Anatomy of the Turkish Incursion

What lies ahead for the Arabs, Kurds, and Turks after Ankara’s assault on northern Syria?

A boy wearing a Turkish flag stands in front of a Turkish military vehicle in the town of Tal Abyad, Syria October 23, 2019. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

The Turkish offensive into Kurdish-led northern Syria began on October 9 and ended with a deal brokered by Russia on October 22. Following the deal, the supporters of the Kurdish-led decentralization and democratic autonomy movement in Syria realized that their political dreams had collapsed.

The ceasefire states that Syrian government and Russian observers will monitor the pull-back of Kurdish-led forces from the border areas and then Turkish and Russian troops will begin patrolling six miles past the border. The formerly U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the administration set up by the its military leaders will continue to operate until Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is ready to take control of the region.

Judging by Al-Assad’s recent comments, the Kurds and other ethnic groups in northeastern Syria will have more rights in a future Syria. Nonetheless, the Kurdish-led governance experiment now appears dead in the water.

Perceptions of the New Syria

Following the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and the subsequent Turkish military incursion, the present power balance in the country and possibly the entire region has undergone a significant shift in just a few weeks. The Turkish offensive forced the Kurds to come to terms with Al-Assad, a huge boost to the regime’s economic outlook. The government of Al-Assad is now set to regain a third of the country, including 70 percent of Syria’s energy resources without a fight.

Moscow has emerged as a real power broker in the Middle East and is working on establishing separate deals between the SDF, the Al-Assad government, and Turkey and Syria. The United States is out of the equation in Syria, and the European Union, which relies on American influence and connections in the Middle East, has failed to play any significant role in shaping developments.

The international media discourse around the Turkish offensive has centered mostly on the potential resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) due to the instability caused by the conflict between the Turkish government and the northern Syrian, Kurdish-led Rojava Administration. Furthermore, when discussing the Turkish incursion, many pundits and regional specialists have analyzed the American betrayal of the Syrian Kurds and critiqued geopolitical power struggles among the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The Turkish government, meanwhile, has pushed anti-terrorism and security narratives to justify its actions just as the SDF has tried to frame the issue in the media in terms of human rights, ethnic cleansing and violations of international law.

However, all of these talking points and political justifications are missing two fundamental factors that led to the conflict in the first place. First, Turkey’s domestic Kurdish problem has fueled the Turkish establishment’s support of military action in Syria. Second, Kurdish and Turkish leaders alike realize that the structural nature of the Kurdish-led Rojava Administration is an existential threat to the present Turkish state system.

Realities of the Rojava Project

What is under threat in northern Syria is not a prospective ethnic Kurdish statelet. The Kurds are a minority in the region that is under the control of the SDF. Approximately 4.5 to 5 million live in-between Manbij in the West and Deir ez-Zor in the east. Only around 1.5 million of them are Kurds. The People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the primary Kurdish armed faction of the SDF—is a small organization that would not be able to keep this Arab majority region by force.

Although the real numbers are unknown—there are likely less than 40,000 YPG members. The SDF meanwhile has only about 65,000 members. The SDF, the umbrella organization that includes the YPG, came to being gradually following the battle for the northern Syrian city of Kobane in 2014, as some Free Syrian Army groups started participating in the YPG’s fight against jihadists such as ISIS and other Islamist militias in the country. As the YPG’s armed campaign gained momentum, the number of affiliated YPG groups expanded and an umbrella organization became a necessity. As a result,  the SDF was officially set up in 2015 to unify the Kurdish-led YPG forces and other non-Kurdish troops in northeastern Syria.

The YPG has more direct Kurdish ethnic roots than the SDF, as it was the primary force contesting for Kurdish rights since the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Nonetheless, the YPG includes a sizeable proportion of Arabs in its ranks. The YPG Arab fighters were among the 11,000 soldiers who died in the SDF fight against ISIS from 2015 onward.

In 2017, during the last few weeks of the SDF’s Raqqa offensive, I spent several hours with an all-Arab YPG squad headed by an Arab commander. When I pressed the commander and asked why it is not common to have Arab commanders in the YPG, the commander told me, “There are no Arabs or Kurds inside the YPG. We are all YPG here.”

Syrian Kurds have firmly rejected the idea of establishing a Kurdish nation-state, supporting instead a decentralized regional union in Syria. This approach has allowed Syrian Kurds to develop alliances with Arab communities and to generally support a progressive political program including freedom of religion, and the practice of direct democracy with protections for the rights and political representation of women. This platform and political ideology called “democratic autonomy” was initially developed and implemented not in Syria, but in Turkey.

The democratic autonomy project is the brainchild of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader and one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish organization that has fought a nearly 40 year-long insurrection against the Turkish state. As the PKK’s ideologue and leader, Ocalan gradually shifted his group’s focus away from building a Kurdish nation toward setting up a pluralistic system that can function within a country but does not rest on the idea of ethnic nationalism. In the past 20 years, Pro-Ocalan movements such as the SDF/YPG Rojava project have been organized in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

The YPG and its leading political group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and other Kurdish parties, have had to work within the framework of the SDF and coordinate their actions with the majority Arab population, as well as Assyrians, Turkmens, and other minorities. The administration set up under the SDF includes representatives from other ethnic, religious and political groups, and individuals with different political backgrounds.

I interviewed several such Arab leaders in Syria and in Brussels. One of the most prominent was Ibrahim Al-Qaftan, who in 2017 was the co-chair of the civilian council in Manbij, a majority Arab town in the Rojava Administration. Qaftan had been a member of the Free Syrian Army before he joined with the SDF.

