By Fehim Taştekin, columnist, Al-Monitor, Sept 1, 2016
And further below, also on Al-Monitor: ‘What Turkey stands to lose in its hunt for Syrian Kurds’
Kurds may be avoiding combat with Turkey, Syria’s reaction could be restrained and the Islamic State might have withdrawn without a fight, but Ankara could still get stuck in a quagmire.
The sentiment in Turkey is that, with “Operation Euphrates Shield,” the country has made a thunderous return to the Middle East. But in a topography where nobody knows who is fighting who and what will tomorrow’s alliances look like, there are serious traps awaiting Turkey.
During the first week of the operation, Turkey’s target shifted from the Islamic State (IS) to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While IS withdrew from Jarablus without fighting and still occupies scores of other places, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and allied groups continued their advances toward areas the SDF had liberated from IS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Aug. 29 said the operations will continue “until the YPG [People’s Protection Units] is no longer a threat.”
The equation that has cropped up is that groups supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), accompanied by Turkish tanks, are clashing with groups backed by the U.S. military.
When the TSK and its allied groups reached the Sacu River, which constitutes a natural boundary for the Manbij region, Ankara arrived at a critical juncture. It is now time to decide if the combat will be directed against the Kurds and its SDF partners or IS, which abuts Turkey’s borders. Turkey secured U.S. support and Russian blessing by telling them that its goal was to push IS away from its borders.
To clarify the situation on the ground a bit: While Turkey is pressing on SDF targets, IS continues to control scores of villages from Jarablus to Al Rai in the west. IS also controls the area from Turkey’s borders to al-Bab in the south.
If Turkey insists on clearing Manbij of Kurds, that will be a new source of tension with the United States. The first warning came from Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, who said they were monitoring the clashes between the TSK and opposition groups and the SDF, finding them unacceptable. He said U.S. support for the SDF, which has proven its prowess, will continue.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asked Turkey to focus on fighting IS and avoid hot clashes with the SDF. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the issue with his Turkish counterpart. Carter will meet with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik in London on Sept. 6. Carter’s statement that the YPG is withdrawing to the east of the Euphrates gives the impression that the Syrian Kurdish group is trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Turkey. YPG spokesman Redur Khalil declared after liberating Manbij that the the group had handed over all military positions to Manbij Military Council and withdrew.
This is a clever move to avoid deepening the war. But with the YPG claiming to be standing aside, now tensions are mounting between Turkey and the SDF with its local elements such as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Circassians. Even though Turkey has not given up targeting the YPG in its statement, more recent threats against Ankara has been coming from the SDF. That means Turkey is turning local groups into an enemy as well.
For Turkey, which has been trying to play the Turkmen card all along, opposition from the Turkmens at Jarablus was probably the last thing that it expected. But the Seljuk Brigade made up of Turkmens went as far as accusing Turkey of being an “occupier.”
The Seljuk Brigade’s statement denouncing Turkey’s operation came as shock. It said, “To liberate Jarablus from Daesh [IS] gangs, we set up a Jarablus Military Council made of Jarablus residents. But the Turkish intelligence bargained with Daesh to hand over Jarablus to groups that are in contact with terrorist bodies. We denounce Turkey’s attacks on the Military Council and demand that Turkey withdraw from Syria. We will do everything to defeat these occupation forces.”
As the United States supports the SDF, the question comes to this: How long can the U.S. administration, which wants the YPG to move east of the Euphrates, stand and watch Pentagon-supported groups be attacked by CIA-supported groups motivated by Turkey?
If the United States allows these groups to take over Manbij, the Pentagon’s partnership with the SDF will fall apart and Kurds will rethink how much they can rely on the United States.
Kurds may be upset with the U.S. pressure on them to withdraw from Manbij, but they don’t want to destroy their bridges to the United States while they are surrounded by enemies. Kurds are bound to come up with some pragmatic schemes to throw Turkey off balance.
But if Turkey’s operations expand toward Rojava, the YPG may have to give up its four-year-long restraint and resist. Such a scenario may be the harbinger of a conflagration that will also pull in Turkey.
What if the Turkish operation halts on the edge of Manbij and turns against IS? This, too, will pose serious risks to Turkey.
Looking at the mindsets of Turkey’s rulers, the operation has other objectives that are not openly mentioned:
- To create a de facto buffer zone in the Jarablus-Azaz-Marea triangle.
- To mobilize Turkey’s Housing Development Agency to build satellite towns in the buffer zone to house Syrian refugees.
