compelled to refocus its efforts on combating such an incursion. This is exactly what happened in Afrin earlier this year.
Afrin is an exclave from the main body of Syrian Kurdistan and therefore not easily accessible to YPG forces based in the northeast. A Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, the country’s Kurdish heartland, could spark a much bloodier and more destructive war which could well displace hundreds-of-thousands of civilians.
This would, in turn, make a mockery of Turkey’s claims that it is militarily intervening there as part of some kind of humanitarian endeavour to establish a safe zone.
It is for these reasons that Turkey should cease and desist from launching any more unjustified and unnecessary cross-border forays into Syria.