Qaftan explained that the work of Arab leaders within the SDF is already seen in Syria as a model for the nation’s future. He also stated that it would be good if Syrians organize within many different political parties as, “It is easier to negotiate with political parties than individuals”.

Contrary to predictions of most Western think-tanks, the Arabs in the SDF-led Rojava Administration have not broken away despite constant pressure from the Turkish and Syrian governments.

Why Turkey Went on the Offensive

In justifying its incursion, the Turkish government indicated the right to self-defense in its letter to the United Nations Security Council. However, the offensive came only weeks after a security mechanism was set up by the United States and Turkey to address potential border security issues. In recent months, Turkish and American troops patrolling the border forced the YPG to destroy its military fortifications there and pull back its heavy weapons.

Turkey’s threat perception is strategic and born from internal political needs more than it is connected to short-term military gains. What the Turkish establishment is concerned with is the potential international recognition that could be granted to the Rojava project/SDF and the military empowerment of the YPG.

The YPG is ideologically closely linked with the PKK and the Turkish state considers the PKK its most dangerous domestic insurgency organization. Northern Syria is the only region where the democratic autonomy project as envisioned by Ocalan has been put into practice.

As long as the Kurdish-led project gains traction in Syria, the Turkish government knows it will fail at keeping Kurdish autonomy aspirations in its southeastern Kurdish-majority region under control. The leaders in Ankara know that no matter how many Kurdish politicians they imprison, as long as the Rojava experiment lives on, the Kurds in Turkey may still believe it is possible to one day carve out an autonomous space for themselves.

Contrary to the mainstream view in the West, the source then of aggression in Turkey towards the Syrian Kurds (or the Kurds in general) is not just President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The enmity runs deeper and is broader; the Turkish incursion enjoys widespread support from other elements of the Turkish state. Even the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party or CHP, which is critical of Erdoğan and received support from Kurdish voters during the last local elections, came out in support of the government’s recent incursion into Syria.

As such, the Turkish policy against the gains of Kurds beyond Turkey’s borders has backing from the religious nationalists represented by Erdoğan’s AK Party, the secular nationalists represented by the CHP, the right-wing urban nationalists in the IYI Party, and the rural nationalists of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Any organizing of Kurds—whatever their political beliefs and backgrounds—elicits a sense of insecurity and caution from all sides of the Turkish political establishment in Ankara.

This can be seen in the positions taken against the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which led the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan during the botched attempt at Iraqi Kurdish independence in 2017. All parties on all sides of the Turkish political spectrum—with the exception of the pro-Kurdish leftist People’s Democracy Party (HDP)—were opposed, or were compelled to oppose, the moves of the KDP even though the KDP are political enemies of the PKK.

One of the main reasons cited by analysts for Erdoğan’s current incursion is that he wants to score points with Turkish nationalists in future elections. Yet, this is not a true picture of the political situation in Turkey or Erdoğan’s recent decision to have the military go into Syria. Erdoğan has not indicated any desire to schedule a new national vote following his party’s failure in the March and April local elections this year. Furthermore, the Turkish president’s support for military action against the SDF and YPG is nothing new. He has been pressing domestically and internationally for this present military operation since 2015.

It must be remembered that Erdoğan is a masterful political maneuverer. The ultimate result of his incursion into Syria may be to break the domestic political opposition against his rule and his AK party. If while executing the military operation Erdoğan is able to successfully stoke the Turkish nationalist fire, CHP politicians will have to turn their backs on their would-be allies, the new HDP political pariah.

This breaking of the political opposition would thus ensure the continuation of AK party leadership—in power for the last seventeen years.

Autonomy With Limited Power

The destruction of the Kurdish-led political project in northern Syria is a significant victory for the Turkish establishment, as it eliminates a strategic political threat. However, this may mean that the potential short-term security threats will increase.

Once it becomes clear that the Rojava project is doomed, many members of the YPG in Syria will likely leave the country to focus on renewed PKK insurrectionist activities against the Turkish state in Turkey itself.

There is no indication that Turkey will go back in line with Western/NATO policies just because the United States has stopped its support for the SDF. The recent ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Ankara demonstrates that President Erdoğan’s government will take the role of “little brother” in Turkey’s relationship with President Vladimir Putin and support Russia’s initiatives in Syria.

The international Kurdish autonomy movement is the biggest loser of the Turkish attack, since Kurdish leaders may end up with no territory when the Al-Assad regime eventually moves into northern Syria. Despite defeating ISIS, losing their beloved Rojava project has been the most significant loss the Kurds have faced in Syria, overshadowing any political gains they made during the conflict.

Still, the Kurdish-led political experiment has left the Syrian Kurdish groups and allies with useful political know-how for the future. It is unlikely that the Al-Assad government could or would want to deprive the Kurds and their allies of all their newly-won rights. Early indications suggest that the Al-Assad government would want to keep the Kurdish armed groups, in some form, as a balancing force against the some 80,000-strong jihadist groups under Turkish control. In the end, policy makers in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran may allow Syrian Kurds more autonomy yet with limited national power in the new Syria.

Guney Yildiz is a London-based researcher and journalist and nonresident scholar at the Middle East InstituteHe previously served as advisor to members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the UK Parliament. He has also worked as a visiting fellow for European Council on Foreign Relations and has been a journalist with the BBC News since 2007. On Twitter: @guneyyildiz. 

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