Turkey sets eyes on north Syria's Kurds

Turkey sets eyes on north Syria's Kurds
6 min read
11 Jul, 2017
Comment: While Kurdish troops are busy ousting Islamic State group fighters from Raqqa, their homes are being shelled by the Turkish military and its Syrian proxies, writes Joris Leverink.
The Kurds declared a quasi-independent canton in northern Syria, fuelling fears in Turkey [AFP]

Turkey's flexing of its muscles in Kurdish-controlled north-west Syria has left observers wondering whether a new front might be about to open in the six-year civil war.

Ankara's fear and distrust of Syria's Kurds has never been a secret. But sporadic clashes and the occasional exchange of fire aside, a direct confrontation between the Turkish army and Kurdish militias has so far been avoided.

But this might be about to change.

Turkey has set its eyes on Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish region in the far north-west corner of Syria. Afrin is also one of the three autonomous cantons set up by the Kurds in early 2014.

For Turkey, the establishment of any kind of Kurdish political entity along its southern borders has been cause for serious concern. It fears that this might embolden its own Kurdish population to follow in the footsteps of their ethnic kin on the other side of the border.

Turkey's President Erdogan has frequently made clear that he would "never allow a state to be established in northern Syria", including at a recent rally. Now, a build-up of Turkish troops along Afrin's borders and a barrage of artillery fire last Monday 3 July that killed three civilians and wounded ten others, is being taken a sign that the situation might be about to escalate.

Turkey's nightmare comes true

It is not a coincidence that Turkey is stepping up its game in Syria vis-à-vis the Kurds right now. Less than three hundred kilometres to the east, Syrian Kurds form an important part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that have surrounded Raqqa and are fighting a fierce battle to capture the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group's self-declared caliphate.

In their fight against the Islamic State group, the SDF - an umbrella organisation comprising Kurdish and Arab forces, along with a number of smaller ethnic and religious minority groups - has been receiving significant support from the international US-led coalition.

This has come in the form of air support, and, more recently, also in weapons supplies.

The close cooperation on the battlefield between the Kurdish YPG militia fighting under the banner of the SDF and the US has been cause for a chilled relationship between Turkey and the US. Turkey sees the YPG as an offshoot of the PKK - the Kurdish guerrilla organisation that has been waging a war against the Turkish state for more than thirty years.

In Turkish eyes, an armed and organised Kurdish population in northern Syria poses a threat to its national security. Seeing Kurdish forces armed with high-tech US military equipment is a nightmare come true.

  The YPG's Twitter account has made it clear
where the militant group stands:

Despite US assurances that it will make sure none of the weapons supplied to the YPG will find their way to the PKK and that it would get the weapons back after IS had been defeated, Turkey remains suspicious.

In a speech to his party members celebrating the end of Ramadan, President Erdogan was quoted saying that "the ones who think they are tricking Turkey by saying they are going to get back the weapons that are being given to this terrorist organisation will realise that they are making a mistake, eventually".

Read more: Turkey prepares to ramp up fight against Syrian Kurds

Idlib for Afrin

Whereas the good relations between the SDF and the US east of the Euphrates river have prevented Turkey from carrying out their anti-Kurdish agenda there, the Americans' influence is limited west of the river, where Russia holds sway.

So far, Russia - Bashar al-Assad's key foreign ally - has proven itself a cautious supporter of Syria's Kurds - as long as their political agendas are not in conflict with each other. In a similar vein to the American actions, the Russians have also sent troops to the Kurdish regions bordering Turkey, to deter the Turkish army from any provocative actions.

Now, dropping Russian support for Syria's Kurds might finally have a price-tag: Idlib. As Metin Gurcan explains in his analysis for Al Monitor, Turkey's influence among the Syrian opposition forces stationed in and around the city of Idlib might be crucial in the event of a Russian-backed government assault on one of the last rebel holdouts.

Bashar al-Assad's Damascus administratopm may yet come to an agreement with moderate factions of the opposition forces whereby they would agree to voluntarily secede Idlib and move north to set up base in a Turkish-controlled area. For this to be feasible, Turkey needs to expand the territory it currently has under its control, and with the Euphrates in the east and Syrian government troops in the south, the only place to go is west, into Afrin.

The details of this possible Russian-Turkish agreement may form part of the ongoing peace talks in Astana. Alternatively, the current muscle-flexing might also be a strategy by the Turks to bolster its position at the negotiation table - by showing its allies and opponents what Turkey is capable of.

On July 2 President Erdogan held a meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Istanbul, during which Erdogan expressed his concerns about the "threat" the Kurds in Afrin pose to Turkey's national security.

'Erdogan is our biggest enemy'

Despite serious warmongering in the Turkish media and increasing threats by Erdogan and his ministers it remains an open question whether Turkey would dare venture into Afrin.

In the past few weeks, thousands of people have taken to the streets across Afrin to protest against a potential Turkish invasion.

Eyes are now on Tel Rifaat, a town currently under YPG control between the city of Afrin and the Turkish border, which would be first in line in case of a Turkish assault on Afrin. Tel Rifaat might serve as a test-case for Turkey to see how its Syrian proxies hold up; the strength of the Kurdish resistance and the response from the international community.

With the US wary of getting dragged too deep into the quagmire of Turkish-Kurdish hostilities, the final decision is likely to be Russia's. Without Russian approval, Turkey would think twice before launching an open attack on Afrin. Aside from the consequences for the situation on the ground in Syria, this is yet another sign of Turkey's increasing estrangement from its NATO allies and its apparent willingness to follow through with its own agenda, regardless of the costs.

All Turkey's threats and hostilities towards Afrin might be achieving is that the Kurds are once again reminded that they've got very few friends in the region, and that after IS has been defeated they will once again be left to fend for themselves.

Facing this prospect, the YPG and its local allies might be extremely reluctant to hand back the weapons they got to fight IS and will prefer to hold on to them to fight off any other neighbourhood threats they may face.

In the words of a female Kurdish fighter, quoted by Reuters: "Erdogan is our biggest enemy, we cannot hand over our weapons."

Ironically, Turkey's fears might come true after all. But only as a result of its own actions.

Joris Leverink is a writer, freelance journalist and editor for ROAR Magazine. For several years he has been based in Istanbul, from where he covers Turkish politics, the Kurdish struggle and regional affairs for a range of international media.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.