- To open a corridor for anti-Assad armed groups currently stuck in Aleppo.
It won’t be easy for Turkey-supported armed groups to hold the de facto buffer zone. Their capabilities and capacity are limited. They can advance or hold on to a position only if there is an army like the TSK behind them.
If the buffer zone is to be secured by increasing TSK’s presence on the ground, that would put Turkey in the position of occupier, ushering myriad of problems it would have to cope with both on the ground and in the international arena. The Syrian government took no time in accusing Turkey of crimes against humanity and in filing a complaint with the UN Security Council. When compared with the troubles that Turkey will have to deal with on the ground, the Syrian complaint would be but a minor headache.
Building a town for refugees without coordinating with the Syrian administration will only consolidate Turkey’s occupier status. Moreover, settling refugees in a risky area is bound to provoke humanitarian and legal arguments.
Meanwhile, a corridor to Aleppo first requires securing the Azaz-Marea line and then expelling IS from al-Bab.
Extending the TSK operation 50 to 60 kilometers from the Turkish border doesn’t guarantee anything. IS is not expected to abandon Dabiq and al-Bab easily (it ascribes special importance to those towns) as it did with Jarablus. Moreover, such an operation will require Turkey’s partnership with major field forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are shunned by the CIA. And then there is the Syrian army, which is engaged in a major war in Aleppo with the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Going deeper into Syria may bring the TSK face to face with these forces. Russia is likely to make use of its deterrent powers before that point is reached.
Nobody knows what contingency scenarios Ankara has in mind. The general feeling is that the government is not acting based on well-studied strategic plans but according to its sense of opportunities and gut feelings.
The recent operation may have help the TSK repair its image damaged by the July 15 coup attempt. It may have opened it a way to return to Syria from where it was excluded after shooting down the Russian plane last fall. It may have enabled groups it supports against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain at the negotiation table and give the impression that it is fighting IS. But if Ankara goes it alone, the situation may radically change as it may then have to confront not only its U.S. ally but also Russia and Iran, which stood by Turkey after the traumatic coup.
Turkey has sent it soldiers into a war zone where no other country cares to venture. Careless and miscalculated moves by Ankara could then cause its Syrian venture become a quagmire, dragging Turkey down.
Fehim Taştekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Turkish newspaper Radikal. He is the host of a weekly program called “SINIRSIZ” on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy, and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He contributes to Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse as a columnist. He is the author of “Suriye: Yıkıl Git, Diren Kal” and was the founding editor of Agency Caucasus. On Twitter: @fehimtastekin
What Turkey stands to lose in its hunt for Syrian Kurds
By Amed Dicle, contributor, Al-Monitor, Sept 1, 2016
Turkey may face an unexpected backlash within its borders from its goal of undermining the gains of the Kurds in Syria by launching an operation in Jarablus.
Dozens of civilians have been killed by Turkish fighter jets in the country’s recent intervention in Jarablus, Syria. Turkey and a number of armed groups it is supporting have attacked the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). So the Kurdish question in Turkey has now spilled over to Syria. The Syrian crisis is now a domestic issue for both the Kurds and the Turks.
Turkey entered Syria under the pretense of “the fight against the Islamic State [IS].” But there has been no clash between the Turkish army and IS. Turkish officials continue to deem the Kurds more dangerous than IS. Soon after the Jarablus operation started, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that the targets were the Kurdish forces and the local Arab groups working with them.
Last week we predicted that the situation was going to get worse before it gets better, and some had found this a pessimistic analysis. Unfortunately, we were proven right.
Currently, the area south of Jarablus is controlled by a local group called the Jarablus Military Council. This group was formed by Arab and Kurdish fighters in the region as part of the SDF. IS fighters are deployed west of Jarablus. But rather than moving in that direction, the Turkish forces attacked to the south and heavy fighting broke out.
After two days of tension, the sides struck a cease-fire Aug. 31 under an initiative by military officials from the United States. Washington announced the cease-fire, though Turkey strongly denied it. Currently, the Sajur River, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Jarablus, is serving as a buffer between the Jarablus Military Council and the groups affiliated with Turkey. The U.S.-led coalition is monitoring the situation.
Right now the cease-fire appears to be holding, though Ankara still hasn’t acknowledged it.
The Turkish army and the groups it is supporting did not engage IS militarily. In an Aug. 28 interview with pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Safak, one of the commanders of these groups, Ahmet Berri, actually stated that IS had left the town before they had arrived. In the same interview he stated that they were targeting Manbij.
All of these developments reveal that Turkey will not change its policy regarding Syria and Syrian Kurdistan (a self-proclaimed autonomous region) in the short-term. Turkey thinks it will defeat the Kurds outside of its own borders. Turkey’s primary strategy is to hinder a Kurdish entity by claiming that “the YPG is in Jarablus and they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),” which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group.
Yildirim said Aug. 22 that Turkey will not accept a Kurdish corridor in Syria.
In July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We should not make the same mistakes we made in Iraq in Syria,” referring to Turkey’s inability to block a Kurdish entity from forming in Iraq.
Turkey’s goal is to defeat the Kurds. But its continued attacks against the Kurds will only strengthen IS, as many observers have noted. This could mean that Turkey would be directly involved in ensuring that IS remains in key places such as al-Bab and Raqqa.
If one looks at the situation in the field, it is clear that Turkey and the groups it supports will want to move toward al-Bab from northern Manbij and open a corridor to Aleppo to cut off any connection between Manbij and Afrin. But to achieve this, Turkey would need to do something it hasn’t done so far: fight IS. The groups supported by Turkey have no capacity to fight IS. Turkey’s airstrikes and heavy artillery can only be effective to a certain extent. One shouldn’t expect fighting between IS and Turkey anytime soon. Both see the Kurds as a joint enemy. This natural alliance will continue for some time.
It will be interesting to follow future developments in the al-Bab region. Turkey’s strategy may fall apart here. Once we know the position the United States and Russia take in accordance with the developments in this region, we’ll have a clearer picture of their long-term policies for Turkey, Kurds and the Syrian issue as a whole.
Despite attaching great importance to their relations with the United States and Russia, Kurdish forces have not handed over their destiny to them or any other powers.
And what do the Kurds think of this situation and what kind of model are they proposing in Syria? Are the Kurds committing ethnic cleansing, as Turkey alleges, in the regions they take under their control? What are the realities on the ground? These important questions need to be examined thoroughly.
As of yet, there have been made no calls from Syrian Kurdistan, which the Kurds call Rojava, for secession from Syria and the establishment of an independent state. The Kurds pursue a federative and democratic Syria with Damascus as its capital, which respects Syria’s territorial integrity.
The primary demand of Kurds is to be recognized as a people in Syria. Under their model, there would be equitable representation in every settlement where Kurds and Arabs live together. All languages would be officially recognized. One of the co-presidents in the largest canton of Rojava, Cizre, is an Arab, and the other is a Kurd. The SDF and Northern Syria Democratic Assembly involve representatives from all peoples.
However, according to the Turkish state, Kurds want to divide Syria. Turkey’s concerns over Syria’s territorial integrity are not taken very seriously in the region.
The problem between Turkey and the Kurds already had a regional character, and it has expanded to a larger area now.
Those who want peace propose one solution: reopening talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and returning to the negotiating table.
No one has heard any news from Ocalan for over a year. Delegations from the state and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) met Ocalan at his island prison of Imrali dozens of times from 2013 to April of 2015. The solution model Ocalan proposed encompassed a resolution in both Turkey and Syria-Rojava. However, the Erdogan government has closed this door.
This situation has brought the Kurds to a new political junction with Turkey. The main constituents of Kurdish politics in Turkey made a joint statement Aug. 31 in Diyarbakir, announcing that 50 people will go on a hunger strike starting Sept. 5. The hunger strike, to be launched by parliament members, mayors, artists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, will no doubt raise tensions more.
Erdogan seems to have consolidated his position in accordance with the operation in Syria. Can Turkey score an absolute military victory over the Kurds? One does not have to be a Kurd or a politician to understand this. It is enough just to know a little sociology.
Amed Dicle was born and raised in Diyarbakir, Turkey. He has worked for Kurdish-language media outlets in Europe including Roj TV, Sterk TV and currently ANF. His career has taken him to Rojava, Syria, Iraq and many countries across Europe. On Twitter: @AmedDicleeT
Aggression by Turkish soldiers on Kobanê border kills two youths
Turkish soldiers have today attacked the Rojava people who continue their vigil on the Kobanê border in protest at the Turkish army building a wall of occupation in the border area.
As the vigil continues in its seventh day, participants came under attack of Turkish soldiers with live bullets and tear gas. Today’s aggression by Turkish border guards claimed the lives of two youths, while 9 people were wounded by fire from machine guns and 80 others were injured as a result of intensified tear gas attack.
The injured civilians have been taken under treatment at Kobanê Emel Hospital. One of the two youths killed today is reported to be Bozan Heco. [End article.]